Film Review: The Top Rope (dir by Cody Broadway)


About halfway through the 20 minute documentary, The Top Rope, a soft-spoken, bearded man named Billy Gray says, “It’s how I’m wired.”

Billy is explaining why he spends most of his time playing a character named Hunter Grey, a viking who is, at one point, seen carrying a big axe.  (By being a viking, he explains, he can make people laugh while still being believably intimidating.)  Billy, who was a championship wrestler in high school and who comes from a long line of wrestlers, now makes his living traveling the pro wrestling circuit in Colorado.  It’s hardly glamorous.  Billy tells us stories about having to change in parking lots and says that if you have a locker room, you should consider yourself to be lucky.  He also tells us about how his family was initially dismissive of his career and how it took a while before they actually started coming to his matches.  But, whenever we actually see Billy performing and in the ring, we understand why he does it.  The crowds love watching him.  When Billy Gray’s in that ring, he’s a star.

Billy is one of several wrestlers to be interviewed in The Top Rope.  Considering that one of the main appeals of pro-wrestling is the flamboyance of the people involved, it’s tempting to be surprised to discover that, outside the ring, the majority of the participants come across as being rather soft-spoken.  Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all.  One of the joys of performing, after all, is assuming a new and different persona.

For instance, a wrestler named Zach Anaya is obviously somewhat bemused with his villain status but, when we see him in the ring, we see someone who is truly enjoying playing his role.  A scene in which he jumped off a ledge and landed on top of two wrestlers below left me cringing because you could tell that, for all the talk about how pro-wrestling matches are essentially a type of performance art, the participants can still get seriously injured.  Scripted or not scripted, you have to be willing to push yourself to extremes in order to pursue it.

Also interviewed is Curtis Cole, a wrestler who rather touchingly talks about how he used to watch wrestling with his mother.  You get the feeling that, to a certain extent, he’s wrestling in her memory.  Cole also discusses the importance of having a storyline in the ring.  Without a storyline, it’s just two guys jumping on each other.  With a storyline, it becomes an epic battle of good and evil.  Cole tears up while discussing once past storyline and I have to admit that he got so emotional that even I, who has never even watched a wrestling match, started to get emotional too.  In a film full of great storytellers, Curtis Cole might be the best.

This documentary was directed by Cody Broadway, who previously directed 4 Quarters of Silence, a film about the Texas School for The Deaf’s football team.  He brings the same empathetic touch to this film.  Though the film did not make me a pro wrestling fan (to misquote Billy Gray, it’s just not how I’m wired), it did make me a fan of the men who were interviewed and it made me happy that they have this in their lives.  We’re all wired differently but, as this film demonstrates, there’s a place for all of us if we’re willing to look for it.

In Memorian 2018: Pro Wrestling


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The squared circle tolled ten bells for “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino , probably the most popular wrestler of his generation, who died at age 82. Bruno held the WWWF/WWF (now WWE) world title longer than anyone, 11 years in two title reigns (1963-71, 1973-77), took on and defeated all comers, and sold out New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden a record 188 times. Sammartino was a legit tough guy who once held the record in the bench press (565 pounds), and had a no-nonsense rep backstage. You just didn’t mess with Bruno! He appeared at the first WRESTLEMANIA, in the movie BODY SLAM, and was indicted into numerous Halls of Fame celebrating his almost thirty year career. A hero to millions of grappling fans (including Yours Truly), there will never be another Bruno Sammartino.

Many of Bruno’s in-ring foes also took the three-count in 2018. Pittsburgh native ‘Luscious’ Johnny…

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American Idol: RIP Bruno Sammartino


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Bruno Sammartino, who passed away yesterday at age 82, wasn’t just a professional wrestler. He was an institution, an icon, a true American Dream success story, a hero to millions of kids now “of a certain age” (like me), and the biggest box-office star of his era, selling out New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden a record 187 times. He held the WWWF (now WWE) Heavyweight championship for close to twelve years during his two title reigns, facing the best in the business and vanquishing them all. Face it, Bruno was THE MAN!

The Man himself was born in Italy in 1935, and as a child hid from the Nazis in the Italian mountains. Coming to America in 1950 and settling in Pittsburgh,  Bruno was a sickly, scrawny child who couldn’t speak English, and was bullied in school. This caused the young lad to begin working out with weights, and…

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The Human Orchid: Gorgeous George in ALIAS THE CHAMP (Republic 1949)


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WWE’s annual “Wrestlemania” extravaganza is scheduled for Sunday night in New Orleans, so I thought I’d dig up something wrestling related for tonight’s post… 

George Raymond Wagner (1915-1963), better known by the nom de guerre Gorgeous George, helped sell more television sets in the late 40’s/early 50’s than anyone this side of ‘Uncle’ Milton Berle . Professional wrestling was on the airwaves six nights a week, on every network, and Americans were clamoring to get a glimpse of the flamboyant antics of the  bleached-blonde, sequin-robed “sissy” who grappled like a wild tiger inside the squared circle. But TV sets were over many an Average Joe’s budget back in those days, so Republic Pictures took the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, signing “The Toast of the Coast” to star in his own movie, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

Gorgeous George in his heyday

The movie itself is nothing…

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Pre-Code Confidential #13: Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH (MGM 1932)


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Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917,  had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”.  The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.

Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive…

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Tag Team Turmoil: …ALL THE MARBLES (MGM 1981)


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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.

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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…

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