Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

A celebrational  documentary on the irrepressible Carol Channing has arrived in town for those of us needing a stimulating New York fix. "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" is a delightful, disarming confection of a film that will sneak up on you and blow you a kiss in much the same way that Carol Channing might if she saw you on the street.

This is a breezy and charming record of a life that is still very much in motion and both the person and the living Hirschfeld cartoon that is Carol moves across the eye like a bright ribbon. This is no rapidly made tribute film put on auto-pilot, but a thoughtful collection of a legendary life well-lived and analyzed, without selfishness.

Many know Channing as the frenetic blonde bird that comes at the audience with full volume as loud as can be, but I prefer the hidden Channing as revealed in this film: whiskey-voiced and  wise, soft spoken and glib, speaking of ghosts, ebony chanteuses, of kisses taken and misplaced. Such is life.

To see her walking Broadway is a Zen event. Channing is part Andy Warhol flower and part Manhattan magpie. She is a living legend with a story for every gossip rag. To see Channing walk the street, armed with a smile and intention is a wonder. She is no Ditz. And best of all, she is open and approachable.

The film doesn't so much chronicle as it does let Channing tell her story and she does so with gush, verve and violet gusto. Channing is center-stage but never egotistical, and that's all we need.  She is a chimerical chime at 91, her mind and (lips) at full fuchsia fusion with the racing heart of a Broadway bunny.
We may already know of her legendary success with "Hello, Dolly!" (As Jerry Herman says, She IS Dolly.) But what is  more striking is the love she has for her childhood sweetheart, Harry, who she married after being apart from him over 65 years later. Harry was forced to split with Channing over military service. Their scenes together make some of the most heartfelt footage you'll ever see in a documentary and that's even without any kissing. The segments have as much romantic pathos as "The Titanic" and a big part of this is the breaking quality in Channing's lost mascara voice.

We also see her transformation into a pop Icon, meeting Jackie O, Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol, Bill Clinton, and last but not least being fawned over by the sarcastic and furry Snagglepuss, Bruce Vilanch: a dynamic duo for the Millennium.

The daring thing about "Channing: Larger Than Life" is that it takes in all sides of Carol: The trademark, the activist for arts in public schools and gay rights, the romantic, and last but not least, a bright beacon for a living and enthusiastic Broadway that still burns.

Carol Channing has all these facets and none of them are square---all are embodied in that power of Pink.

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