DVD: Wonder Woman (1974)

October 15, 2017 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Warner Archives

Region: 0 (NTSC)

Released:  December 11, 2012

Genre:  TV / Superheroes / Action

Synopsis: Early pilot for undeveloped Wonder Woman TV series for ABC.

Special Features:  (none)




After the cancellation of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series, this oddity  – an unsuccessful pilot from 1974 – floated for years in syndication, perplexing fans of the 1976-1979 show because although it was a WW feature length drama, it starred Cathy Lee Crosby in a production that just looked and felt all wrong.

The background of this stillborn 1974 series pilot for ABC is most peculiar. Writer John D.F. Black (Shaft, Trouble Man) chose a contemporary version of the heroine, pegged as the ‘new WW’: after leaving Paradise Island, Princess Diana surrenders her powers and learns martial arts from a mentor named I Ching. WW still worked with Major Steve Trevor, but Diana was put through a bizarre dramatic grinder in which Trevor was killed, she goes on a revenge bender, loses her mentor to an assassin’s bullet, and herself suffers a bout of amnesia, but returns to Paradise Island and receives a partial reconstruction of her memory.

It’s an insane direction for WW, best known to series fans as a WWII patriot and later valuable secret agent able to escape from every kind of danger. While there’s no way to tell if Black’s proposed series outline (if there was one) would’ve traveled in such extreme directions, what was filmed has Diana (Crosby), nicknamed “Dee,” playing secretary to Trevor (iron jawed Kaz Garas), but secretly working with him as a field agent.

The plot is appropriately pulpy: when a series of code books are stolen from secret locations – an oven, a desk chamber, hidden safe, and more – Diana is dispatched to France where she expects to encounter the Most Likely Suspect, Abner Smith, played by Ricardo Montalban, who’s shot in silhouette and weird angles but whom we know is the film because, well, he’s billed in the opening credits.

Smith is fascinated by WW, but slimy lieutenant George (Andrew Prine) wants her dead, so most of the pilot’s first half has Diana outsmarting a murderous limo driver, a deadly snake, poisoned wine, and an electrical fence, while Smith keeps telling ‘Georges’ to behave. It’s a villainous pairing of the sophisticated +  the not-so-bright impulsive brute, both of whom need each other.

These attempted assassinations happen at exotic locales which are preceded by obvious stock footage of lesser quality ( in one case, anachronistic footage features cars from the 1950s), and Diana regularly changes wardrobe and bracelets according to public appearances and late night sleuthing. Trevor is still working against a 36 hour deadline to cough up millions for the code books, and ultimately agrees to send the cash via a burro supplied by Smith. Naturally, a fully costumed WW follows the mild-tempered beast from a safe distance.

Sort of foiling WW’s efforts is Smith’s new henchwoman, savvy Ahnjayla (sexy Anitra Ford), one of Diana’s Paradise Island sisters who’s left the sacred group in search of money, jewels, and kicking Diana’s ass for childhood humiliations. The dramatic encounter and battle are fleeting, and Ahnjayla bows out of the narrative with a warning for an inevitable rematch which naturally never happened. WW ultimately saves America’s spies by regaining the books, and Smith salutes her victory before he’s driven away in handcuffs, leaving WW and Trevor ready for another adventure in global espionage, and tracking mild-mannered burros.

Both the ’74 pilot and the overhauled ’75 series are very tongue in cheek, but Diana’s readiness for battle has different transformations and approaches. Whereas the series incarnation would loosen her hair, spin faster ‘n faster, and ‘become’ the uniformed WW in a bright explosive flash donning bracelets and truth lasso, in the ’74 version she lugs a suitcase with assorted bracelets, and a super-belt with a regular lasso, plus a uniform made up of K-Mart jogging clothes.

Much is made of bracelets in the ’74 version, but the motif is strange: in flashbacks to Diana’s farewell to the sisters on Paradise Island, the women grasp their full extended arms, and director Vincent McVeety adds heavily repeated, loud metallic clinks. The same sound effects are repeated when Diana meets an emissary from the island who’s come to tell her at a public meeting place (the fountain and street seen in The Omega Man) of Ahnjayla’s break from the sisterhood.

The ’74 WW doesn’t use the bracelets to deflect bullets, but they’re apparently explosive, and can be used once, as more practical, non-special power endowed tools of the superhero trade. She runs fast and knows karate – maneuvers that help her defeat George’s weird Bobsy Twins thugs named Ting (Sandy Gaviola) and Thug (Steve Mitchell) – but doesn’t do the big skyward jumps typical of the TV series. WW does mention her invisible plane to Smith, but for obvious budgetary and time slot reasons (at 73 mins., the pilot was cut for a 90 min. airing), it’s never integrated into the plot.

The editing by Gene Ruggiero (Around the World in 80 Days, Marlowe) is fast and keeps the pace skipping along, but the cinematography by veteran Joseph Biroc (Viva Las Vegas, Emperor of the North, All the Marbles) is very average, and the Vaseline edges that frame the Paradise Island flashback not only fail to hide the limited studio set and background, but also blur actor faces due to bad centering.

There’s an amusing, lengthy sequence involving the burro which WW tracks to Smith’s lair (the ‘ol Bronson Canyons), and a neat trap involving a locked room and a wall of molten lava, but the latter also makes no sense: if it’s deadly lava, why’s she able to grab the steaming muddy goo and wield it like a rock at impenetrable glass?

Series fans will no doubt find this pilot’s approach odd, since Diana is quick-witted but less proactive than her series counterpart. Throughout the WWII era Season 1 and 1970s set Seasons 2 and 3, Carter’s Diana is savvy and adept with all forms of technology, whereas the ’74 pilot has WW more of an upper tier foot soldier. Even stranger is Black’s decision to have her instantly recognized by Smith & George as WW, not Diana; at least in the series, like Clark Kent, she doesn’t become a recognizable superheroine until the big glasses come off; while bespectacled, she remains a stealth agent who can disappear into any cover identity.

Artie Butler’s music is part urban jazz and orchestral pop, and works during the dramatic sequences, but his theme song is really a short motif that’s repeated until fadeout – not much of anything special.

Warner Archives’ transfer uses a clean TV master with the freeze frames that led into ad breaks just as WW seemed doomed, but pity there’s no extras contextualizing this first attempt to bring the adventures of WW to the small screen. No one should’ve been embarrassed by the effort, but it didn’t do anything to boost careers, either.  Crosby’s modest credits reside in TV, with rare leaps to feature films.

Garas was prolific in TV, Montalban carried over aspects of Smith (including the white wardrobe) to the hit series Fantasy Island (1977-1984), and Prine racked up a massive C.V. of film and TV appearances, although he’s probably best known for the Jaws riff Grizzly (1976).

Anitra Ford’s career is far more unusual, maintaining her role as a model on The New Price is Right (1972-1976) and a series of cult exploitation classics, such as The Big Bird Cage (1972), Stacey (1973), and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973).

Screenwriter Black wrote for many TV series, including Hawaii Five-O (1968-1972) and Charlie’s Angels (1977), whereas director McEveety worked almost exclusively in episodic TV and TV movies over a nearly 40 year period, including Star Trek (1966-1968) and Gunsmoke (1965-1975).

William Moulton Marston’s beloved character reappeared in animated versions until she came into her own via the standalone Wonder Woman (2017), which restored the superheroine’s powers, mythology, wit, encyclopedic knowledge, and fighting skills.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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