MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Carol Channing — Larger Than Life




U.S.: Dori Berinstein, 2011 (eone)

I never saw Carol Channing perform live, but the new documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life convinced me I missed something very, very special — a great talent and a great lady and a great good time.

That’s one disadvantage of not living in New York City for a long time. You’re not exposed as much to the best Broadway or classical stage performers and performances — the ones that can honestly be called “legendary” — or, if you see them later, in a movie version of the play, or a TV version of a concert, you see them somewhat diminished, without the crackle, brio and excitement of a live audience responding to a live legend. And vice versa.

Take Channing — that terrific saucy stage grand dame, with her hair like a golden blondie crown, her voice like celestial gravel, her eyes like shining whirling saucers and her angelic show-girl timing and temperament. (Genius New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfield said Channing and Zero Mostel were his two all-time favorite subjects.) I’ve heard about Channing and her shows — often in rhapsodic terms — all my life, but Dori Berinstein‘s documentary marks one of the only times (except for the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie back in 1967 — and also Otto Preminger‘s Skidoo, but we‘ll forget that) I‘ve actually seen her, heard her, experienced her in a complete role. (That wasn’t Carol’s fault by the way. The consummate trouper, she always went on her own road shows.)

She’s great, no doubt. (The movie proves it.) Even at 90, she has a presence and dynamism and a salty pizzazz-beyond pizzazz that makes it clear, very clear, how she could take over any stage every time, and why seeing Channing from the back of the balcony, was like getting a big closeup of almost anyone else, and why she conquered and killed the crowds over 5,000 times with “Hello, Dolly!” and why people — not just theatrical gays and show biz gals (her special posses) but everybody — just loved her to pieces.

But I’ve never really had a chance, more than a little (basically in that Oscar-nominated turn in Milly), to see what all the shouting was really about. Here is a stage superstar, who definitely is a superstar, a legend, whatever you want, but has made only a handful of films and is known mostly for TV and theater and for two performances, both in Broadway shows, for both of which she scored a critical-commercial triumph of gargantuan proportions, but for both of which she was passed over for the movie versions.

The first great Channing part was as blonde raspy-voiced bombshell and immortal “little girl from Little Rock” Lorelei Lee in the Leo RobinJule Styne musical of Anita Loos’ “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” (Marilyn Monroe, of course, got the movie) And the second was that diva of superstar yentas and that yenta of superstar divas (and that superstar of yenta-divas) brassy, classy Yonkers matchmaker Dolly Levi in the Jerry Herman-out-of-Thornton Wilder stage musical classic Hello, Dolly! (Barbra Streisand got the movie — prompting a wry little hesitation from Channing here.) Now, I wouldn’t want to have missed either Monroe or Streisand in these roles — especially when Marilyn sings (partly dubbed) about the friendliness of diamonds, or when Barbra duets with the peerless Louis Armstrong on “Hello, Dolly” (“This is Louis, Dolly”) — the song and the Satchmo that finally toppled The Beatles from their seemingly permanent Top 40 Number One slot in 1964. But I’m sure Channing was better, especially live, and we deserve more than a memento of her Lorelei and her Dolly. We deserve the whole thing, dammit.

You see Carol doing a little of both of her signature roles here, but not enough. (Is there a Broadway archive tape of the full “Hello Dolly” Channing-starring performance, and if there is, could we get it released? Please?) And you also can see her in other performances, mostly on TV, and hear about what a great trouper and great person she was. (She’s missed only half of one performance in her entire career.) And you hear a little but not too much of her sometimes troubled life — bedeviled by an apparently spousally-deficient husband for 42 years (Charles Lowe, who apparently overly bossed her life and in the end apparently put her through the financial wringer), and blessed by a good one, whom she loved dearly, for most of the last few: her ex-San Francisco junior high sweetheart Harry Kullijian, with whom she reconnected in her 80s, and who died, sadly, just before this movie’s theatrical release.

It’s been said that Carol Channing was too big for the movies (“larger than life“ as the picture here would have it.) I don’t think that’s true. She looks as if she could still give a great movie performance, in a quieter, smaller, maybe dramatic or comedic film role. She was too big for Skidoo, it’s true. But who wasn’t? It’s also been complained by a few that Berinstein’s movie is too much of a valentine to Carol Channing — full of testimonials and funny, loving anecdotes from people who clearly adore her. (Among them: Chita Rivera, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Walters, Debbie Reynolds, Tommy Tune, Bob Mackie, Jerry Herman, Marge Champion, Betty Garrett, good hubby Harry Kullijian, and Jo Anne Worley, her “Hello, Dolly” understudy, who never got to go on.)

Well, maybe, true. But doesn’t she deserve a valentine? And more important, don’t we deserve Carol? Especially us  non-New Yorkers, who never caught her in a roadshow.

Extras: 15 Featurettes. (Well, they’e actually 15 sets of outtakes or extended scenes. But they’re really good outtakes.)

Be Sociable, Share!

2 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs: Carol Channing — Larger Than Life”

  1. Philip Swan says:

    A wonderfully entertaining look at a theater legend. Like Ethel Merman, she wasn’t for everyone, and her performing style worked better on the stage than on the screen. I was fortunate to see her on-stage with Mary Martin in James Kirkwood’s troubled comedy LEGENDS! which never made it to Broadway (which isn’t mention at all in the documentary, nor are at least two other flops in which Channing appeared). She’s a unique performer who truly loves what she does, and it shows.

  2. Dianne C. Pucci says:

    Is this available on DVD? If so, where can I purchase it?
    Thank you,
    Dianne C. Pucci


awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon