Carol Channing in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) - Supporting Actress Sundays

A few To Dos Days ago, I posed a challenge to you, lovely reader: nominate your choice for "worst" supporting actress nomination. I confess to being somewhat startled by the blazing fury registered against this week's nominee. True, I have always been mildly alarmed by this legendary performer, her willing self-caricature seemingly always on the precipice of collapsing upon itself into some negative vortex, some actorly black hole of self-referential suckage. (And, yes, any performer who makes Miss Piggy seem well-balanced and sane, well...) But, in spite of all that, I do have a soft spot for the sublimely implausibly nomination awarded to the utterly crackers work of...

approximately 19 minutes and 34 seconds
14 scenes

roughly 15% of film's total running time

Carol Channing plays Muzzy, the absurdly wealthy "jazz baby" who becomes a "thoroughly modern" role model for the titular Millie (Julie Andrews in a competent but leaden performance).

Thoroughly Modern Millie is a most unfortunate creature. The 1967 film seems poised to be a buoyant, whimsical spoof of 1920s cultural quirks, a giddy riff perhaps on the inadvertent silliness of culturally turbulent times. What emerges, however, is a lugubrious trudge of a film, an oozing syrupy glop lacking the effervescence to make it pop. For the most part, the film becomes an utterly humorless conglomeration of painfully unfunny slapstick and dreadfully miscast icons (the torture of sitting through the film seems only slightly less than the misery Beatrice Lillie appears to have experienced actually making it), ostensibly "organized" around an incoherent "white slavery panic" narrative offensive both for its casual racism as well as its insipid gonging execution. Only one aspect of the entire film comes anywhere close to working: Carol Channing's performance.

In crafting Muzzy, Channing draws effectively upon her peculiar skill set as a performer. Her breakneck jibjabbery line readings. Her masklike grin complicated by her astonishingly expressive eyes. Her indomitable verve. All the aspects that must have made her stage version of Dolly Levi such a legendary, formidable success appear on display here.

For indeed, Channing's Muzzy is a force/freak of nature, able to do whatever's required of her with an unconcerned willingness that's at once glib and infectious. In Millie, Channing is required to perform as the film's recurring non-sequitur, infusing energy and focus whenever she appears. (I daresay the film would have died the slow death of a dinosaur stuck in sludge had Channing's Muzzy not popped up periodically to goose it along.)

And whatever the role obliges, Channing does it with a wide grin, always apparently impelled by the trouper's mantra: "Faster! Louder! Funnier!" (Click pics above to enlarge and see just a few of Channing's adventures.) Whether drinking champagne during a high flying dogfight. Whether being hurled about by a band of merry circus acrobats while singing a song that sounds to be about date rape. Whether hurtling through the air as a human cannonball. Whether delivering the insipid, tripartite moral of the film's story. Whatever wherever whenever, Channing's always apparently having the time of her life. (Itself a formidable accomplishment in a project that seems so palpably depressed.)

Perhaps most curiously, Channing seems to be the only principal performer to "get" the ostensible joke of the film and have the comic chops to deliver on it. Furthermore, Channing breaks ranks and actually LISTENS to her scene partners, even when she's deliriously spinning her own schticky webs.

Muzzy is perhaps Millie's most "active" character, but Channing's performance is the film's most effectively "reactive." Throughout, Channing's wide eyes express the film's only emotional intelligence and subtext, an essential contribution in charting the plausibility of the film's main comic conceit, revealed only in the film's penultimate moments.

All of which is to say: Good for you, Ms. Channing. You withstood the gale force of soul-sucking banality that is Thoroughly Modern Millie. I remain uncertain how the hell this performance snagged a nomination, but I am duly impressed by your peculiar fortitude within it...

Now, if someone can just explain to me: what the hell is "Raspberries!" actually supposed to mean?


Scott said...

I really like this review. Would she be my choice for the Oscar out of this set of nominees? No. But there definitely is an appealing spirit to this performance - and if it wasn't there in the way that it is, this movie would be much worse without it.

RBurton said...

I'm sorry, but Carol Channing creates the soul-sucking banality in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Your caps definitely hint at how difficult it is even to look at her!

I'm kinder to the film itself. I especially love the line: "Operator, you have obviously never been trapped in a Chinese opium den!"

StinkyLulu said...

Hmmmm. But how do you really feel, RBurton? Hee.

(Note to self: Research the possibility of hiring Carol Channing to deliver singing telegrams to a certain young man in Missouri -- every day at dawn for a week, perhaps?)

RBurton said...

I'll never sleep soundly again. Thank you.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Stinkylu, thanks for understanding that when an actress is given a character to play named "Muzzy" who proclaims "Raspberries!!" after getting shot out of a cannon, a subdued approach is not in order. Could anyone else have brought this jazz baby off at all? I agree the lifeforce that is Ms. Channing gets it right in Millie (and she's still going strong: go over to YouTube and type in "Razzle Dazzle Channing" and prepared to be amazed).

As Muzzy, she may be playing to the rafters, but in this case Channing's relentless high spirits are in synch with the role. She's having such a good time a viewer just goes along with all those "Raspberries!!" as, in Channing's hands, they obviously mean a lot to Muzzy (she appears to know what the expression means, even if no one else, in or out of the movie, can figure it out).

Cal said...

What's with the hate for the film? I watched it last night and really liked it. It's vibrant, full of energy, and doesn't drag at all. It's maybe a bit too silly at times (definitely the ending) but it's got some interesting stuff in it from a feminist perspective. I liked it anyway.

I'll save my comments about Channing for the Smackdown :-)

whip-smart said...

I actually found the film very entertaining. It was kind of awkward at the beginning, but the awkwardness was what made it funny. I loved Mary Tyler Moore's Paris Hilton approach:

Cab Driver: Who signs a check for 35 cents?
Dorothy: (dreamily) Oh, *I* do!

and John Gavin gave a SWELL send-up. I also loved Julie Andrews's looks at the camera just before the subtitles are inserted. But Carol Channing is officially the most awesome person on Earth... she made the film for me, completely. I agree that Beatrice Lillie seemed somewhat strained, but that was probably the intention... "Oh, pook!"

I'm now going to sing "Jazz Baby" at my American Idol audition.

Jason Wright said...

I just don't see how you could be so negative about the movie. It's fun and enjoyable. I think you lack a sense of humor