By Alan Hurst
Carol Channing passed away this morning, January 15, 2019, at the age of 97. She would have been 98 later this month.
She was one of the biggest Broadway stars of the last century, primarily because of the seismic impact she had in two roles: as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949 and Hello, Dolly! in 1964. According to the New York Times she played Dolly more that 4,500 times in various productions over the years. I saw her in a touring production of Hello, Dolly! in 1995 and she was still delightful, if a little fragile, as the legendary matchmaker.
Channing also had major success in television when variety programs were in favour and she enjoyed sold out audiences when she turned to cabaret in her eighties. But Channing’s movie career never really happened, and the film version of her signature stage roles went to Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand respectively.
Her film career started, so to speak, with The Travelling Sales Lady (1956), where she supported Ginger Rogers and enjoyed a screen kiss with Clint Eastwood. The film was atrocious.
That was it until her success in Hello, Dolly! brought her back to the screen in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) with Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and James Fox. The film was a major hit for Universal and received positive reviews for the cast, particularly Andrews and Channing. Channing pops up part way through the film as a Long Island matron. She’s very fun, essentially playing the public personae that Channing had cultivated – a wide-eyed, carefree, madcap cartoon. She received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and won that year’s Golden Globe. But her success here lost her the film version of Hello, Dolly! because of the way she just naturally overwhelmed everyone else whenever she was on screen. Channing was never known for her subtlety.
There were some other film appearances, but nothing of consequence until the release of Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, a 2012 documentary that chronicled her career and late life marriage to a high school sweetheart. It’s an entertaining 90 minutes and a nice overview of Channing’s life with clips, commentary from friends and colleagues, and Channing herself – still wide-eyed, funny and larger than life.
So long, Dolly!
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.