Wednesday, January 16, 2019

There Can Only Be One: Carol Channing

Originally posted to The Stranger on Mar 14, 2012 at 12:58pm.  

(Dori Berinstein, US, 2012, 87 mins.)
I review a lot of punk documentaries, so my interest in Carol Channing—as opposed to, say, Chad Channing—may seem odd, except this lady's been kicking ass for decades now.
Further, the gap between punk and musical theater isn't as wide as it might seem, especially since Green Day's American Idiot became a Broadway hit (to say nothing of Stew's Public Theater production, Passing Strange, which lives on as a Spike Lee joint).
I've always been fascinated by Channing's unique voice, which isn't attractive by conventional standards, yet it's more distinct than that of Glee and Wicked co-stars Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, who are likely to be more recognizable to younger viewers.
Channing has a grittier Vaudevillian style, and the older she gets, the more she sounds like Louis Armstrong, which is ironic, since he also recorded "Hello, Dolly!"
Youre lookin swell...
  • "You're lookin' swell..."
In Gotta DanceDori Berinstein profiled the AARP-age performers of the NETSationals senior dance team. She has a way with subjects who've been kicking around for awhile, and Channing turned 90 during the filming of Larger Than Life. Archival footage reinforces her love of white, sequined dresses, and red lipstick.
Like Liza Minnelli, she's rarely changed her look, and there's no need when it continues to serve her so well. Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch describes her as "this creature with huge saucer eyes and gigantic red lips and a massive smile."
Channing grew up in San Francisco,* where she fell in love with performing at an early age. Once she saw Ethel Waters in concert, she knew she wanted to do the same thing, and established a life-long friendship with the singer. Not until years later would she find out that she was part black, and also part Jewish, much like Dolly Gallagher Levi (Channing's parents were prominent Christian Scientists).
If she made the occasional movie—earning an Oscar nod for Thoroughly Modern Millie—theater and television became her bread and butter. Berinstein takes in the totality of her career, but concentrates on Channing's signature role in 1964's Hello, Dolly! (the only high school musical in which I ever participated).
*The film doesn't mention that Channing was born in Seattle.

My favorite Channing screen performance appears in this film (music by Harry Nilsson!).  

Composer/lyricist Jerry Herman says the part was intended for Ethel Merman, who declined, but now he can't imagine anyone else in the role (sorry, Barbra Streisand). He later wrote "Before the Parade Passes By" specifically for her, and Dolly ranks among the longest-running musicals. The indefatigable Channing never missed a full performance—not even while receiving treatment for ovarian cancer.
Larger Than Life prioritizes Channing's public life over her personal one, but doesn't stint on her relationship with the late Harry Kullijian, her sweetheart from the 1930s. After high school, he went off to Korea, and she went to Bennington.
They proceeded to marry other people (she was married for 42 years, Harry for 65*), but reconnected 70 years later, making the film as much a profile of her career as her marriage, to which famous friends from Tippi Hedren to Barbara Walters pay tribute (Debbie Reynolds starts to cry when she talks about it).
On the downside, the jigsaw structure can feel haphazard, as if Berinstein felt that a purely chronological approach might not be sufficiently dynamic. She also hints at darker times, but doesn't push as far as she could, even though Channing seems like a willing participant. Still, a documentary of this nature lives and dies by the personality of its subject and Carol Channing has plenty to spare.
*Also unmentioned: Channing was married four times; her son with Alex Carson, Chan Lowe, is a political cartoonist.
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life opens at SIFF Film Center on Fri., March 16. For more information, please call 206-324-9996 or click here.

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