Before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, before Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper , the worlds of professional wrestling and the movies had long been entwined. After all, they’re both show biz! Grapplers like Nat Pendleton , Mike Mazurki, Tor Johnson , Harold Sakata (GOLDFINGER’s Oddjob), and Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi in THE GODFATHER) made the successful transition from the squared circle to Hollywood, not to mention Mexican luchadores like El Santo and Mil Mascaras, who starred in the ring and in their own series of movies south of the border. Even early TV wrestling phenom Gorgeous George had his own feature film, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.
1981’s …ALL THE MARBLES was made just before the Hulkamania craze started a boom in pro wrestling’s popularity. It’s a serio-comic character study centering on small time manager Harry Sears and his two young charges Iris and Molly, better known as tag team The California Dolls. Harry and Iris have an on-again/off again relationship, while Molly pops pills to bolster her self-esteem. The trio traverse the highways and back roads of American trying to make a name for themselves, working in front of small crowds for low pay. When sleazebag promoter Eddie Cisco stiffs them over twenty bucks, Harry takes a baseball bat to Cisco’s Mercedes, making a big enemy in the insular wrestling world.
Harry manages to get the girls a non-title match against the champs The Toledo Tigers, a match they’re supposed to lose. But the Dolls, tired of third-rate paydays, pull a double-cross and pin the Tigers, earning them more animosity. When Harry can’t land his team a lucrative spot on a big card in Chicago, he books them in a mud wresting match at a small town fair. Iris and Molly are irate, refusing at first to participate in a “freak show”, prompting Harry to lose his temper, screaming “Every time you walk into a ring, you’re a freak. That’s what a wrestler is!”
After the humiliating fracas almost ends the partnership, the girls discover they’ve been ranked number three by a national magazine. Harry uses this leverage to get them that coveted Chicago spot, where they face their rivals the Tigers, losing this time around. However, Eddie Cisco’s in attendance, and wants the Dolls to appear at his big Christmas show in Reno against the Tigers for the title. He offers a $10,000 winner-take-all purse, with a catch… he wants to sleep with Iris. She takes one for the team, earning a smack from Harry for her degradation and betrayal, but the deed’s been done, and the California Dolls are in the big time.
Harry and Cisco place bet over who will win. Harry lays out dough to get the Dolls publicized, and gives them a grand entrance dressed as showgirls, carried on the shoulders of some muscular hunks. But what he doesn’t yet know is Cisco’s hired a crooked referee to ensure victory. Can the Dolls overcome the stacked deck and win the championship? Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending but, if you’ve seen sports movies like this, you can probably guess the answer.
Peter Falk’s charm makes the character of Harry work. He’s a walking contradiction, spouting Clifford Odets and Will Rogers quotes, listening to his favorite opera (Pagliacci, of course) in the car, while being tight with a buck and cheating on Iris. He’s “a lousy human being” as Molly says, but you can tell he genuinely cares for Iris and Molly, and at heart only wants the best for them. There aren’t many actors that could make a louse like Harry likeable, but Falk’s acting ability pulls it off.
Vicki Frederick (Iris) is good too, and was a dancer who worked with Bob Fosse. She was in the Broadway and film versions of A CHORUS LINE, and should have had a better career. Instead, she got stuck in junk like CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMIETOWN. Laurene Landon (Molly) had some good roles too, including Velma in I, THE JURY and the first two MANIAC COP films. The girls trained for this movie with wresting legend Mildred Burke, who held the women’s wrestling title for twenty years, and did their own wrestling in the film. The scenes are well choreographed, with moves that are still used in the wrestling business today (the more things change…). Burt Young’s appropriately sleazy as Cisco, aided by his bodyguard, the dimwitted Jerome (Lenny Montana). Mike Mazurki cameos as a referee, and L.A. sportscaster Chick Hearn appears as himself. Others in the cast you may recognize include Tracy Reed, Claudette Nevins, Clyde Kusatsu, Angela Aames, and footballer Mean Joe Greene.
When I saw Richard Jaeckel playing the crooked ref, I wondered what the hell is he doing here? The answer’s simple: he was doing a favor for his old friend director Robert Aldrich. …ALL THE MARBLES was Aldrich’s last film, after a career that saw him work on everything from film noir (KISS ME DEADLY, THE BIG KNIFE) to action epics (THE DIRTY DOZEN , EMPEROR OF THE NORTH) to horror (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, HUSH.. HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE) to comedy (THE LONGEST YARD). While this one’s far from his best, it’s certainly a unique addition to the Aldrich filmography, and worth watching for fans of both “rasslin'” and action movies.
(…ALL THE MARBLES is my contribution to the ” Athletes in Film Blogathon ” hosted by the wonderful Once Upon A Screen and Wide Screen World! Now playing at a blog near you!)