At five years old, there was no-one in the world that I wanted to grow up to be more than Wonder Woman, more specifically Wonder Woman as embodied by the fabulous Lynda Carter. Sadly, instead of a statuesque brunette, I turned out to be a medium-short, prematurely grey-haired sorta-ginger; of good hearty peasant stock, with the build and athleticism to match. Oh, I’m strong enough, reasonably fit only by virtue of military service (trust me, if they had given me a choice…) and too good of a cook for my own waistline, but no-one will ever consider me the epitome of power, grace and beauty. And no-one has seen fit to gift me with an invisible jet.
But the beauteous Lynda was neither the first, nor the last, live-action incarnation of the Amazon princess to grace the small screen. Three very different young women have taken on the role for television, and each interpretation is so different as to nearly qualify as a different character entirely.
In honor of the fact that Diana of Themyscira will finally be making her long-delayed jump to the big screen in 2016, (though not, sadly, in her own movie) I present this three-part series exploring three very different takes on the character.
Tennis star Cathy Lee Crosby was the first to essay the role, and her interpretation is so different from anything seen before or since that it is hard to believe she is supposed to be the Wonder Woman we all know and love. This ABC pilot movie was broadcast, but never picked up for series. It would turn up on cable (generally on one of the Turner networks) quasi-regularly throughout my childhood.
*NO* I’m not going to offer you spoiler warnings. If you expect spoiler warnings about 40-year-old TV movies, are you ever in the wrong place! Besides, it’s a Wonder Woman movie, how do you expect it to end?
Wonder Woman (1974)
Let’s get all of the disappointments that devastated me as a kid out of the way early. This Wonder Woman is blonde, has no powers whatsoever, no magic lasso, no bullet deflecting bracelets, no secret identity, does almost all her crime fighting in street clothes (though they are red, white and blue) and even when she’s in costume, wears a very practical one, never seen before or since. If you understand all this from the very beginning, and don’t expect any of those things to make an appearance during the next 73 minutes, you’ll find that what follows is a reasonably serviceable secret agent flick, even if rather bland and goofy, in a brown-and-harvest-gold-70’s-TV-movie kind of way.
In the cold open we watch five fake MPs stealing five sets of code books from US military sites around the globe. They report in to their employer with the books, but before they can claim their reward they are all gunned down by a terribly ugly set of androgynous twins, one male, one female, the ugliness (and I suppose the androgyny) enhanced by the horrible matching 70’s fashions (Naugahyde? Blech!) and hairdos.
Only after that set-up do we get opening credits: A very generic 70’s Moog and brass theme plays over star-spangled silhouettes of Wonder Woman fighting with a bo staff. Both the music and the credit style suggest Charlie’s Angels except this precedes that show by several years.
Next comes an awkward flashback to Paradise Island (or Themyscira or wherever, this version fails to name it at all) where we are told in voiceover about Wonder Woman’s imminent departure. These are a very multicultural bunch of amazons, in fact skin color seems to be the closest thing to a character trait any of them can muster. Except one, whom I dubbed Pissed-Off Amazon, (her real name is supposed to be Ahnjayla (Anitra Ford), and yes that’s how the credits spell it, which I decided was even stupider than Pissed-Off Amazon, so my sobriquet stuck) who is mad she isn’t getting to see all the wonders of Man’s World. Think that might come back to haunt us later? This is our first glimpse of Cathy Lee Crosby and while she is lovely, she’s certainly not the curvaceous brunette stunner of the comics. Damn, this dialogue is stilted and awkward (and vomit inducing). “[She] will open closed eyes to the genuine value of women.” And the “sensitivity that is our real strength.” Personally, my real strength is the power of a loaded .9mm and a swift kick to the balls, but hey, you go girl!
So boom, now she’s a secretary (way to show the ‘genuine value of women’) for some unnamed (and very, very beige) government agency. For some reason, despite the fact that she has no secret identity in this universe and never wears a disguise, no other agent, aside from Steve Trevor (Kaz Garas), seem to know that Dee, the secretary, is Wonder Woman, so she is left out of their meetings to (wo)man the phones. Of course, Steve leaves the intercom open while he talks to the official agents so she will know what mission to go on unofficially. Confused yet?
