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An Anecdotal, But Charming, Love Letter To A First Lady Of The Stage
on May 11, 2012
Wacky, disjointed, funny, rambling, perplexing, and absolutely charming. These are words that can be used to describe theater legend Carol Channing as well as this loving tribute of a documentary. "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life," by Dori Berinstein, is as infectious as its subject. If the description larger than life ever had a more apt usage, I don't know what it is. Channing is an enormous personality and has made a lifetime career and millions of fans by being herself. She truly has no equivalent, either today or in the past. I won't contend that she's the biggest talent that the stage has ever seen, but she's a consummate professional that it's impossible not to like. Her saucer eyes, big smile, platinum hair, distinctive voice, and perennially upbeat attitude have made her a beloved icon. But if you're shopping this DVD, then I suspect that I'm preaching to the choir. So I'll shut up and proceed to discuss the film!
It's hard to establish exactly what the narrative scope of "Larger Than Life" is. The most contemporary footage revolves around Channing as she approaches her ninetieth birthday and she readies herself for a charity performance (her first time on stage in 16 years). It's easy to see that Channing is still well recognized and idolized, and she is a gracious host and quite quick witted. The relationship with her husband Harry (unfortunately since deceased) is absolutely beguiling and has an incredible back story that I won't spoil. This film is a fitting love letter to this unorthodox couple as much as being a chronicle of Channing's career. The film really jumps all over the place, though, it does not particularly give you a comprehensive overview of Channing's life, more like savory bites and humorous anecdotes. Of course, there is plenty of old film and TV footage (oftentimes not identified, which I found disappointing), tons of filmed stage work, and many interviews from famous faces. Some of the big names include Barbara Walters, Debbie Reynolds, Tyne Daly, Jerry Herman, Lily Tomlin, Betty Garrett (sadly, now also deceased), Bob Mackie and Chita Rivera among many others.
The two roles that defined Channing are front and center throughout: Hello, Dolly! and Gentleman Prefer Blondes. But, as you might imagine, Channing is the real star here. She can tell a rambling and/or non-sensical story and still absolutely captivate an audience. In truth, "Larger Than Life" is not a perfect film by any means, but its subject matter makes it virtually irresistible. The film itself runs shy of 87 minutes, but there is a bounty of bonus features as well (most of which play like deleted scenes from the movie). All told, there are 15 of these brief extras ranging from enlightening, to strange, to baffling, to hysterical. If you're a fan, you'll definitely want to check this out. And if you don't know Channing, why not? KGHarris, 5/12.