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The final film by Robert Aldrich, the hard-edged American director of such tough-guy classics as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), drops the underdog sports drama into the barnstorming world of women's tag team wrestling on the rural circuit for a meandering, comic look at the intersection of sports, show business, and big dreams.
Iris and Molly (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon), who fight professionally as the California Dolls, and manager / promoter Harry Sears (Peter Falk) hustle their way through small-time matches, hostile crowds, crummy motel rooms and lousy burger joints in the American Midwest with an eye on the big time: the championship match in Reno. While they struggle to maintain their dignity (which comes under assault when they're booked into a county fair mud wrestling match), Harry plays the crusty but paternal veteran manager keeping them going with a mix of tough love and inspirational speeches, all delivered with Falk's gravelly voice, street-smart attitude, and wry humor.
Think Kansas City Bomber (1972) meets Rocky (1976) by way of a buddy road movie.This culture is as much show business fakery and ballyhoo as it is working class sports spectacle, a mix of big, broad wrestling theater (right down to scripted turnarounds and manufactured rivalries) and cheesecake fashion show with tough, sexy women in wrestling tights that could pass for bathing suits. In between, Harry and the girls banter while driving along the highways of America's rust belt in a broken-down car. Robert Aldrich was no stranger to sports stories in unusual cultures -- his The Longest Yard (1974) turns on a football game between semi-pro prison guards and a team of convicts put together for an exhibition match and is as much about dignity and self-respect as it is about victory -- but for all the drama of rigged matches and corrupt bookers, he applies a lighter touch to this story.
Peter Falk centers the film and carries the drama as the wise-cracking, endlessly-hustling Harry. There's a streak of vaudeville humor in Harry's patter, especially when he climbs into the ring to berate the refs and charge up the crowd as part of the spectacle, and Falk plays it up like a veteran showman, but he's also a street survivor who knows how to fix a dice game and wield a baseball bat to even the odds in a showdown with a couple of thugs. Falk was famed for playing TV detective Columbo but Harry is closer to the comic gangsters of Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) or the hard-boiled spoofs of Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978), a guy from the streets who loves opera and understands showmanship. Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review, cited this as one of Falk's best performances.
Aldrich cast Vicki Frederick, a veteran Broadway dancer (she subsequently starred in the film version of A Chorus Line, 1985) as the battle-scarred older member of the team, a resilient woman toughened up from being bounced around the business. For the younger, more idealistic Molly, he gave fledgling actress Laurene Landon her first (and still most prominent) major role. The blonde, buxom beauty went on to star in such B-movies as Hundra (1983) and Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold (1984) and a number of Larry Cohen productions. Both actresses won their roles after rigorous audition process. They underwent a wrestling boot camp to prepare for the physical demands of the roles and performed most of their own stunts.
Costume designer Bob Mackie, famed for designing splashy, sparkly gowns for Cher, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, and Whitney Houston as well as outfitting The Carol Burnett Show, captures the cheap, spangly, blue-collar glamour of the world with his simple, sexy leotards in the ring, the frumpy traveling clothes off the mat, and the marvelously garish Egyptian princess-meets-space alien costumes for their big entrance for the final face-off. It defines the outrageous theater that Harry concocts to transform their championship match into a big, crowd-rousing event.
Aldrich also brought in a couple of familiar faces from his previous films, Burt Young (Twilight's Last Gleaming and The Choirboys, both 1977) as a sleazy, mob-connected promoter and Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen and Ulzana's Raid, 1972) as a referee with dubious credentials. And for the final match, which takes place at the MGM Grand Hotel in Reno (where the California Dolls finally get their names up in lights), real-life football star Mean Joe Green appears as himself, the celebrity master of ceremonies for the main event.
The film was a box office disappointment in the U.S. but was a hit overseas and Aldrich was reportedly working on a sequel. He was, however, in ill health, and soon after completing The California Dolls he underwent surgery that resulted in kidney failure. He died on December 5, 1983.
Producer: William Aldrich
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Mel Frohman; Michael Barrie, Rich Eustis, Jim Mulholland (all uncredited)
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Art Direction: Beala Neel
Music: Frank De Vol
Film Editing: Richard Lane, Irving C. Rosenblum
Cast: Peter Falk (Harry Sears), Vicki Frederick (Iris), Laurene Landon (Molly), Burt Young (Eddie Cisco), Tracy Reed (Diane, Toledo Tiger), Ursaline Bryant (June, Toledo Tiger), Claudette Nevins (Solly, Woman Promoter), Richard Jaeckel (Bill Dudley (Reno referee)), John Hancock (Big John' Stanley, TTs Promoter), Lenny Montana (Jerome, Eddie's Bodyguard)
By Sean Axmaker
"Robert Aldrich," ed. Richard Combs. BFI, 1978.
"What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?," Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight, 1995.
"Aldrich's All the Marbles," review by Vincent Canby. New York Times, October 16, 1981.