With the recent passing of Peter Falk I decided to take a second look at this Robert Aldrich comedy about female tag team wrestlers, which I haven't seen since it made the rounds on cable in the early 1980s. The result was less of a rowdy comedy than I remembered and more of a character study of three desperate people.
The film doesn't try to reinvent the wheel with its plot. Harry Sears (Falk) is manager of the small time wrestling team known as the California Dolls, made up of Molly (Laurene Landon) and Harry's former lover, Iris (Vicki Frederick). We follow the Dolls as they travel from town to town, getting physically punished on a nightly basis while Harry struggles to get their meager pay from sleazy promoters. Eventually the Dolls are featured in a national wrestling magazine which leads them to an opportunity to take part in a nationally televised championship bout against their arch rivals, the Toledo Tigers.
What I suspect this film gets right is the unglamorous portrayal of life on the road. Traveling from one small town to the next, living in motel rooms, eating nothing but fast food and getting beaten up for a living all for the sake of a $250 payday (which has to be split three ways) is very strongly conveyed. Also the humiliation the Dolls feel when they are contracted to wrestle in mud at a small town fair seems very real. These are obviously people with nowhere else to go. The wrestling scenes are brutal, especially the final match. Landon and Frederick went through intensive training for the film and it looks like some very real punishment was being inflicted in these scenes.
According to an IMDB message board post, Aldrich had the film taken away from him during post-production by MGM who recut it to emphasize the comedy. The original cut supposedly included several subplots that were either dropped or heavily modified including Molly's lesbianism and Harry and Iris' violent history. Looking at the film it's pretty easy to see where material was cut. For example, almost every character mentions what a terrible person Harry is but in the film he's pretty much the lovable scoundrel that became Falk's stock character in his post Columbo years. There are only two scenes that hint of a darker side to his character. One of those is played for laughs and the second (which I won't spoil) is pretty shocking considering that the film had been a fairly light comedy drama up to that point.
As it stands, this is an enjoyable film with a bit more substance than you'd expect. However, it's too bad if this is a compromised version of the film. This was Aldrich's last film and he deserved better for his swan song. Also, it sounds like the original cut added more layers to Falk's character which is probably what attracted him to the project in the first place. Still, there are worse ways to spend two hours. Watch it and be pleasantly surprised.
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