Though gushing with an excess of testimonials common to most showbiz bio-docs, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life goes well when the 90-year-old trouper, now a bubbly mascot from the distant golden days of American musical comedy, reminisces, shills, and dances (gingerly) for charity. Having outlasted the era of the star-centric Broadway show, she spins doubtlessly well-honed anecdotes about her star-struck girlhood in San Francisco, salad days in resort shows and revues, and creating her “dumb as a fox” persona through signature roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! Channing, even when obliging autograph seekers, simultaneously projects the aura of always-on performer and guileless sweetheart that only a few beloved icons have matched. (Dolly Parton comes to mind, as does, in a TV clip where Channing banters ditzily with George Burns, Burns’s partner Gracie Allen.) Sitting for director Dori Berinstein’s camera with fourth husband Harry Kullijian, whose reunion with his junior-high crush after 70 years apart is the natural heart-tugger of this doc, Carol manages a grand matinee-ready take when Harry shrugs, “I thought she was dead.”
Alas, Larger Than Life is too small to contain Channing’s legacy; aside from an opening montage which moves chronologically backward through six decades of the star singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Berinstein’s inclusions and elisions are consistently dubious. Friends and collaborators like Marge Champion and the late Betty Garrett deserve their talking-head time, but returning to a roundtable of aging chorus boys three times to sing Channing’s praises? Crediting the addition of “Before the Parade Passes By” by composer Jerry Herman with saving Hello, Dolly!, but never letting more than three lines of it play? This profile’s echo chamber of love for its subject leaves it to Carol to accept blame for prioritizing the theater over her son (“That’s wrong…It’s a selfish life”) and dismiss her “lousy 42-year marriage” in one line—though admittedly, given this milieu, seeing Debbie Reynolds burst into tears over her friend’s “patience” in marrying her true love at 82 is pay dirt. Gamely strutting her pipe-cleaner limbs with Broadway gypsies or raising her raspy chirp on behalf of arts education in public schools, Channing remains sui generis in post-World War II pop culture, but this doc foolishly pads its footage with dullards like Barbara Walters and impressionist Rich Little instead of keeping the big-eyed, satchel-mouthed pixie at its center.