Norma Rae and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore Meet The Longest Yard. Sony Pictures' fun Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Oklahoma City Dolls, the 1981 made-for-TV comedy/drama/sports movie starring Susan Blakely, Eddie Albert, Ronee Blakley, Waylon Jennings, Savannah Smith, David Huddleston, Judyann Elder, Robert Easton, Lynne Moody, and Jack Ging. Directed with his usual efficient snap by E.W. Swackhamer, The Oklahoma City Dolls may not be terribly original in either design or execution...while its politics will probably seem stone age to newer viewers. However, its never-fail "rooting for the underdog" framework pleases as expected, along with some good moments in the performances department. No extras for this sharp-looking full-screen transfer.
Divorced and harried single mom Sally Jo Purkey (Susan Blakely) is fed up with the inequities between the male and female workers at the Homa City Valve Company--particularly the custom of having to cover the men's shifts without benefit of overtime, while the boys practice football for the company team. Spurred on by the arrival of Fed Equal Opportunity overseer John Miller (Robert Hooks), Sally Jo pins down manager J.D. Hines (David Huddleston) on giving the female employees recreational time off, too, and gets it...to play football. The other women on the line aren't happy about that stipulation, nor are their husbands and families, but once they see how determined Hines and his obnoxious line supervisor C.C. Jamespon (Jack Ging) are at seeing the women fail, the ladies gird their loins and hire down-on-his-luck coach Homer Sixx (Eddie Albert) to properly train the hapless lasses. Ironically, in these still-early days of the feminist movement, once Sally Jo and her teammates become reasonably proficient, that's when the pressure really heats up to stop them, from fast receiver Valene Burns' (Ronee Blakley) husband knocking her around even more than usual, to Sally Jo's steady, fellow factory worker Wayne Doak (Waylon Jennings), scootin' off with a more ladylike filly.
I don't remember catching The Oklahoma City Dolls back in '81 when it originally aired, but I've always had a soft spot for the underrated Susan Blakely (so good in projects like The Lords of Flatbush, Rich Man, Poor Man, and a TV movie, Secrets, that's a forgotten knockout), so I grabbed it quick from the screener pool. If, like me, you grew up on these weekly made-for-TV movies in the 70s and 80s, the look and feel and sound of The Oklahoma City Dolls will immediately take you back to those supposedly "edgy" network television days that now, humorously, look positively quaint compared to the regular fare aired on the tube and cable today. Regardless of whether or not The Oklahoma City Dolls was shooting for raucous sports comedy or stinging feminist rebuke in its context, ultimately nothing too upsetting is shown, as per general network practices and standards of the day (we don't see Ronee Blakley actually get beat up, for instance).
The Oklahoma City Dolls' wavering tone, though, isn't all due to network amelioration. Screenwriter Ann Beckett (mostly TV offerings, including Rich Man, Poor Man" Book II) jumps somewhat uneasily between the serious subtext of her story--Susan Blakely's downbeat life, hampered by the current societal and gender expectations--and the more broadly comedic elements involved in Blakely's fight against factory management as well as all the football sequences. Most of the factory gags with an overplaying Ging are fairly lame, but the gridiron training sequences score consistent if low-key laughs, with frustrated, enraged Albert getting off some enthusiastic one-liners ("Any of you broads know what a football looks like?" after a funny tracking shot showing the motley team's mismatched uniforms), and a particularly amusing sequence where all the women, giving Albert their vital statistics, claim to be 5' 7" and 125 pounds. Admirably, though, Beckett avoids the obvious Bad News Bears trap of focusing more closely on Albert's dysfunctional coach, choosing rightly to remain on Blakely's struggles with the men in her life. And when The Oklahoma City Dolls stays on that tact, it's quietly effective.
Beckett lays out a convincing case for the difficulties faced by women in a late 70s American society that claimed to be equal by this point in our history...but wasn't (the games manager Huddleston plays to keep the women workers down aren't at all far-fetched in their company-approved childishness). Add to that the restrictive expectations put upon Blakely's character by her family and friends--her mother advising her to marry to solve her problems, since to be "happy" she must "accept a lot;" her lover telling her she's not lady-like enough for him to feel comfortable about their relationship; and all the married women getting guff from their pampered husbands...or worse--and what you wind up with is a minor-chord but valuable "woman's drama" amid all the football hijinks.
The final football game wraps up all the problems far too neatly (Blakely is pretty quick to forgive cheating oaf Jennings, while Huddleston makes a bizarrely sympathetic case for the way "things used to be" at his discriminating factory), but the previous groundwork, while laid inconsistently, sticks with us, as do the generally good performances. Oscar-nominee Ronee Blakley doesn't have much to do here (she disappears towards the middle of the movie), but welcome support from sultry Savannah Smith (memorable the year before in North Dallas Forty), Judyann Elder (she gets the biggest laughs), sexy Lynne Moody (all kinds of fine here), and Robert Easton (too bad he wasn't on-screen more), all put in good work here. Reserved-yet-passionate Blakely may hit a wrong note here or there whenever she's asked to be boisterous beyond her range, but in scenes where her character is overcome with the pressures of her life, she's believable. There's a sad, telling little moment for Blakely when the script comes up with a surprisingly apt visual metaphor for her predicament: Blakely crying and hugging the pony she made her shiftless, irresponsible ex-husband take back from her young son--the pony now tied up in a dusty, barren lot, tethered for 50 cent pony rides. It's too bad the light, amusing The Oklahoma City Dolls hadn't jettisoned all the football gags for more of that....
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.