Wednesday, December 18, 2013

To stream -- Dori Berinstein's CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE proves informative and fun

Confession: I am no Carol Channing fan. The first time I recall ever seeing the woman was in on Broadway in Hello Dolly during its opening week, after Ms Channing's performance had been greeted with near-non-stop praise by the critics. I was floored. For me, this woman didn't have one honest moment in the whole show. She was all over-the-top mugging, a cartoon come to life. "But you don't understand," explained a friend of mine: "That's Carol Channing." And of course, he was right. Every time I've seen her since, in any and every role, including the documentary under consideration here, she is always the same, which is clearly what her fans demand and she delivers.

Dori Berinstein's documentary (the filmmaker is shown at right,) CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE, bears all of this out, as it offers up Miss Channing, shown below and below and below, and her history as a woman, wife and performer -- and gol' darn if she doesn't seem to be exactly and always the same persona, no matter what. And I have to say, I found her awfully endearing, even if I still wouldn't go out of my way to see her perform. Miss Berinstein gives us pretty much Carol's life story, via the entertainer herself, and many of the people she's worked with along the way -- from Marge Champion and Mary Jo Catlett to Tyne Daley and Bob Mackie, and the now-deceased Betty Garrett and Phyllis Diller.

All these people love her no end, and by the finale of this alert and energized documentary, so, most likely, will you. From chorus boys to stars like Angela Lansbury, everybody seem to love and appreciate this singular woman because Channing never changes, and she's so damned nice to everyone, treating them all as worthwhile folk.

From her history we learn that she was raised in a family of Christian Scientists (just as was I), and that her dream was always to sing, dance, entertain and make people laugh, all of which she's managed and which we see clips of from her work on Broadway, cabaret, TV and (the one medium she never really cracked) movies. (A stage performer, she just may have been too "big" an actress for the more subtle needs of cinema.)

These clips are fascinating little time capsules that are genuinely fun to watch, and even though the plaudits of friends and co-workers keep piling up, these don't bore us because Berinstein has things moving at such a fast clip. And Channing, who is now 92, keeps her reminiscences sharp and to the point so that we're happy to keep up with both her and them.

We learn not so much about her first marriage, which was evidently not so happy (Carol likes to keep things positive) but lots about her second one, to the man (above) she had loved and cared for as a schoolgirl (and he her) and to whom she was reunited in her 80s. We learn of her kindnesses to co-performers (some of whom are shown below), and of course we see

her sheer love of performing, along with a lot about her signature role in Hello Dolly, and its composer lyricist, Jerry Herman, who calls Channing the original and favorite (though the musical, as we learn here, was origi-nally conceived for Ethel Merman). As someone who has never cared much for that show or its score, after watching this documentary I could at least understand where all that love and admiration were coming from.

Carol Channing: Larger than Life can be streamed now via Netflix, or viewed on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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