Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Goodbye, Dolly. Well, Goodbye, Dolly . . .

It’s a sad time for those who love over-the-top comic personalities. Carol Channing left us on January 15, less than a week shy of her 98th birthday. Encyclopedias list her as an “American actress,” but it wasn’t exactly acting she was known for. No, she was more accurately described as a personality, someone who was always herself, and a self so distinctive that it could be imitated but never matched. With her long limbs, wide mouth, saucer eyes, and bright cloud of platinum hair, she looked like a cartoon character come to life. And her voice, that boisterous squawk, could have belonged to no one else.

Naturally, the Broadway musical stage was where she got her start. After appearing in some peppy reviews, she took Broadway by storm as Lorelei Lee, a flapper first created by Anita Loos in a breezy popular novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As the stage’s first Lorelei, Channing got to sing “I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock” and the indelible “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (music by Jule Styne and Leo Robin). It was one of the biggest Broadway hits of 1949, but the 1953 movie adaptation supplanted Channing with a much curvier, more obviously sexual Lorelei. Of course I mean Marilyn Monroe, who was actually billed second to more-widely-known Jane Russell, though not for long.

Channing was back with a Broadway triumph in 1964 with Hello, Dolly! This corny but lovable Jerry Herman hit is adapted from a play by Thornton Wilder, The Matchmaker. Wilder’s tale concerns a widow who sets her sights on a curmudgeonly but wealthy merchant. Object: matrimony. Ruth Gordon (later to star in Harold and Maude) was the widow of that non-musical version. For the musical, Broadway queens Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were approached. Both nixed the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, but Channing made it a triumph, stamping it with her personal outlandish charm. I was lucky to see her perform the role in Los Angeles. No question that she was having the time of her life. Her antics included waving bye-bye to the audience from underneath the descending stage curtain. You couldn’t help loving her.

Still, Hollywood saw fit to give the plum role of Dolly to another screen newcomer, the 27-year-old Barbra Streisand. The behemoth production covered the back lot of 20th Century Fox, even enlisting studio neighbors to swell the ranks of onlookers in the big parade scene. That‘s how my mother, sister, and husband-to-be all got to make their Hollywood debuts. I may be showing family disloyalty, but I’ve got to admit that the screen Hello, Dolly! Is a turkey. Happily for Carol Channing, by the time Hello, Dolly! was filmed she had finally gotten herself a good movie role. In the 1967 romp, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Channing plays an endearingly wacky socialite named Muzzy von Hossmere. (It seems to me I recall her being shot out of a cannon, among other things.) Fittingly, she was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress. Though she lost out to Estelle Parsons for Bonnie and Clyde, it was good to see Hollywood acknowledge one of the comedy greats.

Speaking of which, I don’t want to completely overlook the death of Penny Marshall, another inspired comic actress, one whose nasal Bronx-ese in Laverne & Shirley and other shows I’ll find hard to forget. Not just a performer, Marshall made the transition into directing, responsible for such big screen hits as Big and A League of Their Own. As a female director she was a pathfinder, and she will surely be missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment