Another night, another wrestling match and the tag team of The California Dolls manage to win the evening - this time. They are Iris (Vicki Frederick) and Molly (Laurene Landon), two athletic girls who spend their time travelling the United States with their manager Harry Sears (Peter Falk) who always wants what's best for them, but might just be more looking after his own interests as they are his meal ticket after all. Every match they play features another fight in itself, to get enough money to cover their expenses and with a little luck to move higher up the rankings...
...All the Marbles will forever be remembered, if it's remembered at all, for being the final movie of one of the great American cult directors, Robert Aldrich, a man whose flops were almost as interesting as his hits, and whose hits were among the very best examples of his craft coming out of Hollywood in his career. This last film, as with many of his others, picked up a following mainly for its unusual subject matter as this was before wrestling really took off as an entertainment fit for the masses, and women's wrestling was rarely the draw that the men's matches were, no matter that they both featured the same amount of prowess.
As the two Dolls, dancer Frederick and future cult star, often in Larry Cohen movies, Landon did all their own stunts having been coached by legendary exponent of the craft Mildred Burke; if Oscars were given out for the amount of physical knocks the actresses took, these two would be nominated in the blink of an eye, managing to look as glamorous as possible under the circumstances. Those circumstances being flung around the ring for a good half of the movie, the rest of it taken up with the character stuff where they more than held their own against the more experienced wiles of co-star Falk, a veteran scene-stealer putting in similarly excellent work here.
These three were so good together it was a pity another vehicle was never found to put them together once more, you can believe in the banter they delivered from the script that they had indeed spent more time living hand to mouth and out of one anothers' pockets than they cared to recall, and many of the non-combat sequences featured the girls lamenting their lives had come to this while Harry attempts to buoy their spirits. Harry was a smooth talker all right, but he's not invincible, and he struggles to get his team the breaks they deserve, so when in the second half things begin to look up for them all, after a particularly humliating bout of topless mud wrestling, you are genuinely optimistic.
As much as this was a deliberately uplifting triumph against the odds comedy drama - or you begin to hope it is after getting to know them for two hours - Aldrich did not soft pedal the grim nature of the characters' existences. Yes, there was a lot to laugh at but you're always aware that a more serious scene was on its way, whether it's Molly's painkiller addiction or simply Iris's mortification that she was laughed at during one bout; these were tough women but they were not heartless. This is all building up to a contest that plays out in near-real time for the last half hour of the movie as the California Dolls get their chance at the big time against the reigning champions, a formidable duo who will take all their resources, including Harry's publicity drive, to bring them down. With Burt Young on great, untrustworthy form this may remind you of Rocky movies, possibly deliberately, but the match which climaxes this was far more exciting than most of that franchise because you don't know how cynical the conclusion of this too often unsung gem will be. Music by Frank De Vol.
I saw this on TV years ago under its alternate title: California Dolls. A fascinating swansong for Aldrich combining the twin themes that dominated his career: women under psychological pressure and misfits (more often male) trapped in a harsh environment that mirrors their psyche. Laurene Landon made two very odd films with cult director Matt Cimber that you might find interesting: Hundra and Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold.
8 Feb 2012
Unfortunately the UK DVD of Hundra is cut and the US one is v. expensive, but Yellow Hair is a possiblity.