In case you care, the stolen code books contained a list of all field agents for the agency, with their cover identities and assignments, plus every military and diplomatic code used by the USA. That seems like an awful lot of info to just leave lying around unencrypted on paper, even if you physically separated the different sections of the list, but nobody ever accused our intelligence agencies of, well, intelligence. The theft occurred just after the last set time for field agents to call in, which happens every 72 hours. This means that for the next 3 days, until they can be warned of the breach, all field agents’ covers are blown and they are vulnerable to attack. The books are being held for ransom for the paltry sum of 15 million dollars cash, payable in 48 hours (even by 1974 standards that seems like a low bid for information that would completely cripple US diplomatic and military intelligence, potentially for years. I kept picturing Dr. Evil wittering on about “One. MILLION. Dollars!”).
Holy crap this office is beige.
There are three candidates for mastermind of the theft, naturally. All in different countries. Fortunately, because of Wonder Woman’s ‘intuition’ she is immediately able to tell Steve that the real culprit is the one in Paris, so our red herrings are eliminated 12 minutes into a 73 minute movie, which saves some time (thank God) and the expense of pretending to film in multiple ‘exotic’ locals.
With a wink and nod, Dee tells Steve she is taking time off for ‘dental work’ *wink, wink*. Who the heck is this masquerade for?!? He knows who she is, he intentionally let her listen in on his conversation with his team of agents, then asked her what she thought about the situation! At what point does some mysterious need for plausible deniability come into play here? As she heads off to Paris, he worries about her, but not too much, because she’s Wonder Woman.
She is immediately spotted (by the male Androgynous Twin from the cold open) checking into a Paris hotel because she has no secret identity. And yes, I do keep pointing this out because the rigmarole she just went through with Steve at the agency makes absolutely no frigging sense in light of this fact. Of course she just happens to check into one of the hotels controlled by the mysterious criminal mastermind Mr. Abner Smith, because Paris is really tiny and doesn’t have a lot of places to stay. We hear Mr. Smith tell his head henchman George (Andrew Prine) that she is merely to be delayed the requisite 72 hours and not killed, because he, unlike his goons, is a gentleman.
This is all shot from behind a chair, with only the villain’s hands showing as he gives instructions. He will be shot this way for most of the movie to keep us in suspense until his eventual identity is revealed. This would be great, if only Ricardo Montalban’s voice wasn’t instantly recognizable, even in 1974, and his name wasn’t displayed prominently in the opening credits. Honestly, it was at least the third time I saw this movie before I even realized that his identity is supposed to be a surprise.
Immediately after checking in to the hotel, Wonder Woman is attacked in the elevator by male Androgynous Twin. Nevertheless, after throwing him out of the lift, she just goes to her room as if this is no big deal. Even finding a bug in her room doesn’t convince her that perhaps another hotel might be in order. Apparently, with all the gods that gifted Diana at her creation, the common-sense fairy was not amongst them. While she unpacks we see she has only brought red, white, and blue clothing. I guess when you have no secret identity compulsive theme dressing isn’t a disadvantage. She also has a whole rack of different pairs of bracelets, I suppose each is supposed to be a different spy gadget, but none appear to deflect bullets. I have no doubt that if this had gone to series we would have seen a pair do something new each week. We also see her belt, which contains a hook and very thin retractable rope (nope, no lasso), but doesn’t seem to confer any super abilities.
Henchman George calls Wonder Woman for a date, where he tries to buy off her interest in the books with a sailing trip and champagne and sex. Dear lord, this is awkward. She leaves to check in with Steve. At least she has sense to call in to the agency from a pay phone outside the hotel. Why the heck is she still staying here? A car comes to run her down and…
Every damn commercial break is preceded by a cliffhanger. Every. Damn. One. It’s the friggin’ Perils of Pauline here. Wonder Woman will look shocked (or more precisely, dully surprised) then red, white, and blue bars will wipe the screen. It is a pretension that gets old pretty fast. Particularly the when the exciting escape at the return is, um, stepping aside so the car doesn’t hit her.
But hey, the suitcase full of bracelets does turn out to be useful. She plants a tracker bracelet on the car as it goes by. But, since she is dealing with a master criminal here, it leads only to the pool of an empty house, with a fake party (and fake drowning) to lure her in. Mr. Smith calls her on the poolside telephone so we can enjoy some painfully dull ‘banter’ between the two. At this point we learn that the bad guys also know that she’s an agent working for Trevor, so what the unholy heck was up with that secretary scene? Clearly the six agents that were in that room are the only people on the planet that don’t know 1) that Dee is Wonder Woman, 2) that she is a secret agent and 3) that she works under Steve.
