Mike Johnson is on vacation this week. Below is his 2005 review of the Lipstick and Dynamite DVD release.
The Ruth Leitman documentary "Lipstick and Dynamite" failed to find its audience at a theatrical level as the film was never marketed towards wrestling fans and despite good reviews, never truly broke out. Released today on DVD, the film has its second chance.
The film looks at the stories of the pioneers of women's professional wrestling, focusing mostly on Penny Banner, Mae Young, The Fabulous Moolah, Ida Mae Martinez, Gladys Gillem, and Ella Waldek Leitman, inspired to make the film after a friend who once worked for WCW told her about an older female worker she had met, does an admirable job tracking down early footage of many of the ladies as well as using other older films, game show appearances, and newsreels to provide exposition on the State of the United States and the attitude towards women in general at that point.
There are a lot of rare photos used to familiarize the viewers with the many different performers and promoters discussed during the film as well. I was pretty impressed with how much material they had dug up. With no narrator used, they use interview clips and footage to tell their story, mixing the two with a really great soundtrack featuring a number of songs that really exemplified the scenes and expanded on the feeling behind the direction.
Leitman also does a very good job fleshing out the stories of each of the ladies, no easy feat due to the sheer amount of women featured. She takes what could have easily become a very cliched, hokey look at wrestling and instead shows some of the passion that those involved in the earlier days had. There is no shying away from the politics of the business, even then, with discussion of women sleeping with promoters for belts and pushes, promoters starving out workers who they thought were trying to leave, performers being ripped off, the pressures of the road, and more. The ladies may have been pretty but the grittiness of the business still stands out.
As one would expect, the Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young are heavily featured, including a lot of WWE footage. Interestingly enough, the pair are heavily criticized by their fellow older former performers, who feel that it cheapens the work and foundation that they all laid down for the business in the past. The older veterans are also critical of the current WWE divas, in comparison to how they performed.
You also got the feeling from some of the women that there is a jealousy of sorts about Moolah's place in the business, partially because she created it by having the connections and networking to create and hold back other female stars in the business.
In many ways, the star of the film was Gladys Gillem as the ornery old grandmother who ran with the potty mouth and didn't care who she offended about what she thought. There were a number of comments where the audience cracked up because of her salty tongue, which I thought made her the most interesting of all the ladies. I thought Penny Banner came across well, explaining how she began training partially as a way to protect herself from a would-be date rapist. Ella Waldek comes off very opinionated and a little full of her place in history, noting that she refused the Women's title after she retired. Everyone featured has an interesting story and provides a wonderful look back into the history of the business, one that could have been quickly shuttered forever if this film hadn't decided to document it.
The film doesn't really touch upon whether the business was a work or a shoot (of course, it was a work) but there is a point where it plays up that The Fabulous Moolah had shot on Wendi Richter to regain the WWF championship while under a hood as the Spider Lady. It is the weakest moment of the film, as it needs the viewer to believe that Moolah went under the mask because Richter was ducking her as champion. In actuality, Richter had a contractual dispute and WWF management decided to double cross her in order to get the belt off of her. Richter never worked for WWF again, although she did wrestle afterwards for different companies.
The documentary also could have used comments from Richter to balance Moolah's story, but it really wasn't about any singular story as much as it was a profile of unique grouping of ladies. Moolah also claimed to have defeated Banner several times, although Banner in her book noted that they had hardly ever met, if at all, so that was Moolah working as well. It was somewhat interesting to see Moolah trying to kayfabe as much as she did while the others were pretty much breaking down the barriers with their comments, but at the same time, it was the only point where I shook my head at the screen as I felt it brought the film down a notch.
The darkest part of the film touches upon the death of the adopted daughter of promoter Billy Wolfe and worker Mildred Burke, Janet Wolfe including some stunning rare footage of Wolfe in the ring. Some of the women tell their theories behind her passing, feeling she was too afraid to admit she had been hurt in training, which led to her demise. When she passed away, her opponents were arrested and charged with manslaughter but the charges were dropped. The publicity helped turn them into drawing heels, however.
The DVD features a number of extras including footage from the film's New York City and Atlanta premieres, deleted scenes, a "video diary" of Leitman trying to meet Moolah and getting blown off numerous times, a photo gallery, the theatrical trailer, and more. There are cameos by Ox Baker and Nick Bockwinkel in footage shot at a wrestlers' reunion as well.
Overall, there are a number of interesting stories told via rare footage, great editing, and some colorful, blunt discussion. The film is worth checking out as it captures a very unique piece of Americana in the form of the "girl wrestlers" of the early-mid 1900s. Leitman may be working on a follow-up as well, focusing on Moolah and Young. I would suggest this most for those who are deeply into wrestling history or women's wrestling. I don't know that I would place the film on a level with Wrestling with Shadows of Beyond the Mat, but it does present an entertaining look at the subject matter.
Lipstick & Dynamite can be ordered in the PWInsider Superstore.
Mike Johnson can be reached at Mike@PWInsider.com.