Lipstick & Dynamite, The First Ladies of Wrestling (2004)

by | Sep 12, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Lipstick & Dynamite, The First Ladies of Wrestling (2004)

Starring: The Fabulous Moolah, The Great Mae Young, Gladys ‘Killem’ Gillem, Ida May Martinez, Ella Waldek, Penny Baker
Director: Ruth Leitman
Studio: Ruthless Films/Koch Lorber
Video:  Widescreen-enhanced for 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo, English
Extras: Director’s Commentary, Radio Interviews, Photo Gallery, Deleted
Scenes, Reunion IFC “At the Angelika” segment, Premiere footage in NYC
& Atlanta, Misc. footage with fans and family
Length: 86 minutes
Rating: ****

Through much archival footage (of the 40’s & 50’s), still
photography, current and past interviews with retired women wrestlers
now in their 70’s and early 80’s, we enter the lives of these amazing
women. Most of them were pretty and some quite beautiful. I kept
marveling at how they managed to keep their faces and bodies intact.
Broken bones and noses occurred.

Part entertainers, part athletes, they reveal what drew them to
wrestling, what their lives were like during long or relatively brief
careers and why they left. Each describe impoverished and sometimes
abusive early years. Wrestling meant moving up and out and on to a
better life and gave them confidence for the rest of their lives.

Filmmaker Ruth Leitman created this documentary, her fifth film,
around  six women primarily. They are all compelling as they talk
about their lives, creating a rich and fascinating account. This is a
subject we know little or nothing about and deserves to be told.
Leitman constructs it very well. She gives an interesting explanation
in the extras of how she chose the six women. Stories of gratitude,
bitterness, betrayal, pride and survival fill this film.  
Part of the appeal of Lipstick and Dynamite is watching women do what
women are not supposed to do.

The Fabulous Moolah (Lillian Ellison) of South Carolina became a
promoter and trainer. She held the world championship title for 29
years. Each of the other women is connected with Moolah, who either
managed or wrestled them.

Ella Waldek, the best story teller of the group, was a “jammer” with
the roller derby before attending wrestling training camp. The function
of jammers was to knock as many people down as possible. Ella’s career
lasted almost 20 years before she opened her own detective agency.

Gladys “Killem” Gillem, now the oldest and saltiest of the bunch, left
wrestling to become a lion tamer. When she was left widowed with five
children, Gladys supported them by wrestling bears and
alligators.  Ida May Martinez, raised by an aunt and uncle, grew
up fist-fighting with the other kids in the family. Ida spent most of
the 50’s wrestling and then became a nurse and a professional yodeler.

The Great Mae Young began training at age five and excelled at every
sport in which she participated. “They hated me so bad they would throw
vegetables at me.”  Mae seems to take much pride in how mean she
was in the ring–rough and tough. Penny Baker, the youngest at 70,
shows great pride in successfully competing in the Senior Oympics.

Some describe themselves and others in harsh terms, “I wrestled dirty
and I was a tough son-of-a-gun.” And “Whatever the referee didn’t see
was legal.” Still they were expected to look and act like ladies
outside the ring. One of their contemporary male wrestlers remarks that
they were athletes who commanded respect. “They were not T & A
girls” like female wrestlers of today.

All the women featured were promoted and trained by the infamous Billy
Wolfe who represented many women wrestlers. He went around the country
recruiting and training them. Beginning in the 1930’s, this was a huge
enterprise. The women bitterly remember Wolfe who was considerably less
than fair and very controlling. Men had it much easier. Women had to
spend much more time traveling from match to match than the men.
Conditions were more difficult overall for the women.

The film suggests that today’s female wrestlers are much more about
entertainment than athleticism, though clearly these older women were
also about entertainment in a variety of ways. Two of them still are.
Both the Fabulous Moolah and the Great Mae Young participate together
in special WWE events and have no plans to retire. Some of their
associates decry this, saying “Some women don’t know when to hang up
their tights.” Watching the scenes in question, I’d agree.

Fans are interviewed. A man rhapsodizes about women’s wrestling. “There
is nothing as passionate for me.” He began his collection of
memorabilia in the second grade. A woman fan says that girls today
cannot compare to The Fabulous Moolah.   Of the many colorful
moments, one is a hilarious encounter when fans bring their pet possum,
complete with little gold cape, to meet her namesake Moolah at a book

Though not approving of wrestling as a profession, I could not help but
admire the way these fiesty women overcame adverse early years to forge
independant lives for themselves. As the filmmaker states in one of the
extras, for her the stories were valuable because they were about
survival. (Leitman is not a wrestling fan or even a sports fan.) You do
not need to be a wrestling fan to be enriched by this worthwhile story
about suffering, perseverence and success. As Leitman says, wrestling
was the back story.

The extras enhance the film. Leitman gives much additional information
and insights about the women and their history and current lives as
well as the wrestling world. With use of archival stills and footage,
both color and B & W, the video varies in quality but the current
footage is sharp with vibrant colors and the soundtrack is always
audible. An abundance of country music for the soundtrack is an
appropriate fit. Lipstick & Dynamite is highly recommended as
entertaining, fast paced, well-edited, a labor of love told with
passion and heart.

– Donna Dorsett


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