Half a century before Vince McMahon’s silicone-cushioned vixens packed arenas for the WWE, platinum blond grapplers with names like Gladys “Killem” Gillem, Diamond ‘Lil, and the Fabulous Moolah stripped down to their swimsuits and wrestled each other on the carnival circuit. It was the 1940s and ’50s and some states, including Illinois and Indiana, were so scandalized they passed ordinances banning men from audiences. The women’s fights, staged in venues such as Andersonville’s Rainbow Arena, were attended by old ladies in big church hats who stood on the sidelines screaming “Kick her! Hit her! Pull her hair!”

Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling, a locally produced documentary that has its midwest premiere Sunday at the Chicago International Film Festival, splices rare footage of these old bouts with present-day interviews with members of this first generation of female wrestlers. Now in their 70s and 80s, the women reflect on the glory days, when they crisscrossed the country with unscrupulous promoters, earning $20 a night under the table. Gillem laughs when she recalls the angry townspeople who’d yell “Kill her!” after she beat local boys during “all-comers” carnival matches. When Ella Waldek and Johnnie Mae Young talk about the death of a 17-year-old opponent, Janet Boyer Wolfe, in the ring during a 1954 tag-team match in Ohio, they don’t seem particularly sorry. (To be fair, Wolfe had been ill before the match began.)

For most of these women, wrestling was an escape from worse situations at home. Waldek glides over beatings she endured at the hands of her father; Ida May Martinez talks about being locked in the closet by a grandmother who didn’t want anyone to know she lived there. And Penny Banner says she realized she had a future in the ring when she fought off a rapist in the woods.

“I’ve talked to them about being feminists, and they don’t even think that they were,” says director Ruth Leitman. “They know that they were doing things that were atypical, but it was never for a cause. It was always for self-preservation. Ella Waldek told me, ‘I wasn’t a women’s libber. I didn’t burn my bra. I needed it to hold me up.’ I love that about them. There’s a certain purity in that.”

“You’re a lady first. You dress like a lady,” Marie Laverne says in the movie. “When you get into the ring, you’re a wrestler.”

Getting a deal for theatrical distribution–which is rare for a documentary, especially one that’s not overtly political–happened unusually quickly for Lipstick & Dynamite. Shortly after its May screening at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival, the movie was snatched up for a 2005 theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada by Koch Lorber Films (which distributed Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions), and two of its subjects were booked on the Tonight Show.

A Philadelphia native, Leitman moved to Atlanta in 1985 with a degree in photography and filmmaking from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. She worked as a rock photographer, shooting artists like the Black Crowes, R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, and Ringo Starr for magazines and album covers. In her spare time she directed documentaries, including festival favorites Wildwood, NJ and Alma. In 2001 her husband, a sales director for the indie-rock distributor Redeye Distribution, was transferred here, and the couple moved to Oak Park.

“I supported myself as a photographer until my daughter was born,” says Leitman. “I thought, I can’t start working on my films at ten o’clock at night after my daughter goes to sleep. I have to be able to make a living at being a filmmaker.” Currently she supplements that income by teaching documentary filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute.

Leitman wasn’t a particular fan of pro wrestling when she set out to make Lipstick & Dynamite. What interested her, she says, were questions of showmanship and authenticity. “We have a general understanding in popular culture that pro wrestling is choreographed, that there is a script,” she says. “These women talk about the fact that when they wrestled it was real, but now it’s a different story….I’m interested in people believing in their own myths. Were there really unstaged matches? It all depended on the vested interests of the promoter at the time. Regardless, women are still flying through the air, jumping off the top ropes, and doing belly busters onto a wrestler. It’s not special effects. A live audience would see this.”

Making the movie, she says, has made her a fan. She’s even picked out her own wrestling name. “I’d just be Ruthless,” she says. “That’d be it.”

Lipstick, Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling

When: Sunday 10/10, 8:15 PM, and Tue 10/19, 7 PM

Where: River East 21, 322 E. Illinois

Price: $11

Info: 312-332-3456

For more: Film Festival pullout guide, p.19, or www.chicagofilmfestival.org

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.