Fighting Femmes

I’ve thought for a long time that “action” actresses in particular have had a very raw deal when it comes to recognition of their efforts. There are exceptions – Sigourney Weaver in ‘Alien/s/3’ – but the vast majority never get a mention. So, in answer to the millions of miles of paper used to repeat the same details over and over again about Segal, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, etc, here is a modest tribute to the fighting fairer sex.

The most obvious, and best, source of films featuring lethal ladies is the Far East where stars such as Yukari Oshima, Michelle & Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee and Michiko Nishiwaki all prove themselves capable of throwing a good punch. However, these are as much martial artistes who can act as the other way round, so let’s concentrate on their American counterparts, on actresses who’ve demonstrated varying levels of skill in combat…

Where else to start but with ‘California Dolls’? This is full of first class female wrestling, as Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon fight their way from the bottom of the bill to become champions, though to earn some desperately needed money they have to take part in a mud wrestling bout, which becomes a topless match. Considering that Frederick and Landon are first and foremost actresses, the action looks pretty authentic.

This may be the most obvious and best known example, but the genre is much older – it can be considered to have begun with Marlene Dietrich, and her classic brawl with Una Merkel in ‘Destiny’. This is one of, if not the first, real female fight to appear in a major film, and is still thought to be one of the best.

One area that can virtually be relied upon to contain a good catfight is the women-in-prison film – ‘Chained Heat’, ‘The Naked Cage’, ‘Delinquent College Girls’, etc, etc. In ‘Hellhole’, for example, there’s quite a brutal fight between the statuesque Edy Williams (recently seen brawling in ‘Bad Girls From Mars’) and Ann-Elizabeth Chatterton. Now, as it takes place in a room adjoining the showers, you won’t be surprised to hear that Edy is topless, and Ann-Elizabeth starts in bra and pants, though the former goes about two seconds into the bout. Rather than a scratch-and­bite catfight, both actresses swing punches like men – one right cross from Williams sends Chatterton backwards over a table – and the pair briefly team up to deal with a hefty nurse who tries to stop the fight.

Almost as entertaining to watch, though for sheer awfulness, are the more badly staged fights, Take ‘The Wrecking Crew’, one of the Matt Helm spoof series, which had a fight between the late Sharon Tate and Nancy Kwan. It is very obvious that the kicks and punches miss by miles, as are the points where the stuntwoman took over for Tate (though Kwan does appear to do her own action). Just as bad/good for different reasons is the battle in the ‘Men from UNCLE’ film ‘The Spy in the Green Hat’, featuring the lovely Janet Leigh against Letitia Roman, and mostly taking place in a large office on top of a huge round glass table. It starts as a knife fight, though the knives are lost, without actually being used, in the first five seconds. After some rolling around the table top, we see the two girls going round on hands and knees, glaring at each other, while the camera alternately goes down Roman’s (impressive) cleavage and lingers on Leigh’s long legs (shown to full advantage by her hiked up skirt). They finally get to their feet and clasp hands in a show of strength before one breaks the hold and knocks the other out with a right uppercut.

I won’t spoil the film by revealing who wins…

There are a couple of interesting gaps in the field. While Sybil Danning may be the Queen of Action Films, I can’t remember having seen her in a cat-fight. And British films are conspicuous by their absence, though I understand that, a few years ago, there was a comedy, possibly featuring Mike & Bernie Winters (a “comedy” in it’s loosest definition, obviously) – with a lovely leading lady of the time, Anne Aubrey. I’m told there was a “sensational” catfight in a laundry, with numerous other battles going on in the background. Everyone got soaked and a lot of clothing was shed, but can anyone come up with any details? Like the title?

Space is tight, and I haven’t even covered the fighting females of TV, including Joan Collins, Heather Thomas, Heather Locklear and Emma Samms ­maybe next time! But here’s ten more films you may care to keep a (black) eye open for:

  • Deathstalker – Introduces the new pub sport of Gratuitous Mud Wrestling. The same footage was reused, equally gratuitously, in Deathstalker 2 & 3.
  • Django – Two saloon girls fight in the ‘street’ (above), but since this is no more than the muddy bit between two rows of buildings, it all gets VERY messy.
  • Eye of the Cat – An “oldie but goodie”. Gayle Hunnicutt and Jennifer Leak. As this is the swinging sixties, it’s mini-skirt time. Oh, and colour co-ordinated underwear was in vogue.
  • Fresno – This American series was a parody of ‘Dallas’/’Dynasty’ and so naturally had to include a parody of the Linda Evans/Joan Collins cat­fights. Teri Garr, Valerie Mahaffey and some platefuls of baked beans…
  • The Man Behind the Gun – not to be confused with ‘The Man Behind the Sun’, though that has a cat-fight too (in which the cat loses). This is a 1952 Western pitting Patrice Wymore (better known for musicals) against Lina Romay. Pan, chair and crockery-fu.
  • Mugsy’s Girls – A mud wrestling contest provides the opportunity for a series of short fights. Worth noting, for the fact that one of the wrestlers is singer Laura Branigan.
  • The Night They Took Miss Beautiful – Victoria Principal versus Sheree North, on a beach. Lots of decent moves, and a surprising lack of stand­ins given the actresses have a combined age of 76!
  • Total Recall – If nothing else, probably the biggest budget catfight ever, between Sharon Stone and Rachael Ticotin.
  • The Under Achievers – The fabulous Barbara Carrera tangles with Susan Tyrrell in one of the best (and longest) American cat-fights. The actresses play school officials and the battle goes through school corridors, class­rooms, walls and windows, then carries on outside. Played for laughs, but still very rough.