She returns to her hotel room. Again, why the hell is she still staying here? The Androgyny Twins await her this time, along with George. It’s a kidnapping! Wonder Woman’s going sailing whether she likes it or not. George naturally wants her to give him an excuse to just kill her and be done with it, which, come to think of it, doesn’t seem like a bad idea when dealing with a highly trained secret agent. But that’s not important. It’s cliffhanger time. She’s about to be attacked by the Androgyny Twins and stuffed in a trunk…
Disappointingly, she just steps slightly back out of range and quickly kung-fus everyone unconscious. Wonder Woman checks out of the hotel and heads to New York based on airplane tickets she finds in George’s pocket. She is there less than two minutes before being spotted by yet another of Mr. Smith’s goons. Because she has no secret identity.
Meanwhile, Mr. Smith sends a giant package to Steve. What’s this, a jackass? Is this a commentary on whoever wrote this stuff? No, no, it’s just the required transportation to deliver the ransom.
And the Androgyny Twins somehow beat Wonder Woman to her New York hotel, (how many of these damn things does Abner secretly control?) leaving behind a box with a poisonous snake in it. Or a harmless black racer, one or the other. I guess George has decided to take matters into his own hands after his beatdown at the hands of a girl. Said snake promptly wraps itself docilely around Wonder Woman’s ankle. How could she possibly escape this fiendish trap? Why, she tips a hotel waiter to lure it away with a glass of milk. Because snakes are known for their irresistible desire for dairy products. For some odd reason the soundtrack makes it sound like the snake is purring. Maybe it’s supposed to be a kittysnake, hence why the milk worked.
Randomly, Black Amazon from the beginning of the film turns up to warn Diana that Pissed-Off Amazon has left the island and been banished, then vanishes from the movie immediately thereafter. What was the point of that again? Particularly given that the very next scene shows that Pissed-Off Amazon has teamed up with Mr. Smith this very day. Her price for helping him appears to be tacky jewelry. Lots of tacky jewelry. She’s been hired to keep George in check. Because the best person to keep him from killing Wonder Woman is a murderously angry Amazon with her own grudge against Diana.
Back at the agency of ultimate beigeness, their cut-rate Q plants trackers of various sorts on the burro and covers it in phosphorescent paint. Three guesses how that will turn out against a supervillain and the first two don’t count. Steve and another agent bring the bugged burro to a ghost town, slap it on the butt and send it on its way with the cash.
Woohoo! 42 minutes in and we finally get to see Cathy Lee Crosby in her (very practical) Wonder Woman costume as she turns up in the ghost town. She wears a zip front red knit tunic, with long blue star-spangled sleeves and a gold eagle embroidered on the left breast (over her heart, aww). This is worn over blue leggings, tucked into knee-high black flat boots. At least I won’t be worrying that she will break an ankle trying to run in heels.
Uh oh, Snipers!
Um, they (it’s the Twins again) simply lose sight of her before shooting and she somehow, I don’t know, teleports? across the street to the building they are in, sneaks up behind them and kung-fus them out cold once more. She follows the burro to a stable where all the tracking devices are deactivated, but it turns out that Steve expected this all along, and knows she is there to track the burro physically. There’s a flash of light, the burro disappears and the room turns into a walls-closing-in deathtrap. Which her stuntwoman escapes at last minute. What, no cliffhanger? I’m disappointed.
The burro wanders into Ro-Man’s cave and becomes 4 burros to confuse anyone who is trying to follow it, while Pissed-Off Amazon and George (in a you-have-to-be-kidding-me safari suit, which he will now wear for no discernible reason for the rest of the movie) wait in the desert for its arrival. Ahnjayla shows of her javelin skills (*plot point*) while they wait, because they are now as tired of hanging around as the audience is. Shockingly, when the burro shows up, Wonder Woman is riding it despite all the prior shenanigans. So Pissed-Off Amazon tries to kill her with a thrown javelin…
Wonder Woman catches it, because of course she does, then throws it back to land by Pissed-Off Amazon’s feet. Oh damn, now they’re going to jaw about how well matched they are and how they will never be friends again. They send George off with the donkey and the money, then fight using javelins as bo staffs. The funny part is that they aren’t well matched at all. Cathy Lee clearly (and I mean *clearly*) has had some martial arts training, she holds her staff correctly and shows decent footwork and proper form when countering. Her counterpart either stabs or swings the staff like a baseball bat, making the difference glaringly obvious. They are also very careful to never film Anitra making contact with her staff, always swapping out for a stuntwoman at the last minute. You really wonder why they couldn’t have bothered to at least give her some rudimentary fight choreography training, since this is supposed to be the big showdown between the two. Let just say that there isn’t a lot of suspense regarding Diana’s inevitable victory.
