Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Racket Girls (Arena Productions/Screen Classics, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our film was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1951 film called Racket Girls, distributed by a company spectacularly misnamed (at least as far as this movie was concerned!) Screen Classics, though it was produced by an outfit called Arena Productions, headed by George Weiss — whom Ed Wood buffs will remember as the producer of Wood’s first feature, Glen or Glenda? Knowing nothing of Racket Girls except its title, its approximate vintage (it was made in 1951, two years before Glen or Glenda?) and the fact that the folks at Mystery Science Theatre 3000 regarded it as bad enough to fit the format of their show, I was expecting either a movie about a gang of female criminals (possibly working on behalf of male racketeers, possibly running a racket of their own) or a gang of female juvenile delinquents.

Instead it began with a shot of two women in a wrestling match in a ring — and it seems as if Weiss and his director, Robert C. Dertano, acquired a large stash of stock footage of women’s wrestling matches and decided to build a movie around it. What Dertano — who also wrote the script, though he was credited just as director — ultimately came up with as a framing story was the tale of gangster Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell, who would later play a psychiatrist in Glen or Glenda? and a gangster — again — in Wood’s second feature, Jail Bait), who promotes women’s wrestling matches (and insists that the sport is clean and honest — yeah, right) to cover up his other activities running a bookie wire. (The synopsis claims he’s also involved in prostitution and drugs, but these are only hinted at, with the usual Production Code euphemisms, in the actual film; in one of the few scenes that achieves any degree of poignancy or dramatic interest, a woman pleads with Scalli to keep her supplied with pills — but it’s not clear from the way this scene is presented that he’s a drug dealer or is simply providing his wrestlers illicit medications to keep them going in the ring.)

The main storyline — if one can call it that — concerns real-life wrestler “Peaches” Page (playing herself) concerned because Scalli has just bought her contract and she doesn’t know what he wants to do with it or what seamy things he’s going to force her into with the threat of destroying her career if she doesn’t comply. At the end, of course, the police — who through the rest of this film seemed nonexistent — finally track down Scalli, there’s a shootout and he dies. The most amazing thing about Racket Girls is the revelation that working with Ed Wood was actually an aesthetic step upward for George Weiss — Glen or Glenda? is a dreadful movie by any normal artistic standard and yet it’s also a brilliantly obsessive one, mainly because Wood threw so much of his own life into it, and for all its ineptitude it seems to have a raison d’être that eludes Racket Girls.

One watches Racket Girls alternately dispirited by the sheer pointlessness of it all (one wonders which is less interesting, the wrestling scenes or the rest) as well as in a state of utter bafflement as to who Weiss thought his audience was going to be. At times it seems to have been made for the nascent Lesbian community — it’s hard to imagine straight men (even straight men whose tastes ran towards beefy, muscular women) getting turned on by the pointlessness of it all, but one can readily imagine femme Lesbians (in an era in which not only was there far less of a Queer community in either gender than there is now, but among Queers and especially among Lesbians the butch-femme role modeling was far more common, and more strict, than it is now) getting turned on by all the crotch and ass shots Dertano (who in addition to being his own writer was his own editor as well) insisted on including. The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew dropped a few jokes about Elvis (no doubt riffing on the claim in Albert Goldman’s Elvis bio that he liked to watch so-called “cat films,” staged fights between hefty women similar to the wrestling scenes in this film) and in one outrageous gag invoked the League of Women Voters for what was probably their funniest line — but otherwise they seemed as flummoxed at the sheer pointlessness of this cinematic drivel as the rest of us.