Film Review – GFF 2012: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Few people are more deserving of the term Broadway Superstar than Carol Channing. Now in her 91st year, the original star of Hello Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, shows no signs of slowing down, boasting an incredibly 70+ years in showbusiness. Documentary filmmaker, Dori Berinstein takes a look at Channing’s incredible career and personal life in this a poignant, nostalgia-filled tribute, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.
From the film’s opening we immediately see that Channing, now in her later years is just as loveable and vibrant as she was when she made her stage debut in the 1940s. Her quick-wittedness is on full display as she chats to a group of fans who are impressed when they hear her age, without pause Channing exclaims “Why are you applauding? It just happened!”. The rest of the documentary continues in a similar tone as Channing talks about the most important parts of her life, laced with soft traces of her trademark humour – from her first audition to her rekindling with former childhood sweetheart, Harry Kullijian (Who sadly passed away last December).
There is an incredibly sweet love story at the heart of Larger Than Life with several sequences focussing on Channing and her husband Kulijian revisiting moments from their past – seeing the couple share these stories simply melts your heart. This love story is even more poignant than first expected as the pair were childhood sweethearts forced to break up in 1935 due to Harry’s military service commitments. The pair later reunited and were married in 2003, when both were in their 80s. Director, Dori Berinstein manages to display a truly honest look at these two sweethearts and captures their genuine love for one another.
Whilst a significant part of the film focuses on Channing and Kulijian’s relationship – the most part focuses on her illustrious career, told through interviews with the star and her friends/collaborators, as well as through archive footage of some of her most famous roles and performances. Each story is bridged by an animation of the star which gives the documentary a quirky, unconventional feel. Channing has a story for every name, every place and every day which is truly fascinating to listen to – even more so when she spontaneously bursts into one of her most notable musical numbers such as Hello Dolly’s Before The Parade Passes By. Hearing Channing’s stories of performing for Presidents or her friendship with the likes of Yul Brynner makes for fascinating viewing for anyone interested in classic Hollywood or Broadway. There is also a host of well-known faces, including; Jerry Herman, Debbie Reynolds, Lily Tomlin and Tippi Hedren, all who share insightful and often comic anecdotes about the Broadway legend.
Larger Than Life also tells us of some of the lesser known aspects of Channing’s life, including her relationship with various cast members. One of these involves Channing’s friendship with a dancer who was battling HIV and how the performer would stop mid-show to care for him and later inspired her charity crusades. Everything about Channing is larger than life – from her trademark big red-lipstick covered smile, to her huge lashes and often imitated raspy voice. These physical attributes, as well as her undeniable talents have helped define her as a Broadway icon, but we also get a sense of who the real Carol Channing is in Larger Than Life. Berinsein is hugely successful at exploring both the on-stage Channing and the real big-hearted woman behind the characters.
On a more critical note, Larger Than Life, like Channing herself, focuses more on the positive and fun aspects of the star’s life. It does refer to Channing’s difficult forty year marriage to Charles Lowe but little light is shed on this. The same can be said by Channing’s fight with ovarian cancer, which feels somewhat glazed over. This will not be of too much bother to viewers – Channing is still as fun and vibrant as ever and it is clear she does not want to dwell on past struggles.
Dori Berinstein’s portrait of the star is as heart-warming and loveable as Channing herself. After watching, you cannot help but feel you know Channing yet are still completely mesmerised by her. Larger Than Life is chock full of showbusiness nostalgia and glamour and a unmissable look at why we all love the legendary Carol Channing.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Andrew McArthur
Stars: Carol Channing, Harry Kullijian, Jerry Herman & Debbie Reynolds
Director: Dori Berinstein