As Pissed-Off Amazon previously owes her life to Diana, (something, something, childhood) she tells her where the money is being taken. Cancelling the life-debt and leaving her free to try and murder Diana like a good weekly nemesis when this goes to series (oops, sorry). She then disappears from the rest of the movie. Cathy Lee tries to get all teary-eyed about the departure of her former friend and sister, but the best she can manage is the look of a woman with moderate PMS.
The jackass arrives at the hideout (yeah, George brings the burro too) and presents the money to Mr. Smith, who offers George an extra million in his cut of the cash if Wonder Woman hasn’t succeeded in following him. George scoffs at the suggestion, which naturally means the next cut shows her approaching the entrance, only to have a gun put to her head by the henchman…
Hey, this time she actually gets captured and walked up to the parlor! Mr. Smith rises from the chair…
And is, um, still Ricardo Montalban. This is a firm contender for the title of the least surprising shocking reveal in TV movie history. He gets all charming and offers her wine. They exchange more painful ‘banter’, at which point we learn that his supervillain hideout is in the North Wall of the Grand Canyon (which has been conveniently moved right next door to Bronson Canyon for the purposes of this film).
George walks out disgusted. I wish I had that option.
In case you were wondering, we have reached info-dump territory, dedicated entirely in this case to filling in very small plot holes while ignoring all the giant ones. For example we learn she got to New York at the same time as Mr. Smith by use of her invisible plane. Unlike Lynda Carter though, when this Wonder Woman is in the plane she’s invisible too. No, they never show it, we have to take the movie’s word for on this. Yes folks, this is a movie so cheap they couldn’t afford to show us a Barbie in a clear plastic jet on a string.
Mr. Smith offers to leave the code books behind with her and take the money, but she refuses; he broke the law and the rules of basic morality. So he gives her a tour instead, showing her the tiny cave/hanger where he’s stashed his helicopter, because that makes total sense. Smith and Wonder Woman ‘banter’ some more (make it stop) but he won’t let her touch his helicopter because she won’t promise not to sabotage it. At this point even Diana looks irritated that he won’t quit talking about how clever she is.
Oops, one of her bracelets is missing! And Abner notices. She (no, I couldn’t tell you how) used it to sabotage the helicopter anyway and it blows up! All the henchmen stumble out of the hanger and chase Wonder Woman as she tries to run away down a tunnel with the saddlebags of cash and the books. She screeches to a halt as the Androgyny Twins shoot at her feet. George orders the male (who, at this point finally turns out to be named Joey) to take the cash and the books, but Mr. Smith insists that she keep the books as it was a ‘deal’ and his word has to be good. He and George start to fight over whether or not to just kill her one last time. And with a last admiring quip Mr. Smith locks her out of the secret lair.
Except, it’s a trap, the far end of the exit tunnel is covered by a transparent barrier. Of course the barrier back at the hideout end conveniently stops about 2 feet shy of the ceiling, I wonder if that’s going to be important?
And we finally learn that the female twin is Cass as Mr. Smith pays off his henchmen and sends the Burro to live at a good home with lots of children. Good grief! He sneaks out of a secret passage with the money. George then shoots the Androgyny Twins in cold blood as soon as Abner is out of the room and steals their share of the cash. Just in case you hadn’t figured out that he’s a dick. Farewell Joey and Cass, we hardly knew ye. He then follows after Abner, who’s probably going to be a little pissed when he finds out he’s down two perfectly good henchpeople.
