CED: … All the Marbles / California Dolls (1981)

December 17, 2016 | By

AllTheMarbles_CED_bFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Poor

Extras: n/a

Label:  MGM/UA

Region: NTSC

Released:  1982

Genre:  Comedy

Synopsis: Women’s tag team The California Dolls goes for the $10,000 prize and top position in a Las Vegas bout with brutal rivals The Toledo Tigers.

Special Features:  (none)




Robert Aldrich’s final film as director is a suitable career swan song, packed with the type of working class characters, tough circumstances, and raw language typical of his rough comedic work, and reverberating with memorable performances by a veteran and two newcomers.

Written by new scribe Mel Frohman (plus uncredited contributions by a quartet of writers), …All the Marbles (released as California Dolls in the U.K.) is set in the world of women’s wrestling, filmed at a time when the sport and its theatricality were treated as exotica by TV, especially mud wrestling in the late 70s and early 80s (but more on that later).

Peter Falk has a field day playing Harry Sears, the streetwise, streetsmart, and quite comfortable ‘poor lover and lousy human being’ to the California Dolls, the wrestling tag team comprised of Iris (Vicki Frederick) and Molly (Maniac Cop’s Laurene Landon).

The film’s first section lays in the tense relationship among the trio as manager bends and omits a few facts to score gigs for the team, but is willing to fight for their fare share when they’re being cheated by slimy promoters, like Eddie Cisco (scene-stealing Rocky’s Burt Young).

The ring matches become embarrassing, the pay is terrible, and the dirty nadir comes when Iris and Molly agree to a mud wrestling bout at a carnival being mounted by the local Kiwanis Club. With tops torn and breasts slimed, the trio’s team spirit has bottomed out and seething contempt starts to overtly corrode already tense relationships.

The film’s strongest element is also its most controversial – Harry exploiting two athletes by pushing a dream that’s become impossible, and manipulating emotions and sometimes belting former lover Iris in the face to regain control when temperaments run high. Where Harry’s lost the ability to get quality matches – even the fixed ones involve dirty plays – Iris and Molly are considering their future in a sport they clearly love: they’re wrestlers first and entertainers last. None of the characters in Marbles is an Einstein, but they’re savvy and transcend the limits of mediocre gigs in dirty working class locales, trying to make a decent living amid skimmed pay, bad plays, double-crossing, and sometimes fleeing town from enforcers.

In a surprise that’s also unique to the pre-internet era, the California Dolls learn of their third ranking in American tag team wrestling not through TV or radio, but the latest hardcopy issue of a wrestling magazine, which rekindles a vicious grudge match against the Toledo Tigers who play rough and rude.

Once in Reno at the MGM Grand, the film builds towards the epic tag team battle that pits the Tigers against the Dolls, white wrestlers against black, and the Dolls against their own good of good sportsmanship, having to adopt dirty plays to better their savvy opponents Diane (Tracy Reed), June (Ursaline Bryant), and manager Big John Stanley (John Hancock).

The script may organize the nuances of Harry’s sly tactics to ensure a necessary win with cinematic neatness, but Aldrich choreographs that magnificent final act into a series of intersecting plays which affect the Dolls’ entrance to the ring, the twists and turns of the half-hour grudge match, and the finale that will net the winner $10,000.

Like the film’s prior scenes, real locations and a documentary camera style add to the finale, but Aldrich dramatizes the Tigers vs. Dolls as a modern gladiator match with working class Romans showing approval and disgust in voice, thumbs down, booing and raucous cheering. It’s also a sly commentary on the theatricality of the sport.

Landon and Frederick give their characters depth, humour, guts, and dignity, while Falk plays Harry for what he is: a complete shit, but with just enough genuine love for the Dolls that he’s willing to defend them when fair play is expunged from the ring. The length and dramatic arc of the grudge match builds an increasing degree of outrage among the Dolls trio when a crooked referee (Dirty Dozen’s Richard Jaeckel) allows both Dolls to be battered by the Tigers with utter impunity, but Aldrich achieves something quite clever: by prolonging the Dolls’ torment, when the referee gets some payback, the viewer (us) cheers for the same degree of blood and bone-crunching revenge as the wrestling audience.

When the dirty ref’s face gets smashed onto the mat, we wanna see blood.

Aldrich’s characters are tough working class, fighters against manipulative bastards, and victims of violence struggling against lousy odds to achieve peace, if not dignity, and his final film grabs all many favourite themes and packs them into a funny, audacious, gripping comedy-drama that purges the sentimentality of Rocky (1976) from this sports underdog template and extracts humour from bitterness, and the unfairness that often erodes away innocence and hope. The grudge match is ultimately won by sacrificing some blood, ethics, and revenge – making this tale of underdogs the perfect cynical antidote for genre fans wanting something a bit closer to reality than a classic Hollywood sports saga with a raucous, teary Yay finale.

Like Aldrich’s prior films, Marbles is packed with a stellar group of character actors, including Claudette Nevins (The Mask) as cold sports promoter, Clyde Kusatsu as a Japanese promoter who pops up briefly after the film’s vicious opening match, and character actor / former wrestler Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), unbilled as a slightly crooked referee.

Longtime composer Frank DeVol wrote very few original cues but piles on Pagliacci excerpts which is a perfect musical summation of the Dolls’ struggle, Joseph Biroc’s gritty cinematography captures the soot and sweaty air of the wrestling circuit, and TV editors Richard Lane and Irving Rosenblum orchestrate the wrestling matches into dizzying dances where the dramatic peaks involve slams, flips, punches, and nasty headshots.

At present, All the Marbles is only available on DVD via Warner Archives in the U.S. and widescreen in the U.K. This review was sourced from a CED video disc, which contains a full frame transfer akin to the simultaneous VHS release.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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