Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

This documentary is 88 minutes of nonstop celebration of how utterly fabulous Carol Channing is in every way.

I wouldn’t say that that’s an approach that’s likely to get me to love a documentary. Blatant hagiography tends to be tolerable when I’m a big fan of the principal and worse when I’m not.

Even before I realized that that was what this movie was going to be like, I didn’t think of it as a very promising one for me. Carol Channing wasn’t someone of significance to me. I remember her as one of a hundred or more celebrities that routinely showed up on talk shows and the like when I was growing up. I didn’t dislike her per se, but she wasn’t someone special to me.

Nor have I ever been a fan of the art that I most associate her with—the blockbuster, massively produced, mainstream megahit, musical comedy with dozens or hundreds of people on the stage jumping around in flashy costumes in artificial meticulously choreographed ways being very loud and joyous. I guess it’s one of those art forms I tend to think of as being primarily for people who have vaginas or wish they did.

All that being said, I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. I might not care much one way or the other about her art, but she—and this is the 90 year old version of her we’re talking about, since that’s how old she was when the film was made—is about as charming, charismatic, positive a person as you’ll come across, one of those people who lights up any room she enters, and more importantly lights up any life she touches.

Granted, you never know how much of that is film editing. Maybe the material could have been spun to make her seem a more flawed or unappealing person, I don’t know. So I’m kind of taking on faith that’s she as the film presents her.

It’s not just watching her, but watching the way others interact with her and speak of her. In an early scene, when some male dancers hanging out on a break in back of a Broadway theater see her approach, they respond rapturously, gushing over her and cherishing receiving her darshan. When fellow celebrities are interviewed about her, they don’t just say flattering things in a perfunctory way because they know it’s expected; you can see the enthusiasm in their eyes at the opportunity to tell stories about her and describe how wonderful she is.

One thing that’s heartwarming to see is how she found a calling that fits her so perfectly. Whatever you think of the style of musical theater and comedy that she practiced, she knew from the time that she discovered theater at age 7 that this was what she wanted to do with her life, and she has been as dedicated to it and as happy doing it as it’s possible to be ever since.

I worded that in the present tense because as of when they made this movie, she was still actively performing at age 90. I know there are people who still have it reasonably well together at that age, but I doubt there are many as fully functional as her. Physically, obviously she’s stiff and moves more slowly and cautiously than decades earlier and all that, but she can walk and get around pretty well with no support. Even more impressive is how sound her mind is and how well she can still articulate.

The 90 year old Channing is about like the average 75 year old in terms of physical deterioration and the average 60 year old in terms of mental deterioration, I would say.

But anyway, yeah, she’s totally devoted to theater and to the performing arts. In conversation with other performers, like in her encounter outside the theater with the dancers, she always emphasizes how privileged they all are to be doing what they’re doing, and what a dream come true it is for them all.

In the many years she played the lead in Hello Dolly, both on Broadway but also touring all over the country, she missed a grand total of less than one performance. (She was deathly ill and puking on stage in Kalamazoo, and had to be relieved roughly midway through the performance.) This includes an extended period after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, when she flew home once a week for treatment and then flew to the touring company’s next destination in time for the next performance.

Part of the explanation for that Gehrigian reliability is her professionalism, her unparalleled sense of obligation to the audience as well as her fellow actors and the others involved in putting on the show. But I’d say it’s also a matter of her not wanting to miss a single opportunity to do what she loves most. Why would she want a day off when there’s nowhere she’d rather be than up on stage performing?

There are really only a couple of even slightly negative notes in the film. One is her marriage (her third and by far the longest—I looked it up—the first two fairly brief ones aren’t mentioned). Her husband, who also functioned as her manager, is described as a cold, domineering control freak who focused on making her career as successful and lucrative as possible more than on their personal relationship. Channing herself waves off the 30-plus year marriage with a smile and a dismissive remark, like someone mentioning that they made an unwise shoe purchase.

The other is when she talks about performing in Las Vegas in the ’60s with Louis Armstrong (who of course had had a big hit late in his career with his recording of “Hello Dolly”). Despite being one of the most famous and beloved celebrities in the world, due to his race Armstrong was not provided lodging in the Riviera where they were performing but had to stay at a cheap motel across the street. Channing describes with indignation watching him having to cross the Strip on foot every day to join her.

But mostly the film is just Channing loving and appreciating every moment of life, even at 90, and people raving to her and about her of how loving, inspirational, and wonderful she is, of the little kindnesses they have seen her do, etc.

The film is an extraordinary, stranger-than-fiction, love story as well. For it turns out that her current, fourth, marriage is with the great love of her youth.

Channing and Harry Kullijian met as children growing up in California, and by middle school were a couple. They dated for several years, at least insofar as you can call the involvement of a couple of 13 or 14 year olds “dating.” They describe it as at the very least a strong puppy love.

When they were sent off to different out-of-town schools, I think Harry first, he told her it was best that they break up and not try to have a long distance romance. That was in the mid-30s. They soon fell out of touch with each other.

About 15 years later, Kullijian was in the military and about to ship out to the Korean War, when he passed through New York. His last night before leaving the country he saw her name on a marquee on Broadway. He wanted to see her, but was turned away at the door because it was sold out. He then saw her emerge from a limousine. He started to call out to her, but felt self-conscious. After she disappeared into the theater he again sought access, explaining that he didn’t need to see the show but just wanted to say hello to her and let her know he was there. He again was turned away because he didn’t have a ticket.

And that was that, until over 50 years later a mutual acquaintance prevailed upon the now octogenarian Kullijian to surprise the now octogenarian Channing with birthday greetings. This led to a meeting—the first time they had seen each other in person in about 70 years, not counting his briefly seeing her get out of a limousine from a distance that one time—which led to their falling (back) in love, which led to marriage.

Now they’re like this perfect little couple. (He’s comparably as sharp as her by the way, so they’re both in very, very good shape for their age.) They interact like soulmates who just can’t get enough of each other. There’s a palpable love and tenderness between them, but at the same time the kind of high comfort level that enables them to be playful and tease each other.

It’s really sweet to see them interact. But that’s pretty much the feel of this whole movie.

Their second run lasted eight years, Kullijian dying at 92 (I found out from Wikipedia). Channing herself died a few days short of her 98th birthday.

My overall assessment of Carol Channing: Larger Than Life is that 88 minutes with Carol Channing is time well spent.

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