Film Review: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Enjoyable, endearing portrait of a true Broadway icon.

Carol Channing is one star everyone can easily imitate: those huge googly eyes, stiff rag-doll body language and, especially, that raspy, sibilant voice with its unique delivery. She was one of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s favorite subjects, one he returned to over and over again through the years, being a human cartoon herself.

What’s not as well-known is that this seemingly bubble-headed blonde possesses a genius IQ. Dori Berenstein, who directed this loving documentary, captures some of her inimitable braininess—in Channing’s amazing conversation, revealing of a gloriously unfettered, intellectually curious mind—as well as a helluva lot of her endearing eccentricity.

Born in 1921 and raised in San Francisco, Channing attended Bennington College and discovered, late in life, that her father was half black. She hid this fact for a career in show business, which took her to New York at the age of 19. Spotted in a review by Anita Loos, she was cast in the Broadway musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which made her a star with a signature song, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” She later topped this with Hello, Dolly!, which became one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history and a reliable calling card for Channing in numerous revival performances, none of which she ever missed (over 5,000, surpassing Yul Brynner’s The King and I, although she never told the touchy star as much when he was alive).

Channing was less fortunate in her movie career, as it was universally agreed that her presence was just too “big” for film. She lost her two famous roles to Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand, and has a tactfully terse but nonetheless biting comment about the latter. She was feted by megastars like Elizabeth Taylor and a number of presidents, but her private life was less happy. Her long marriage to her manager, Charles Lowe, was a difficult union which ended in an acrimonious divorce amid accusations of mishandled money, theft and possible homosexuality. Berenstein doesn’t shy away from this, although it is left to Channing pals like Debbie Reynolds, always a welcome, feisty presence, to tell this sad tale.

Happily, things turned around for her in recent years when she was miraculously reunited with her childhood sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, who became her fourth husband. Theirs is a sweet story indeed, and the most heartwarming scenes in the film are those of the couple, obviously totally relaxed in each other’s company and deeply in love. (Sadly, Killuijian passed away last December.)

Barbara Walters declares that she has never heard a bad word said about Channing, a testament to the lady’s sweet humanity. Seeing her charm the world in various clips through the years—her Sophie Tucker impersonation kills—one can easily believe that, as one also wonders what became of her only child, a son by her second husband. Jerry Herman, Marge Champion, the late Betty Garrett, Lily Tomlin and Tyne Daly also weigh in, with loving, insightful reminiscences which lend an inviting warmth to the film. If anyone, Channing, for all the pleasure she has given so many for so many years, including a recent, dazzling rapping Tony Award appearance with LL Cool J, is eminently deserving of a Kennedy Center Award.