The First Ladies of Wrestling
Mary Aquaviva (fan), Rita Cortez-Lee, Penny Banner, Marie Bernardi, Cathy Branch, Karin Dromo,
The Fabulous Moolah, Gladys “Killem” Gillem, Judy Grable, Joyce Grable, Sylvia Hackney, Joe Hamilton [The Assassin], Karl Lauer (promoter), Marie Laverne, Sara Lee, Ida May Martinez, Jim Melby (referee/magazine publisher), Sputnik Monroe, Sandy Parker, Anthony Piazza (fan & collector),
Stu Schwartz (referee), Millie Stafford, Ella Waldek, Johnny Wall Jr. (Gladys Gillem's son), Bonnie Watson, “The Great” Mae Young
This may very well be the greatest documentary ever made about pro-wrestling. It has the shocking moments like Beyond the Mat, it has the scope of Heroes of World Class, it has production value better than all of the WWE's documentaries and it succinctly investigates one dimension of pro-wrestling. The overall feel of this is fantastic with a post-war art deco and rockabilly combination that adds greatly. It should also be noted that much of the music is provided by Memphis-based surf rockers Los Straightjackets who are known for wearing luchador masks. The stories and anecdotes are tremendous and only add to the overall package, although it seems likely that some great ones were left on the cutting room floor. The stories of political maneuvering, sexual promiscuity and bitterness between the stars adds a lot of zest to this effort. Furthermore, the openness of the ladies featured is incredible and the perfume is practically radiating through the camera lens. The overall story is simple. Women's wrestling went from the carnivals to arenas through the manipulation of seedy men like Jack Pfefer and Billy Wolfe, but eventually the Fabulous Moolah seized control and helped transition the control to the McMahon family where it is today. It is interesting to hear linkage from the carnies to Vince McMahon. There are numerous morsels of intrigue to this from the Fabulous Moolah's disturbing relationship with “girl midget wrestler” Diamond Lil to Penny Banner describing her abusive relationship with legendary babyface Johnny Weaver. This documentary is exactly what it aims to be and it ends up being one of, if not the best documentary of its kind.
While any documentary on pro-wrestling has its flaws, this one has very few. Clearly, it only takes a small portion of pro-wrestling (women's wrestling) and is mostly limited to a certain time period (1940s-1980s), although it talks about the time before and after. There is a level of kayfabe from some of the ladies that you expect from old-schoolers. Yes, they had tough matches and yes, sometime people took liberties or went into business on their own, but there is a feeling that there was a level of shooting going on that seems implausible. The other facet that bothers me is burying the “divas” of today, specifically those in the WWE. One is led to believe that the women's wrestlers of today are purely sex objects with no athletic ability, but that is simply untrue. While sex is perhaps the strongest part of the package, it is only a part and demeaning the athleticism (as opposed to the working ability) of current female pro-wrestlers is unnecessary. The cult of Japanese women's wrestling is never acknowledged, although it was more successful and arguably better than the generation of wrestling featured here, but you can always check out Gaea Girls for that. Another strong knock I've heard about this is that Moolah & Mae Young snatched up filmmaker Ruth Leitman and led her to believe that they were the pioneers of women's wrestling, so people outside the clique like Penny Banner and others did not get accurately depicted. Thankfully Penny has a book out and I'm sure it is much better and more credible than Moolah's. Overall this documentary is excellent and an example for any that follow it.
The Rating: *****