Lipstick & Dynamite
Like most people, filmmaker Ruth Leitman grew up aware of the athletic-entertainment phenomenon that is commercial wrestling. Leitman, however, was unaware of a largely unheralded aspect of wrestling, the female wrestling scene of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Some friends of Leitman’s who had an interest in the wrestling caper described to Leitman this once-celebrated sideshow, and its major stars: the Great Mae Young, Gladys ‘Killem’ Gillem, the Fabulous Moolah and Penny Banner.
“Once I found about these women I became really interested in the dichotomy that these women represented, of the powerless and powerful,” Leitman says. “You had these young girls trying to get out of difficult lives. I was really interested in that this was their way out – they were leaving violence and entering into another form of violence.”
Leitman’s documentary on these near-forgotten wrestling stars, Lipstick and Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling is one of four films featured in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s Title Fight On Film season from Thursday April 5 to Wednesday April 11. While the other films featured in the season deal with martial arts (Fightville), psychological metaphor (Fight Club) and boxing as sociological lifeline (On the Ropes), Lipstick and Dynamite is the only film which deals with one of society’s most complex taboos: female fighting.
Lipstick and Dynamite is a mixture of interviews with these wrestling stars of yore, punctuated with period footage. Leitman says each of her interview subjects – four of which have since died since the premiere of the film in 2005 – were happy to finally have the opportunity to tell their colourful stories.
“I think they were really excited to be able to talk about their time in wrestling,” Leitman says. “They experienced a small window of fame. Apart from the Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young, they had between 5 and 15 years’ fame before they went onto other fields. And for the women who went onto other things after wrestling, there was always this strong desire for a comeback,” she says.
While the fledgling wrestling stars were only too keen to escape their immediate domestic surroundings for a travelling carnival existence, they soon found themselves subject to the commercial and management whims of wrestling promoters, including Billy Wolfe and Jack Pfefer. “All of the women featured in the film at one time worked under Billy Wolfe,” Leitman says. “I was really interested in him as a character, in his narcissism and utter control over these women. He was absolutely determined to have a monopoly on this titillating sport. He wanted to create these women’s personalities in the ring.”
Despite – or maybe because of – the efforts of Wolfe and Pfefer, female wrestling stars remained at best a second-string drawcard to the male wrestlers. “Because women’s wrestling started as a carnival, they were number two or three on the card,” Leitman says. “Only the top wrestlers were known. These women had to work really hard, and they were travelling from town to town. That’s another aspect of their lives that I became fascinated with: their road life.”
In hindsight it’s easy to locate Mae Young, Penny Banner and the Fabulous Moolah as progenitors of a nascent feminist tradition that would rise to the surface in the ‘60s and ‘70s. However, Leitman says the stars of her film were more interested in earning a living than making a political statement. “I call them the unproclaimed feminists of the World War II generation,” Leitman says. “But at the time it wasn’t about women’s liberation, it was about survival. Ella Waldek said, ‘I just needed to make a living, and that was that’.”
While female wrestling took a few heavy blows back in the day – in particular, in the aftermath of the tragic death of Janet Boyer Wolfe in a bout with Ella Waldek (for which Waldek received ongoing abuse, despite being cleared of any culpability in the matter), and the banning of female wrestling in a number of states – female wrestling continues to this day, albeit without the same profile as afforded to male wrestling. While Lipstick and Dynamite features disparaging commentary from past wrestling stars on the state of modern female wrestling, Leitman says the current generation of female wresting performers are acutely aware of the trail-blazing efforts of Mae Young, Ella Waldek and the Fabulous Moolah. “I think at the heart of many modern wrestlers is a desire to hark back to the original style,” Leitman says. “But it’s really the franchises who really control what goes on. The modern wrestlers want to be taken seriously like the original wrestlers – they want to be connected with the audience.”
While Penny Banner, Gladys Gillem, Ida Mae Martinez and the Fabulous Moolah have all died since the film was released, the Great Mae Young continues to wrestle at the grand old age of 89. Leitman has taken her own interest in female wrestling into dramatic territory, writing and directing her own soon-to-be released feature Pindown Girl. Leitman also maintains an interest in the contemporary female wrestling environment, with its curious mixture of athleticism and commercial entertainment. For Leitman, athleticism should be paramount field of interest. “One of the greatest challenges in female wrestling is to have a franchise that will showcase and promote a troupe of women who are equally entertaining, and is less of a sideshow,” Leitman says. “It should be more about what it is to be an athlete.”
BY PATRICK EMERY
Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling screens as part Title Fight On Film which takes place at ACMI from Thursday April 5 to Wednesday April 11. For full program information and screening times, please visit acmi.net.au.