We return to the tunnel to find Wonder Woman using her belt rope and a grappling hook bracelet to climb over the barrier and back in to the lair. Meanwhile Mr. Smith is about to escape in a small, (by which I mean about 4 1/2 foot long) motorless rubber dinghy, which I guess he keeps in reserve for those days his helicopter blows up. George appears and draws a gun on him demanding the rest of the money, but gets dumped in the river for his trouble. George can’t swim, so sad, I suppose it says something for Andrew Prine’s acting ability that you are genuinely glad to see him die. Wonder Woman gets to the dock just too late to stop Smith, but conveniently finds a motorcycle in his parlor! And rides off cross country to chase him down, conveniently bypassing the two locked barriers between her and the outside world while she’s off camera. Maybe the motorcycle can scale walls too.
By using the motorcycle, Wonder Woman beats Mr. Smith to the next bridge, dives into the water and grabs the boat with her hands, which apparently means the movie is now over. Some regular cops show up and arrest him, which seems odd for a guy who frankly qualifies as an international terrorist at this point, but hey, I’m not going to argue if this wraps things up. Mr. Smith heads of to the pokey with these poignant final words, “Wonder Woman, I love you.”
Now Dee’s back in the office being a secretary while Steve harries her about personnel evaluations and meeting schedules, because that’s ‘funny’. And we end with a lame joke about her ‘dentist trip’. Well the movie does, I end shaking my head.
In truth there are very good reasons for how very oddly this incarnation of the Amazon princess turned out. Back in 1968 the Powers That Be at DC Comics had decided that their heroine needed to be brought up to date, after all, she’d evolved very little since her origins during WWII. Their answer was to strip her of her costume and powers, kill off Steve Trevor, (he got better, they always get better) and have her reinvent herself as Diana Prince, mod boutique owner and non-powered secret agent à la Emma Peel. When ABC commissioned Wonder Woman, this was the version current in the comics and was the one they asked that the script be based on. Unfortunately, several months before broadcast, DC acknowledged how very unpopular their changes had been by restoring her powers and returning to the status quo. That left ABC with a property on their hands that they could do very little with, as they were stuck with a character who no longer reflected the comics, and after broadcast the movie was quickly forgotten. Only one year later ABC would try again.
So given that this is supposed to be a very different Wonder Woman than we’re used to, how does the movie hold up? It’s still a pretty mixed bag I’m afraid, one issue is how very, very cheap it looks. Clearly the studio they were filming in was quite small as all the interior sets are tight to the point of claustrophobia, Steve and Dee’s offices in particular (which I suspect are the exact same set) are full to overflowing when the small group of agents appear for briefing. The office walls aren’t even permanent, but built of those beige partition panels that were so popular in schools built during the era as they could be rearranged and reconfigured at need. There is one example of an ‘outdoor’ painted backdrop so laughably bad that it would have been rejected in a 1960s era episode of Doctor Who for being unrealistic (actually, come to think of it, there are two, the worst is the one of the canyon floor when Wonder Woman is locked between the transparent barriers, but the one on Paradise Island is nearly as risible). Even some of the sillier bits of the script seem to flow directly from a lack of budget. There are far too many examples of people telling us things that they should have been showing us.
Of course the character of Wonder Woman lives and dies by the actress who portrays her, and she is not this movie’s strong point. Cathy Lee Crosby is a lovely woman, but she was an athlete, rather than an actress. When she’s called on to smile winsomely at the camera she’s fine, but you certainly never feel any sense whatsoever of who she’s supposed to be as a person. And the less said about her attempts to emote, the better. She was much more successful in her years hosting That’s Incredible!, where her smile and charming personality were all that were really needed as the focus was on the show’s guests rather than her and her co-hosts.
In the end, it’s no better or worse than the bulk of the TV Movies of the Week made during the era. It has the advantage of being reasonably short (at 73 minutes) and certainly, as you can see from the recap above, plenty of things happen to fill those 73 minutes. It’s only a shame that each episode within is resolved so quickly and with so little creativity.
Verdict: Reasonable time-waster of a TV secret agent flick, just so long as you don’t go into it with the delusion that it’s a Wonder Woman picture.
NEXT WEEK: ABC TRIES AGAIN…
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3 thoughts on “The Three Faces of Wonder Woman: A Television History – Part 1”
The big question is, would Super Girl kick Wonder Woman’s ass or not?
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I’m not sure, but I’m certain Lynda Carter would beat the snot out of Helen Slater.
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