Friday, September 20, 2013

Fighting For Your Rights In Her Satin Tights


When Lynda Carter became Wonder Woman, the DC Comics superhero was no stranger to the television airwaves. William Moulton Marston's 1941 creation had already been essayed by Cathy Lee Crosby (COACH) in a woeful pilot that ignored everything in the comic books, voiced by Shannon Farnon in the hit Saturday-morning cartoon  SUPERFRIENDS, and played for laughs in an unaired presentation film for BATMAN producer William Dozier by Ellie Wood Walker (THE NEW INTERNS). 

What sold the 1975 ABC pilot was most likely its star: a stacked six-foot brunette who not only looked dynamite in Wonder Woman’s red-white-and-blue threads, but also portrayed an earnestness and likability that clicked with audiences. The inexperienced Carter (whose biggest role to date was BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW, a drive-in flick in which she appeared topless) may not have been a great actress, but she was a great Wonder Woman. If only the series had offered her scripts to match.

The pilot, titled simply WONDER WOMAN and directed by TV stalwart Leonard Horn (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), aired in a 90-minute time slot more than five months before the series premiered. An origin story penned by Stanley Ralph Ross, who wrote for the 1960s BATMAN series, WONDER WOMAN (as the pilot movie is titled) can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a lighthearted adventure or go all the way into camp territory. It’s cast and shot well, and the idea by Ross and producer Douglas S. Cramer (BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE) to set the series in its original World War II setting opens the series up to interesting story ideas.

Diana (Carter) is Princess of Paradise Island, a hidden land located in the Bermuda Triangle that is ruled by Queen Hippolyta (Cloris Leachman) and populated only by sexy immortal women. The first man any of them have seen is Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner), a United States Air Force pilot who is shot down by a Nazi and parachutes to Paradise Island. Hippolyta holds an athletic competition to determine which Amazon will accompany a recuperated Trevor back to America and is disheartened to learn the winner is her daughter Diana in disguise.

With Steve still recuperating in a Washington, D.C. hospital, Diana uses her new Wonder Woman identity to thwart a Nazi plot to divebomb a secret air base on American soil. She susses out that Trevor’s secretary and girlfriend (Laraine Stevens) is actually a Fifth Columnist communicating Air Force secrets overseas to Colonel von Blasko (Kenneth Mars). Except for a slightly soggy middle act that turns Wonder Woman into a shortlived carnival attraction to earn money, Horn keeps the story moving right along and does a very nice job with the action scenes (even though he’s unable to disguise the fact that Stevens’ fight double is a man in drag).

The movie was a success, leading ABC to commission two episodes for the spring of 1976 and a (more or less) weekly series in the fall. Why ABC chose to schedule WONDER WOMAN irregularly is lost to the ages, I imagine, but after thirteen episodes, Cramer took the show to CBS, where it received a weekly berth and a setting change to the 1970s (with Waggoner playing Steve Trevor Jr.!).

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