Judge Patrick Naugle's new catchphrase is "Raspberries!"
She IS theatre.
Come along and revisit one of the greatest careers in the history of theater with Carol Channing: Larger than Life. From her humble beginnings as…well, actually, I don't think Carol Channing had any humble beginnings. If we are to believe this film, she popped out of the womb sporting a top hat and cane singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." Through her stints on stage in Hello, Dolly, Gentlemen Perfer Blondes, and countless other shows, the iconic Channing remains one of the most influential and respected actresses ever to bask in the lights of New York's finest theaters.
When I was a sophomore in high school, one of the first theater shows I performed in was Hello, Dolly! I played Rudolph, the head waiter at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant that Dolly Levi visits. I danced poorly and had a voice as pleasant as rusted aluminum foil. Although I learned then I wasn't a song and dance man (it's been comedies ever since), I discovered a profound and deep love for being on stage. To this day, I still love getting in front of an audience and acting like a fool. It is, without a doubt, one of life's grandest pleasures.
This is why I can relate to and respect Carol Channing: Larger than Life, a love letter to a Broadway legend and all-around theatrical supersta. Director Dori Berinstein (Gotta Dance) has crafted an experience that encapsulates the stage in one single performer. The elderly Channing (now in her 90s) has been around since the time of Moses (maybe even longer), and even if her famous name isn't familiar, her instantly recognizable personality is. Channing is a character ripe for the sincerest form of flattery, and everyone from Lily Tomlin to Rich Little offers up their own impersonation. Interview subjects range from the famous (Tyne Daly, Tommy Tune, Loni Anderson, Bruce Vilanch, Tippi Hedren, Debbie Reynolds) to the not so famous (Marge Champion, Betty Garrett, Harry Kullijan), each talking with great warmth and reverence for the actress.
Channing is a woman regarded highly in her industry and (as Barbara Walters notes) not a single person has a bad thing to say about her. The film depicts her in an illuminating light; she cackles, reminisces, embraces her age, and generally comes off as the life of whatever party she's attending. Although I can't recall seeing her movies (the most popular of which is Thoroughly Modern Millie), her face and voice—oh, that voice!—have been indelibly burned into my memory. As one participant notes, if Channing had worked at McDonald's all her life, people would have flocked in droves to see the girl behind counter number three.
As a feature film, Carol Channing: Larger than Life is essentially preaching to the converted. Fans of Broadway history or Channing devotees will eat this movie up like a big bowl of chocolate ice cream. Others may find it slow going. Although the movie is touching, a fine encapsulation of Channing's exuberant personality and lengthy career (littered with vintage talk and variety show moments), it's quite slow in spots, especially dwelling on Channing's reunion with boyhood sweetheart, Harry, who she lost touch with for decades and then married after the bitter end of her own 42 year marriage.
Presented in standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer looks good, but not great; much of it was filmed on handheld cameras and so the picture is often slightly muddled or fuzzy, and the archival footage varies wildly. The Dolby 5.1 Surround mix is passable. There are moments when all of the speakers kick in, though the majority of it is talky and front heavy. Included on this disc are English subtitles.
Bonus features are mostly interviews with or vignettes snipped from the film; in a way, they feel like deleted scenes. There are fifteen of these so-called "featurettes," spanning everything from cartoonist Al Hirschfeld's artistic take on Channing (she was his favorite subject to doodle) to Danny Kaye and Channing's involvement in Joan Crawford's wedding (!). We also get a theatrical trailer.
Even with its flaws, Carol Channing: Larger than Life shines like the brightest Broadway lights. Her gifts are many, but the most impressive may be that even in the twilight of her life, you still can't take your eyes off her. She may be slower and more fragile, but by God she's still Carol Channing and still larger than life.
A fine record of a life well-lived and well-loved.
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