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Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

A bonbon for buffs of all things Broadway, "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" is a celebration of a performer who eclipsed most of the roles she played by force of personality.

With:
With: Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Jerry Herman, Marge Champion, Bruce Vilanch, Lily Tomlin, Debbie Reynolds, Tippi Hedren, Bob Mackie, Betty Garrett, Jo Anne Worley.

A bonbon for buffs of all things Broadway, “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” is a celebration and a lament — a celebration of Channing’s seven decades as musical comedy star, and a lament that there’s really no one like her anymore, a performer who eclipsed most of the roles she played by force of personality, and defined the word “trouper.” That she still brings these traits to the stage is one of the more heartening aspects of helmer Dori Berinstein’s lovingly assembled biodoc, another being the real-life romance at its center. Specialty release seems likely, especially in New York.

Best known for the two iconic roles she created on stage, Dolly Levy in “Hello, Dolly!” and Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Channing retains a dry wit and an exuberance that belies her years (“I don’t know why you applaud that,” she tells an appreciative aud, responding to how old she is. “It just happens.”) Any dark side to the thesp, if there is one, never comes through in “Larger Than Life,” which for all its theatricality is grounded in a romance equal to anything Channing has played onstage: Childhood sweethearts, she and Harry Kullijian reunited in 2003, married and now act like teenagers, which is what they’d been when they’d last seen each other, 70 years before. (The pic also provides a window into Channing’s unhappy first marriage, which is discussed at length, but isn’t allowed to dampen the generally giddy proceedings.)

Berinstein (“Gotta Dance,” “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway”) divides the pic into chapters, each introduced by an animated version of an Abe Hirschfeld caricature of Channing — big, blonde, saucer-eyed and smiling. These take the viewer through the actress-comedienne’s life, providing a rather conventional structure (career highlights, alternating with Channing’s show prep, including a Kennedy Center program in 2008). But the material she has is first-rate. Channing’s talkshow appearances alone — in which she regales whatever host/victim she confronts with a dizzying display of accents, languages and shtick guaranteed to confuse and amuse — are worth the price of admission. Her explanation during one such program of how she got into showbiz is the equal of Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine. In between, there’s Channing the performer, who proves virtually every time out that regardless of the show or review, what counts is the singer, not necessarily the song.

Amid the film’s very amusing anecdotes is one that points up Channing’s large gay following, which will certainly be a lure for distributors: Visiting a drag club one night, Channing got a left-handed compliment from a passerby: “I don’t know who you are, fella, but you’re the best Carol Channing I’ve ever seen.”

Like its subject, “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” is a class act — the sound, music and present-day shooting all first rate. The work by Asterisk Animation is an adornment, but somehow elevates the production.

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Docu

Production: A Dramatic Forces presentation. Produced by Dori Berinstein. Co-producer, B. Harlan Boll. Directed by Dori Berinstein. Written by Berinstein, Adam Zucker.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Rob VanAlkemade; editor, Zucker; music, Craig Sharmat; sound (Dolby E), Peter Waggoner. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight), April 23, 2011. Running time: 83 MIN.

With: With: Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Jerry Herman, Marge Champion, Bruce Vilanch, Lily Tomlin, Debbie Reynolds, Tippi Hedren, Bob Mackie, Betty Garrett, Jo Anne Worley.

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