Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Sadly, 1981’s … All the Marbles was the last movie director Robert Aldrich lived to make. The renegade filmmaker – the man behind movies as diverse and bold as Kiss Me Deadly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Dirty Dozen, and The Longest Yard – died at his home in 1983 at age 65.
The failure of the movie, which depicts the journey to redemption for two women’s wrestling tag team partners (The California Dolls - Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) and their cheap and grumpy but ultimately good-hearted manager (Peter Falk), “sealed Aldrich’s fate in Hollywood,” according to The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller.
Aldrich worked on several projects in the final years of his life as he battled serious health issues, but … All the Marbles would mark the end of an incredibly productive but often turbulent career that began in 1941 as a production clerk for RKO.
“Aldrich agonized over its failures for months, reviewing it, rethinking it,” Arnold and Miller write. “It had been, to him, a heartfelt and ultimately positive film. If he tempered its warmth with a dose of irony and cynicism, it was still a testament to his sense of humanity, although one buffeted by the realties and cruelties of a hard world.”
This look at … All the Marbles marks the debut of The Society Pages, a section of the website dedicated to the movies, actors, directors, and others behind the flicks that the cheap and grumpy but ultimately good-hearted members of the cult movie group known as the Brew City Psychotronic Society have watched together; that number currently stands at 149.
Here are a few tidbits about … All the Marbles:
Why not start with something I have already mentioned: The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, a 1986 book that offers fascinating insight into … All the Marbles and the rest of Aldrich’s often incredible output. The title of the chapter in which they discuss … All the Marbles plays on the name of one of his most famous movies, but it also gives you an idea of how Aldrich’s career was going at the time: “What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?” As he headed into the movie, “he knew he had lost much of the bargaining power which had enabled him to make so many of his best works.” With … All the Marbles, Aldrich initially aimed at a more commercially focused movie with straight comedic appeal. “It's purely, totally commercial,” he told a Boston Globe reporter who came to the set during filming. “It fits in with my philosophy, which is that the process is at best a craft, not art.” But Arnold and Miller describe how the movie became less comic as filming progressed. Location shooting in Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, provoked a sense of the devastation that the then current recession had inflicted on Middle America. This sense of downbeat realism is very much evident, but the movie is still quite funny, both in the interplay of Falk and Frederick and Landon as they drive from gig to gig, as well as the depiction of the politics of wrestling. “In its own sneaky way, … All the Marbles becomes a parody of the other come-from-behind, spiritually-invigorating films which feed our national mythos,” they write. “Once again, Aldrich undermines the very genre he seems to employ at least to a degree.”
Another book about Aldrich, Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich, by Tony Williams, compares … All the Marbles to “old Warner Bros. musicals about putting on a show and beating the depression, with Iris (Frederick) and Molly (Landon) as working showgirls and Harry Sears (Falk) as a cynical, streetwise Aldrich version of those early producers played by Warner Baxter in 42nd Street (1933) and James Cagney in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). For those of a more exploitation mindset, 1972’s great Unholy Rollers about the wild world of roller derby, starring the one-and-only Claudia Jennings, also might make a damn good double feature with … All the Marbles.
This interview from a Canadian sports website with Landon from 2006 is full of great information about … All the Marbles and her career. Landon explains how she and Frederick were chosen from an initial casting call that brought in 2,000 women. Before their roles were secured, they had to attend a wrestling school run by Mildred Burke, the legendary female wrestler, and undergo weeks of training. They continued to go to the gym to learn wrestling after the Screen Actors’ Guild went on strike during their training. Landon even broke her foot during the training, but she kept going. It all paid off obviously; they not only got the roles, but their work in the ring was consistently praised in reviews of the movie. In the interview, Landon also talks about some of the ups and downs she and Frederick had with Aldrich (e.g., naked mud wrestling), turning down a role on GLOW out of fear of being typecast, and body slamming Dudley Moore on the Tonight Show while promoting the movie.
The late New York Times writer Judy Klemesrud (who also apparently wrote the first Trump profile) asked Aldrich in 1981 why he picked such “slim and gorgeous” women for the roles of Iris and Molly, considering most female wrestlers were “squat, muscular and unattractive.” “I think the public likes to see attractive people. I know I like to see attractive people,” he said. “So if you’re going to have two women wrestlers, why not have them attractive?” The attractiveness of Frederick and Landon seemed to be too much for Gene Seiskel, who trashed the movie as “mindless fluff” during Sneak Previews. He believed it was wholly unbelievable that two women as beautiful as the California Dollls would have any trouble being wrestling stars immediately. Seiskel seemed to be offended that a movie about what the Christian Science Monitor called the “sordid milieu of female professional wrestling” was even made.
More on women’s wrestling and on the aforementioned Mildred Burke can be found in her autobiography by Jeff Lenn, The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds and the Making of an American Legend.” Lenn discusses Burke’s experience working on … All the Marbles: “It was the most serious and expensive film treatment ever given to women’s wrestling and Burke worked on it for months. She trained the actresses in her gym – she worked with the Dolls alone for more than two months – putting them through their paces with her own wrestlers and teaching them the crooked-leg head scissor and other holds.” MGM paid her $3,000 a week for her work during the film, which brought renewed attention to Burke, then 65.
… All the Marbles can be found on Amazon.