Around 10 years ago, Ruth Leitman interviewed six female wrestlers who competed in the middle of the last century to learn more about who they were and their struggles in the male dominated world of professional wrestling. Of those six, five are no longer with us and the last – Mae Young – is unlikely to be with us for much longer. As a consequence, it seems like an appropriate time to review Lipstick and Dynamite – a documentary on a golden age for wrestling.
The Fabulous Moolah, Mae Young, Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillem, Ida Mae Martinez, Ella Waldek and Penny Banner share similar aspects to their lives, though in other aspects things skewed off wildly. An inquiry into their childhoods showed that none of them had it easy – whether it was family problems, back-breaking work or physical and/or sexual assaults, none of them could brag about a comfortable upbringing. However, each found solace in grappling, with Gillem – as the most senior interviewee – discussing how women would wrestle at carnivals before being transferred to the ring when many men were posted around the world as part of the Second World War. It was in this chaos where opportunity arose for women wrestlers to carve a niche.
As it turns out, it was only a niche as they – much like now – were treated as a special attraction or a change in pace from the men rather than being on equal footing, illustrated with tales of them being brought in to swell the house but still being paid a pittance despite being the star attraction.
There is also talk about promoters of the time. While Jack Pfefer is looked at with a retrospective endearment, Billy Wolfe isn’t remembered as fondly. Many of the women accuse him of using favouritism to keep his wife Mildred Burke on top with fewer bookings and having her go over the other talent, despite her possessing less talent than others. Meanwhile June Byers is remembered as being overly rough. Both are issues which you could argue still exist today.
The criticism doesn’t just lie outside the circle though. While Young has positive words for Moolah, she seems to be the only one. Accused of monopolising the booking of talent in high profile promotions, some of the wrestlers claim she messed them around, left them on the sidelines and tantalisingly dangled the carrot of the World Wrestling Federation in front of their faces then snatching it away. While she rebuts the accusation by claiming they are jealous, ungrateful or bitter, Moolah doesn’t do herself any favours by making up a story about Wendi Richter ducking her when she won the WWF Women’s Championship and having to don the Spider Lady outfit to get another shot – when in truth she was put under the hood to screw Richter out of the belt due to Wendi’s contract dispute with Vince McMahon.
While there is the odd nod to the fact that wrestling isn’t a legit sport, a lot of the talk skips around kayfabe to protect the business. It’s to be expected of wrestlers from this generation, as they were encouraged to protect the business to the end.
Another point which is brought up is the toughness of the women, with Waldek – who later points out that she has cancer but has rejected chemotherapy – and Gillem particularly highlighted. Elsewhere, there is a inference about not wrestling hurt with the story about Janet Boyer Wolfe, who died during a tag match after previously complaining about headaches and may have been suffering a concussion. Considering the recent accounts of Angelus Layne, this is still all too relevant.
The current – at the time – WWE product came under fire, with accusations of there being no clear goals of what the women are trying achieve, while Moolah and Young are slated for allegedly putting themselves in a position where they could be mocked – and in turn, mock their generation of women wrestlers. Whether that is fair or not is up for debate, as Young in particular enjoyed her biggest fame in her seventies. They also criticise the Divas for not dressing in a dignified manner as they arrive at and leave arenas.
Life after wrestling bought different fortunes for them. As we know, Moolah did pretty well for herself, while Mae lived in the same home with midget wrestler Diamond Lil – who comes across as more of Moolah’s pet than anything else. Banner and Martinez had abusive relationships but still found happiness in their new chosen directions of Senior Olympian and nurse respectively, while Waldek became a store detective and Gillem retrained as a lion tamer.
The film – much like the more recent GLOW documentary – concludes with a reunion which sees Gillem chat with Moolah, despite being harsh about her earlier on. Whether it was being polite for the cameras or a genuine burying of hatchets isn’t clear, but it was nice to see.
One thing which should be pointed out is the language used by the women. While it is clean for the most part, most of them speak in a very direct and tough tone. It seems that it is a consequence of being a woman in a man’s world, having to grow a thick skin and essentially become “one of the boys” – a term which Mae uses to describe herself at one point. In trying to open doors for women, they seemingly had to sacrifice femininity to do it. Some would call it a necessary evil, while others may see it as a great shame that they have to partly abandon who they are.
Overall, Lipstick and Dynamite is a fascinating watch. While it doesn’t have the linear structure of the GLOW film and bounces around quite a bit, it’s still a valuable insight into what was the growth of women’s wrestling in the US. Repealing laws and drawing crowds, they broke a great number of barriers to allow so many women the chance to step into the ring. If you’re a fan of women’s wrestling – and if you’re on this website, you probably are – then it’s worth going out of your way to see this. Click here to jump to the site and buy the DVD.
– Lee Burton