“I’ve never heard anybody say anything mean about Carol Channing,” Barbara Walters tells the camera in Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. If anyone wanted to, though, they wouldn’t find a place to say it in this documentary, the latest from Dori Berinstein (of ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway and Gotta Dance). Larger Than Life is an adoring portrait of the now 90-year-old, still-ebullient musical star best known for originating the title role in Hello, Dolly! Given that the majority (if not the entirety) of viewers likely to seek this film out are devoted fans of the actor, singer, and comedian, the soft touch makes perfect sense, though anyone not already lined up at the altar of old-school Broadway will find the film slower going.
Loosely pinned to Channing’s preparation for the Kennedy Center Honors salute to composer Jerry Herman, Berinstein’s film burrows through Channing’s life, from her early stint at the Tamiment Playhouse to her arrival in the role of Dolly Levi, whom she played on Broadway and on tour around the country. Larger Than Life flips nimbly through footage from different eras of Channing’s career—one of the best sequences starts with her onstage in the present day singing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” and cuts the rest of the song together from performances through the years. The film diplomatically skirts over rough patches that could have used more examination, like Channing’s displeasure with Barbra Streisand playing Dolly in Gene Kelly’s 1969 screen adaptation, and dwells a little longer than necessary on Channing’s late-in-life reunion with her childhood boyfriend Harry Kullijian (who’s since died), a sweet story that nevertheless slows all momentum with middle-school recollections.
Larger Than Life provides a look back at a time of show business and stardom that no longer exists. “It doesn’t matter what the name of the character onstage is, it’s always Carol,” one interviewee offers fondly, suggesting that even offstage, Channing is always inhabiting her own persona. Her former understudy discusses how Channing never missed a performance; her devotion to the work extends to tirelessly helping promote her shows at events and in the press while on tour. She’s always ecstatic to have a crowd to perform to. Through all the glowing interviews with the likes of Bruce Vilanch and Debbie Reynolds, the undiminished pleasure she still gets from taking the stage shines through, a rare and gladdening quality in the current age of celebrity.