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Hot Docs Review: ‘Carol Channing: Larger than Life’ Is Surface-Skimming, But Sweet

Hot Docs Review: 'Carol Channing: Larger than Life' Is Surface-Skimming, But Sweet

Director Dori Berinstein is clearly a devoted Broadway fan having already directed one critically acclaimed documentary on the business we call “show.” In fact, it’s no surprise that Berinstein has made a film about the life of Broadway icon Carol Channing – “Carol Channing: Larger than Life” is a marriage of two people with a genuine love of live musical theater which giveth to the movie as much as it taketh away.

The Tony Award-winning actress best known for her roles in the Broadway productions of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is nothing if not charming, and the documentary reflects that. It features a typical documentary mix of talking heads (Debbie Reynolds, Barbara Walters, Lily Tomlin) and archival footage, but Channing and her boundless energy and enthusiasm at 90 is what makes this movie a bit special. Berinstein lets the present day Channing run the show from start to finish while the rest (even the younger Channing in vintage TV spots) serve as suitable back up.

Channing’s effervescence combined with humility (she’d like to pay audiences for the privilege of performing on Broadway) is a winning combo and as one of the interviewees says she’s never heard a bad word about Channing in her whole life, and that’s saying something. Her story about her first on-screen kiss with Clint Eastwood in “The First Traveling Saleslady” (1956) which didn’t go well at all despite their practicing and was subsequently cut — is one in a string of delightful anecdotes peppered throughout the film.

Channing’s life is portrayed in the film as one of two loves – her high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian, and performing on stage. We don’t see or hear much more about her personal life (despite her four marriages) apart from her relationship with Kullijian. Channing’s and Kullijian’s puppy love, break up and 60-years-later reunion and marriage in 2003 is a big part of the documentary and he is interviewed alongside Channing for much of the film. The movie also briefly details her longest and apparently most unhappy marriage with her third husband and her manager and publicist Charles Lowe — mainly through interviews with everyone other than Channing indicating that she didn’t wish to share this part of her life on film. Her love of the stage shines through the film as well – Channing famously only missing half a show in her entire career due to food poisoning and this was also while she was undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer while on the road with “Hello, Dolly!”

Beyond the funny stories and the mile-wide, pink-lipsticked smile, do we really feel like we know Channing by the end of film? Not so much. When compared to more incisive documentaries like “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a million questions arise that are not addressed directly in the film spring to mind — feelings about her battle with cancer and lack of children, the three other marriages, and her father’s racial ancestry (briefly touched on in the film). Somehow when Channing is up on screen smiling and doing a soft shoe it’s easily forgotten.

There is much talk in the film (not only by Channing herself) about how her personality was too big for the big screen thus her stunted film career. Both her most successful on-stage roles in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Hello, Dolly!” were recast with stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Streisand when made into film versions. It seems then that Berinstein’s clear admiration of Channing has achieved the seemingly impossible task of capturing Channing’s on stage charm and translating it onto celluloid – even while brushing over the details.

“Carol Channing: Larger than Life” is a sweet, if surface-skimming, portrait of a born entertainer (who still hasn’t stopped). I can’t imagine anyone leaving the theater not falling a bit in love with Channing — and wanting to know a lot more about her life — and in that the film succeeds and cements Channing’s status as a living legend. [B+] — Samantha Chatter.

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