With her saucer eyes lined with the world's longest false lashes (no wonder drag queens love to impersonate her), her often intimated voice (that voice! a mixture of baby doll and just the right amount of crazy), and her kooky, off-the-wall persona, there really is no one quite like Carol Channing. I'm not really sure what she is or where she came from (she really does seem like one of those people who was destined for stardom – fully formed as her own unique, distinct person. Imagine if she was just some lady in your hometown. You'd likely steer clear of her – the town kook. Luckily fame lends a note of respectability. It's not crazy but eccentric). She truly is Larger Than Life. (Which just so happens to be the title of a 2011 documentary about her. If you've ever wondered why she became such an icon, watch the film and wonder no more.)
In honor of Miss Channing's arrival this weekend, I wanted to take a look at one of her few ventures on the big screen. Her Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe award-winning turn as Muzzy Van Hossmere in the 1967 musical comedy, Throughly Modern Millie. For whatever reason, Channing only made a handful of films (perhaps her style of acting was just too theatrical. I mean, it's certainly not subtle). Even though she originated the role of Dolly Levy in Hello, Dolly on Broadway, when it came time to film the movie, the role was given to a much too young, miscast, Barbra Streisand. Channing actually won the Tony over Streisand the year she was nominated for Funny Girl. If only she had gotten to recreate her Dolly character for the big screen. Perhaps an Oscar would have joined that Tony on the mantle. If anything, she certainly deserved to win for her joyous turn in Millie over (what I feel is one of the worst wins of all-time) Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde.
Throughly Modern Millie (the basis for the 2000 Tony award-winning, Sutton Foster-career-starting, Broadway musical) is actually a bit of a mess as a movie. At a little over 2 and half hours long, it's much too long than it has any right to be for a frothy, satire of 1920s culture. And the subplot about white slavery seems racists and dated, I'm sure even at the time of its release. But if the film succeeds at all, it's due to the jolt of excitement Carol Channing brings whenever she's onscreen. Which, at almost an hour into the movie before she even makes her entrance, is just what the movie needed.
And what an entrance. Speeding by Millie (Julie Andrews), Miss Dorothy (Mary Tyler Moore), and Jimmy (James Fox) in a black and white checkerboard painted biplane, draped in white furs and diamonds, carelessly spilling champagne in the wind, she utters a word that has become synonymous with the actress ever since:
What the hell does that mean, exactly? Shit if I know, but I love every mind-boggling minute of it.
Once on the ground, Millie discovers that Muzzy is the wealthy owner of the home on Long Island that the trio will be staying for the night. And, wouldn't you know, a party is being thrown that very night in which Muzzy will be showing off her skills as a real Jazz Baby:
Remember that episode of "Friends" where Rachel didn't want to run with Phoebe because it was like "a cross between Kermit the Frog and the Six Million Dollar Man"? That's Carol Channing dancing. All jagged elbows and knobby knees. She flings her body about with reckless abandon. Her slim body so wispy and frail that she looks like she'll snap from the weight of her bobble head and mound of thick blonde/white helmet hair being flung every which way. But, just watch that video and tell me that isn't one of the most joyously loopy couple of minutes you've ever seen in your life.
But Channing's Muzzy isn't just comic relief. She spells out the lesson our "modern" girl must learn.
"Honestly, Millie, if it's marriage you've got in mind, love has everything to do with it. Follow your heart. No raspberries."
I don't even mind that the message of the film is so blatantly stated to us (musical comedies aren't exactly known for their nuance) because Channing's delivers the line (and the proceeding story about receiving what she thinks is green glass but turns out to be emeralds from her late husband when he was courting her) with so much heart and honesty that the moment actually becomes genuinely touching and real. You can tell she cares for Millie's well being. And for this brief scene, her Muzzy becomes a real person.
When next we meet our girl Muzzy, she bursts on to the screen. Literally. As she's shot out of a cannon while wearing an ensemble made up of gold lamé riding pants with matching boots:
I bet you can't guess what she says as she flies through the air...
She then proceeds to perform an acrobatic act that defies logic and gravity. All the while half-heartedly singing a song about saying "no, no, no, no, no" but asking him to do it again. The song gives an eerie quality to the act, the creepy lyrics and melody not exactly matching the buoyant actions of the tumbling performers. It's all so bizarre that it takes a couple of scenes to register exactly what just happened. Or why. I'm still not entirely sure I know.
We don't encounter Muzzy again until the end of the film after the pursuit of Miss Dorothy into white slavery leads them all to Muzzy's house on Long Island because...why not? Muzzy defeats the would-be criminals in a series of comedic, slapstick violence that appeals to people who find The Three Stooges funny. But, luckily she gets to wrap everything up by informing Millie that Jimmy is actually her stepson and a multimillionaire. After all, it was Muzzy's idea to send Jimmy and is sister, Miss Dorothy out into the real world and find people who wold love them for who they really are. Thus allowing Millie to marry for love and money. And what's more modern than that?
The Academy is often criticized for sticking to their wheelhouse when it comes to Oscar nominations. (I think we've exhausted the number of long suffering wives of troubled men nominated in this category.) So it's nice to see that such an original and totally cuckoo performance found its way onto the Academy's radar. After watching the film, Carol Channing's presence still lingers in the mind. People like to take about how fearless an emotionally wrought performance is, but what's really fearless is the way Channing goes for broke in her handful of scenes. This is a performance that begs to be noticed in the best way possible. A memorable performance by a singular talent. And that's no raspberries.