Documaker Ruth Leitman taps into an immensely entertaining subject in “Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar,” which looks at the pioneers of women’s wrestling in the 1940s and ’50s, long before the WWF staple became more like a circus act on steroids than an actual sport. Smart assembly of terrific archive footage is matched by spirited interviews with the tough old broads today, as they look back on their years in the ring when they pulverized the Donna Reed stereotype of post-WWII womanhood. Enterprising specialty distribs could find a theatrical niche before more muscular DVD action and cable showings.
Collective and individual experiences showcased here hint at the rich narrative possibilities of the material. Unsurprisingly, Leitman’s research and meetings with her subjects inspired her also to write a fiction screenplay, “The Pin-Down Girl.”
Framed by pastel graphics, docu opens with wrestler Judy Grable appearing on “What’s My Line?” and cuts back frequently to another vintage gameshow, “To Tell the Truth,” on which former champ the Fabulous Moolah is sandwiched between male brutes as the celebrity panel tries to identify the genuine wrestler. Those clips illustrate how the queens of the ring were looked upon as something between a joke and a carnival freak.
Leitman introduces six key subjects: Moolah, who grew up independently after losing her mother at age 8; Johnnie Mae Young, who was known as the Great Mae Young; Gladys “Killem” Gillem; Ida May Martinez, who grew up fighting in a large family that was ashamed of her; Penny Banner, who trained to defend herself from an attempted rapist; and gravel-voiced Ella Waldek, who tried out for the roller derby and fell into wrestling from there.
Starting out as fairground attractions, women were first put in wrestling auditoriums in 1939 and soon stole the show from men, becoming a major novelty draw. While on one hand, early promoters quickly recognized the value of gimmicks — Moolah was billed as “Slave Girl,” led into the ring by “Elephant Boy” — on the other hand, old-fashioned attitudes prevailed and the wrestlers were expected to maintain a feminine appearance.
Most of the girls were exploited by promoters, who took 50% of the fight earnings and often slept with their teenage stars. One promoter, Billy Wolfe, handpicked opponents for his wife to enable her to keep the champion title; later, his 18-year-old adopted daughter was killed as a result of injuries sustained in the ring, for which Ella was branded a murderer. Moolah married promoter Buddy Lee but went on after their breakup to surpass him as a girl-fight promoter.
While the enjoyable bravado, colorful histories and flamboyant personalities of all the women make them dynamic subjects, two of the girls — as they continue to refer to themselves — stand out.
Now an 81-year-old fishing enthusiast, “Crazy Killen Gillen” as she was known, is a ribald old bird with an uncensored memory, who segued from ring wrestling to lion taming and grappling with alligators and bears. Amusing clips are shown of her on Bill Cosby’s version of “You Bet Your Life.”
And Chez Moolah seems like prime reality TV material. Plastered with more makeup than the average drag revue, Moolah is unapologetically money-driven. She lives with Johnnie Mae, one of the dirtiest fighters and brashest barroom brawlers of her day, and their surrogate daughter, former “girl midget” wrestler Diamond Lil. However, despite this menage, the subject of lesbians in the sport is not broached in docu.
The women are both nostalgic and bitter as they recall their tough lives on the road and in the ring. They boast of their skill at drop kicks, flying mares and short-arm scissor lifts. Some hint at their disdain for the direction the WWF has taken, not hiding their feeling that Moolah and Johnnie Mae have set themselves up as objects of ridicule through their continued involvement in wrestling.
The film also takes in the women’s post-wrestling lives: Ella opened a store detective agency and has been living with cancer since 1993; Penny broke away from an abusive husband and was a Senior Olympian; Ida became a prison nurse and now performs as a yodeling grandma.
Final section at a Gulf Coast Wrestlers Reunion — “where grudges are forgotten and friendships are renewed,” according to a banner — doesn’t carry much emotional weight, perhaps because there rarely seems to have been lasting bonds between the highly competitive women. However, Leitman does convey a stirring sense of the wrestlers’ unacknowledged contribution to sports history and their courage in defying stereotypes.
Edited by the director and Connie Diletti, docu moves at a snappy pace, threading together recent interview material with a treasure trove of vintage footage, including several archly funny clips from 1951 B movie “Racket Girls.” Soundtrack is a lively mix of ’50s songs and retro-styled new compositions.