Carol Channing, Still Delightfully 'Larger Than Life'

Jan 19, 2012
Originally published on January 20, 2012 6:08 pm

Whenever the late New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld sketched Carol Channing — whether picturing her as an indomitable Dolly Levi, swathed in feathers and sequins, or as carbon-crazed Lorelei Lee, eyes sparkling like the diamonds that were that splendid creature's best friends — he always made her appear a creature composed entirely of lipstick, mascara and hairspray.

It says something about both his artistry and hers that Channing has generally come across that way in real life as well — seven decades of Broadway celebrity, lived less as a flesh-and-blood figure than as a fabulously insubstantial cartoon.

Tall, slender, saucer-eyed, toothy, with a vocal rasp that suggests sandpaper being fed through a shredder, she's the one stage star who has never had any trouble living up to her Hirschfeld. That's her talent — and also what's made her a campy fave with female impersonators.

Dori Berinstein's documentary love letter, Carol Channing: Larger than Life, which animates Hirschfeld drawings to make transitions in its bubbly narrative, offers a slight corrective to that image — emphasis on slight.

There's nothing here to surprise the Broadway devotees who will be this film's prime (and possibly only) audience; the nonogenarian Channing that Berinstein puts gently on display is definitely performing Carol Channing for the camera. But she sounds sharp and reasonably canny about the impression she's making.

With photos that show a comparatively delicate-featured young woman morphing into the gaudy starlet who first took Broadway by storm in the revue Lend An Ear, the film traces Channing's career, mixing archival footage of stage triumphs with more personal tribulations.

The latter include a miserable 42-year marriage, a first screen kiss with Clint Eastwood (alas, cut from the film The First Traveling Saleslady), and a happy reunion after seven decades with childhood sweetheart Harry Kullijian.

Channing and Kullijian (who died after filming was completed) bill and coo like teenagers through a few too many reminiscences of adolescence, but their affection, and their stories, do offer a window on the woman behind the performance.

A Bennington College grad before she made her rep as Broadway's most ebullient trouper, she's hardly the dumb blond she has been playing since her 30s. If you doubt her skill at media manipulation, just watch her in the vintage TV clips Berinstein has dug up, disarming interlocutors — she all but disables a helplessly cackling Gene Shalit — as she launches into showbiz anecdotes replete with accents, impersonations and deftly delivered shtick.

That they're all practiced routines, with punch lines she knows precisely how to land, doesn't reduce their effectiveness a whit. The lady was — and remains — a pro, still glowin', crowin', goin' strong.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Carol Channing, who created iconic roles on Broadway in "Hello, Dolly!" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," isn't touring quite as much as she once did. But in the words of a song she sang more than 5,000 times, she's still going strong. At least, that's the impression critic Bob Mondello got from the new documentary "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE")

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Whenever New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld sketched Carol Channing, he always made her appear a creature composed entirely of lipstick, mascara and hairspray. It says something about both his artistry and hers, that Channing has generally come across that way in real life too, as a fabulous but insubstantial cartoon. Channing was one of the few stars who could live up to those drawings, and as if to prove that, Dori Berinstein's documentary animates a couple and sets them right next to the star, who's pretty animated too, considering her advanced years.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE")

MONDELLO: Channing is definitely performing Carol Channing for the camera, but she's pretty canny about the impression she's making. She's shown being a tireless trouper, practically taking TV interviewers hostage. In one clip, she reduces Gene Shalit to helpless cackling. Elsewhere, the film shows her playing gamely off her stage roles in a montage of sitcom appearances.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE")

MONDELLO: Though she never clicked in the movies, she does recount a film memory or two of her first on-screen smooch, for instance, with a kid named Clint Eastwood. But "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" mostly concentrates on career highlights and personal moments. A happy reunion after seven decades with a childhood sweetheart gets lots of time, as does nostalgia for a brand of entertaining practiced by very few stars these days. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.