Film Reviews Of Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling; Blood On The Flat Track: The Rise Of The Rat City Roller Girls; and Brutal Beauty: Tales Of The Rose City Rollers Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/13
I recently streamed three Netflix documentary films that dealt with females in dubious sporting events. These three films were Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling; Blood On The Flat Track: The Rise Of The Rat City Roller Girls; and Brutal Beauty: Tales Of The Rose City Rollers.
The first of the three films I saw was 2005’s Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling which tracked the careers of six female wrestlers from the middle of last century: The Fabulous Moolah (Lillian Ellison), Mae Young, Ella Waldek, Ida May Martinez, Penny Banner and Gladys ‘Killem’ Gillem. This 83 minute long documentary from Ruth Leitman is less a historical account of the ‘sport’ of professional female wrestling, and more a pastiche, or travelogue of post-World War Two Americana.
There is some vintage film of matches, but these are disjunct from the announcers’ calls. Mainly, the film follows the six wrestlers and mixes and matches their memories and recollections. Generally, all the women were from poor backgrounds, mostly rural, and endured physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse from the men in their lives- from fathers to boyfriends and husbands to male wrestlers to the promoters. The worst of all the promoters seems to have been Billy Wolfe, a man who seems born to have been a scumbag. Every wrestler interviewed has their Billy Wolfe horror story- the worst being his indifference to his 18 year old fiancée /wife Janet Boyer Wolfe’s head injuries, which led to her in ring death. Far more well liked is Vince McMahon, Sr., father of pro wrestling’s current dictator: Vince McMahon, Jr.
Female pro wrestling emerged in the Great Depression, from traveling circuses and carnivals, but did not take off in popularity until World War Two, when many of the male wrestlers were off at war. A number of states in the union banned the ‘sport,’ because it was deemed lewd and not for the general public. This lasted in some places until the late 1950s. The film makes liberal use of scenes from an almost Ed Wood-like bad film on female wrestling, 1951’s black and white Racket Girls, wherein a wrestler refuses to ‘throw’ a match from a crooked promoter, claiming that pro wrestling is one of the few ‘clean’ sports left.
But, the heart of the film is the interviews, with Moolah coming off the worst. She is described as a money grubber and power hungry whore who blackballed many other female wrestlers. Worst of all, in her own interviews, Moolah shows off the very qualities the others describe, utterly oblivious to her flaws. That said, she lives with and takes care of her less financially fortunate wrestling pals, such as Mae Young, and a dwarf wrestler called Diamond Lil, who serves as her maid and valet. The film ends with all the wrestlers catching up at The Gulf Coast Wrestlers Reunion, where they reminisce. Many of the ladies had successful post-wrestling careers, such as nurse, lion tamer, and detective.
That stated, the film never opens itself up to the outside viewer, hence Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies Of Wrestling, as good as it is as a scrapbook, of sorts, can only be recommended as viewing material for the hardcore fan of professional wrestling, female or not.
A similar flaw besets the next two films, on the revival of female roller derby in the 21st Century, as it did Lipstick & Dynamite. The first of these films is 92 minutes long, and from 2007, and is called Blood On The Flat Track: The Rise Of The Rat City Roller Girls, and was directed by Lainy Bagwell and Lacey Leavitt. Rat City is the ‘derby name’ for Seattle, Washington. I use the term derby name because roller derby has always used pseudonyms for its participants and teams. In the middle of last century, when the sport was at its popular height, and a staple of local television programming, it was, however, as legitimate a ‘sport’ as professional wrestling.
This century’s revival, which kicked off in Austin, Texas (Seattle was close behind in reviving the sport), differs in two ways: it is a legitimate sport, with many city leagues around the nations and world, with an international sanctioning body, and national championships, as well as being under consideration for a medal sport in the 2020 Olympics, and, unlike the old, sports entertainment, this form of roller derby is played on a flat track (mainly for financial reasons, for flat tracks are cheaper than banked tracks).
This film follows a couple of years in the lives of Rat City’s four teams- Grave Danger, Sockit Wenches, Throttle Rockets, and the Derby Liberation Front. The league then has an All Star team that represents Seattle in the Nationals. The film follows some of the girls, who are interviewed, along with their male partners, and gives insight into their love of the sport, and real life jobs. Real names are not used, but some of the colorful monikers include Shovey Chase, Dirty Little Secret, Darth Skater, and Seymour Carnage.
Like the pro wrestling film, there is no great insight into the lives of these women, as likeable as most seem, and some of their use of the sport’s lingo is too insider for most to follow, but it is enjoyable enough, and the viewer empathizes with the highs and lows, and injuries, these women endure. And it should be noted that they make no individual profit- it all goes back into the league, and the girls also pay their dues. None of them seems to regret a moment, even as they proudly show off assorted injuries.
Blood On The Flat Track: The Rise Of The Rat City Roller Girls is not a great film nor documentary, and is nothing more than a glimpse into the birth of a sport that, perhaps in the future, will hold allure for historians of the sports that the 21st Century gave birth to. And, that may just be enough to give it a recommendation for viewing.
Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but three years after the release of Blood On The Flat Track, which followed Seattle’s roller derby revival, Portland Oregon got into the picture with a film, by Chip Mabry, that chronicled their league’s rise in the sport: Brutal Beauty: Tales Of The Rose City Rollers. In many ways it’s a virtual clone of the earlier film, albeit only 78 minutes in length. It also seems to have cloned Rat City’s ideas, taking the name Rose City, and sporting four of its own teams: The Heartless Heathers, Guns N’ Rollers, The High Rollers, and The Breakneck Betties. Like the earlier film, we follow the lives and loves of the skaters, who possess such derby names as Marollin’ Monroe, Blood Clottia, Cadillac, Sol Train, Madam Bumpsalot, Rocket Mean, White Flight, and Scratcher In The Eye, many of whom work real jobs as librarians, day care employees, social workers, and small business owners.
As with the rat City girls, the Rose City girls and film indulges in many clichés, from those on sports to those of lesbianism in the ranks to the headbanging lifestyle. Both films, however, fall rather easily into the trap of being too PC for their own good. Part of the eternal appeal of roller derby is the sexist, violent thrill of watching babes bang each other silly, and not listening to silly hogwash about how roller derby empowers women to dream, be more themselves, or whatever other claptrap the girls seem to swallow. The males in both films seem to understand the real appeal of the sport, even as they smirk in the background, while trying to support their women’s absurd claims, as none of these ‘pioneers’ in female self esteem seem willing to use their real names on camera.
Both the Rat City and Rose City girls’ leagues are part of the burgeoning national Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, and like Rat City, Rose City has an all star team- Wheels Of Justice- that competes in the Nationals, against the Bay Area derby (BAD) girls, who also appeared in the prior film. Unlike the first film, this film explains the actual sport a bit more, with one of the males involved, using donuts to illustrate that roller derby has five players on the track at any one time: a pivot, a jammer, and three blockers, and a team gets points when jammers fight through the pack and pass opposing skaters to score in a jam session, of which there are quite a few in each quarter of a game, or bout, as they are called.
Of the two derby films, Brutal Beauty is shorter, tighter, a bit slicker, and more professionally edited and shot than Blood On The Flat Track, so gets a slight nod. Also, its interviews dig a little deeper, but both are essentially extended infomercials for the sport. Even so, both are entertaining.
Of the three films I saw, each one was slightly better than the last, but all three have their virtues, and one can spend a worse afternoon than watching some attractive women battering each other silly. Not taken too seriously, though, the films do have some socio-political import. But, the emphasis is on some. Remember that, and you will end this mini film marathon as I did: smiling.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
Return to Bylines