With her saucer eyes, raspy voice and spirit of perpetual effervescence, Carol Channing is one of the most original forces of energy in the history of American theater. Dori Berinstein’s documentary on the 91-years-young star is a wonderful tribute to a genuine theatrical original.
Accompanied through much of the film by her childhood sweetheart and fourth husband Harry Kullijian (who died after filming was completed), Channing makes a fast sweep of her life through visits to her childhood home in San Francisco (she seems amazed that the property was repainted after she moved out), her childhood discovery of show business, her college education at Bennington and her rather fast ascension through New York’s theater scene in the 1948 revue “Lend an Ear.” Her first peak came as Lorelei in the 1949 Broadway show “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (a rare kinescope of her raucous rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is included here), but much of the film is devoted to recalling Channing’s theatrical triumph as the matchmaker Dolly Levi in the 1964 show “Hello, Dolly!” – a role that she played for more than 5,000 times.
The film places a strong emphasis on the positive, and a surplus of famous collaborators and admirers lavishly sing the praises of Channing’s generosity, humor and strength. The film avoids dwelling on Channing’s low points – there are very few details about her bout with ovarian cancer and her “miserable” 42-year marriage to manager-publicist Charles Shaw, and Channing carefully shuts down an effort to discuss the Barbra Streisand film version of “Hello, Dolly!” And, sadly, there is no mention of her grandly eccentric performance in the 1968 Otto Preminger-helmed LSD comedy “Skidoo!”
However, the film makes up for those stumbles by serving up some wonderfully rich examples of Channing’s brilliance as a singer, comedian and raconteur. And a “Today” clip of a Channing story reducing Gene Shalit to hysterics is one of the most infectiously hilarious items ever put on screen. As show biz documentaries go, this one is a must-see.