Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Female Comic Strip Character Movie No. 4: THE NEW ORIGINAL WONDER WOMAN

Last year, I started a series of reviews of films based on famous female comic strip characters. I put it on the back burner while blogging about other subjects, thinking I'll go back to it soon. Exactly a year and about a week after my last post on this subject, I'm back to the series.

Before people starting trying to argue here, 1) there was a newspaper strip based on this comic book from 1944 to 1945, 2) yes, this is a made-for-TV movie, but most pilot films for TV shows ended up being show in movie theaters over seas and 3) at this moment, this is the only live action film version of this character.

I'm going to start this off by giving this movie the biggest compliment of any comic book or comic strip based film could receive. The New Original Wonder Woman is the most faithful adaptation of a comic book superhero's origin story ever. No strange tweeking to make the movie realistic or give the character a motivation for being a superhero. This also looks like the scenes from the comic book origin.

The origins of this movie and the subsequent TV series is interesting enough to be a movie. It begins in 1966, when Wonder Woman comes up in the top five of a poll, commissioned by ABC TV, of comic strip superheroes Americans would want to see brought to television. Batman, Dick Tracy, and the Green Hornet were ahead of her. Producer William Doizer turned Batman and Green Hornet into weekly series and made a good rather good pilot for Dick Tracy, that sadly was not picked up. He made a short pilot for Wonder Woman that everyone is glad didn't make it.

For years this was available on bootleg collector videos, but is now on YouTube. It was probably not picked up by the network, because unlike the other three Doizer adaptations, this doesn't even try to be serious or faithful to the original concept of the character. Also, this version of Wonder Woman closer to a sitcom about a superhero from the producers of Get Smart called Captain Nice, that was on the air at that time over on NBC.

Beginning in the mid-50s, DC Comics began revamping their characters from the 40s. However, the ones that had remained successful through the 50s were changed last and very little was changed (Batman was given a yellow circle around that bat on his chest, Superman left the Daily Planet to be a TV newscaster and Green Arrow grew a beard to look like Richard Harris). Wonder Woman, however, got the worst end of it. She lost her superpowers, started wearing jumpsuits and became a judo expert. It was this version that spawned a 1974 pilot film staring Cathy Lee Crosby (That's Incredible) as a super-powered secret agent in a red, white and blue jumpsuit. The movie aired but was not picked up for a TV series. On top of that, these comics were not successful.

We can thank Gloria Steinem for bringing DC to its senses. In the July 1972 issue of Ms. magazine, she put a picture of the classic Wonder Woman on the cover with the caption "Wonder Woman for President." In an editorial, Steinem decried then current "powerless" version of Wonder Woman. She also put together a collection of Wonder Woman stories after DC refused to put out one, as they had for Superman and Batman. In January of 1973, DC brought back Wonder Woman in her original costume with superpowers and, in the fall of 1973, she was appearing on the cartoon The Super Friends.

Now back to this 1975 TV movie. It is obvious that the influence of the Batman TV series was involved. Of course, if you have read this blog very long, you know that is perfectly fine with me. An obvious tip off that this is going to be a lighthearted version of Wonder Woman is that two of the Nazi's are Kenneth Mars, who played a Nazi in The Producers and a German constable in Young Frankenstein, and Henry Gibson, who would later play a Nazi scientist in Brenda Starr and The Burbs (and an Illinois Nazi in The Blues Brothers).

They send off a Nazi pilot, played by Eric Braeden (formerly Captain Hans Dietrich of Rat Patrol and future Victor Newman on Young & the Restless), who gets into a dogfight with Col. Steve Trevor, played by Lyle Waggoner. Both men parachute after their planes are destroyed, the Nazi shoots Steve before landing in a school of circling sharks. Steve lands on Paradise Island, which is populated by a race immortal women known as the Amazons.The movie focuses quite a bit on Steve before introducing our main character, probably because Lyle Waggoner was well known thanks to being on The Carol Burnett Show.

Steve is discovered by Princess Diana (Lynda Carter), daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Cloris Leachman). The Queen says that once Steve is well enough to travel, he must be taken back to the United States. Diana offers to take him back. Her mother says no. She says there will be a contest to determine who is the best Amazon and the winner will take Trevor back to the USA. At the end of the Olympic-like contest, the winner reveals herself to be Princess Diana. Her mother agrees and gives Diana a red, white, blue and gold outfit to wear and an invisible plane.

I had to include a photo of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

Diana takes Steve to a hospital and manages to stop a bank robbery a few moments later. After the bank robbery, the newspapers dub her "Wonder Woman." She is hired by a sleazy talent agent (played by Red Buttons) for a vaudeville show, but figures out he can't be trusted (turns out later in the movie that he is working for the Nazis). She manages to become a nurse at the hospital to take care of Steve.

From there we go back to an original story involving a Nazi plot to bomb a military base. Most of this movie is based on stories that appeared in All Star Comics #8 and Sensation Comics #1. Much of the dialogue is word for word from these comics, including Steve thinking he was saved by "an angel." Also, she is first shown wearing the skirt from the first stories, although her mother tells her she can take it off if it "gets in the way."

The only major changes are that in the origin story, Steve Trevor's plane crashes on Paradise Island, where in the movie his parachute lands there. Also the crooked talent agent is named Al Kale. In the movie his name is Ashely Norman. I should also note that Steve Trevor's commanding officer is named Gen. Blankenship in the movie and TV series, while in the comics Steve and Diana worked for Gen. Darnell.

Now my major beef with this movie is they left out one of the more interesting aspects of the origin story from Sensation Comics #1. In the movie, Diana just shows up, in a nurses outfit, working at the hospital and taking care of Steve. In the comics, there is a great explanation of how she got to be a nurse and her secret identity. Wonder Woman finds a nurse crying because her soldier husband is going to be transferred to South America and she doesn't have the money go with him. Wonder Woman notices that when the nurse takes off her glasses, they look alike. She ask the nurse her name and she says "My name is Diana Prince" and Wonder Woman says "What a coincidence! My name is Princess Diana!" So they trade identities. In the next story, she takes a job working as Steve's secretary (which happens at the end of the movie).

I'm only going to write about the pilot movie, as the TV series ran three more seasons and eventually went off in another direction. The New Original Wonder Woman itself can stand alone as an adaptation of Wonder Woman and her origin, as well as one of the best comic adaptations ever.

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