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The New, Original Wonder Woman (1975)

Well, if Lynda Carter is untying Lyle Waggoner from another fine mess he’s gotten himself into, we must be watching Wonder Woman. Conventional wisdom has it that the first season of this show, the one on ABC that was set during World War Two, was pretty good before it devolved into yet another seventies super-agent series later on. However, this very dopey pilot movie isn’t really all that encouraging.

It could have been a lot worse. ABC had been interested in doing a Wonder Woman series for almost a decade. In 1967, with Batman beginning its tailspin, the network asked that show’s producer, William Dozier, for a very short test film. The result, with Linda Harrison as Wonder Woman, is allegedly a comedy but is the least funny thing ever taped. In 1973, Cathy Lee Crosby starred in a pilot which is notable – if that’s the right word – for having a Steve Trevor, played by Kaz Garas, who’s more interesting than the title character.

Finally, Douglas S. Cramer’s company got the go-ahead and he picked Stanley Ralph Ross to write a script that actually acknowledged an existing comic book character. It’s actually a perfectly acceptable pilot script, and both Carter and Waggoner play their roles fabulously. Unfortunately, they’re the only actors in this misbegotten seventy-five minutes who got the memo that this was an action drama. They underplay their characters and are perfectly watchable. Everybody else in the movie thinks this is an episode of Batman and they keep mugging at the camera, and delivering their lines as if they’re jokes.

And it’s a great cast, too, which is what makes this so darn painful. Kenneth Mars is the main Nazi, with Henry Gibson as his subordinate, who’s secretly a spy for the Americans. Red Buttons, Stella Stevens, and Severn Darden are Nazi spies working in the US. Everybody’s being comedy bad guys, but the script isn’t written to be funny. On the non-villain front, Cloris Leachman plays Paradise Island’s Queen Hippolyta as though there are one or two people in Burbank who couldn’t see or hear her. Both the roles of Hippolyta and General Blankenship, played here by John Randolph, would be recast when the series began a few months later.

Our son was mostly interested in the fight scenes, of course. We gave him a quick history lesson last night to get him prepped for the wartime setting, and explained that this was a time where everybody was spying on each other, and there were lots of bad guys posing as good guys. Surprisingly, though, the thing that confused him the most was a theatrical agent, played by Buttons, offering to hire Wonder Woman and do her bullets-and-bracelets trick onstage. When Buttons’ character turns out to be a spy, it feels for all the world like they already had one actor booked and didn’t want to pay a second.

Actually, I’ll tell you the strangest thing about this script: it spends the whole thing establishing Henry Gibson as the Allies’ man in Germany and he gets completely dropped after this. I cheated and looked ahead down Gibson’s insanely long list of credits, and while he did return to Wonder Woman for a week, that was once the show relocated to the present day and got lousy.

I’m really hopeful that the rest of the wartime series is better than this. It had a very odd network run; ABC ordered thirteen episodes after this pilot did well. They ran the first two as specials at the tail end of the 1975-76 season, and then the remaining eleven in 1976-77. ABC then canceled it, and CBS picked it up and brought it to the present day in a pair of 24-episode seasons.

I certainly remember enjoying the wartime Wonder Woman the most. Fingers crossed that it won’t let us down!

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Monster Squad 1.12 – Lawrence of Moravia

You can tell this episode of Monster Squad was made forty years ago. The villain complains that the price of oil is too high at sixty cents a gallon to boil our heroes in it. Instead, he locks them in one of those drowning tanks that villains on adventure TV shows have. Our son clutched his security blanket very tightly indeed tonight. He really loved the final fight, which had a bit more of the “imitable” body blows that I believe the censors did not like than in other episodes. Also, remembering what I said about silver bullets two episodes ago, this time out the villain claims to have a gun and plans to shoot Bruce, but a gun is not actually shown on screen.

The baddie is Lawrence of Moravia, who claims to be the fifth richest person in the world. (A used car salesman in Cleveland is the richest. Sounds like a joke from a Stanley Ralph Ross script to me.) I love how Frank politely refers to him as “Mr. Of Moravia.” He’s played by Joseph Mascolo, who had starred with Jack Palance in the bizarrely-named cop show Bronk the previous season and is best known for his work in soap operas. He’s a semi-regular performer on Days of Our Lives, playing the role of Stefano DiMera in over 1600 episodes over the last thirty-odd years.

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Monster Squad 1.11 – The Weatherman

I vividly remember “The Weatherman” from my childhood. In part that’s because the villain was on the Milton-Bradley board game – bottom center if I remember rightly – and in part because the episode taught me that Alaska was the largest of the states. In an insane and beautiful coincidence, this morning the episode also taught our son that very same fact. Like me forty years ago, he thought Texas was the biggest state. That’s what it looks like on most maps!

And this fact messed me up on a class project in school, not in kindergarten for the 1976 election, but four years later, when Reagan the elephant and Carter the donkey and Anderson the large letter I were trying to win states in an educational group game. I insisted beyond reason that whichever candidate my team was assigned absolutely had to win Alaska, because it was the largest state. And that’s how I learned how the electoral college works. Blasted Monster Squad.

And this fact is important today, because the plot of the episode concerns the Weatherman holding the entire nation to ransom by covering it in snow and ice on July 4th and demanding a special election to make him president. (He gets 126% in Illinois, I observe without comment.) As soon as I finish writing this silly thing, my son and I are in fact off to the polls to cast my vote. What a cute coincidence!

The Weatherman is played by the unmistakable Avery Schreiber, of course. I remember once about twenty years ago that Schreiber came up in conversation sometime and somehow and my best friend didn’t know who he was. Somebody mentioned he was Jack Burns’ partner and he didn’t know who Burns was, either. You know, fat guy, bushy moustache… he was the Weatherman in Monster Squad! How we managed without IMDB and Wikipedia on our phones.

Anyway, go vote, everybody! Let’s have 126% turnout this year! I read that a Trump voter in Iowa was arrested yesterday for voting twice in Des Moines, so we’re on the way!

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Monster Squad 1.5 – Music Man

After the previous episode of this show, which was a deeply unfunny trainwreck, it’s back to silliness, wit, puns, and in-jokes with “Music Man.” This script, like the first three, is just so much better than it needed to be. It’s easy to overlook the dopey production since the jokes are so good.

The villain this week is played by Marty Allen. He plays a no-talent singer who robs a telethon and his name is, if you’re ready, Lorenzo Musica. There are gags about Rona Barrett, President Buchanan, Rin Tin Tin, and Lassie. Stanley Ralph Ross co-wrote the script with Chuck McCann and Earle Doud, and Ross played the host of a TV telethon to fight natural causes. As in, the leading cause of death is natural causes.

In a double in-joke, in the real world, Ross actually used to don a tuxedo and work the phones at the annual Chabad Telethon. So here’s the second link to Mark Evanier’s site in one week, because as soon as I realized that was Ross playing the comedian begging for money, I remembered this great story about how Ross would take the phones when people called to complain about the telethon. You should check that out.

Our son loved it even if he can’t be expected to get any of the really funny show business in-jokes, and probably doesn’t even know who Rin Tin Tin was. It ends with another deeply ridiculous fight scene which had him guffawing. Marty Allen was a trouper, especially with the costume and makeup people turning him into a horrible version of Roy Wood or Gary Glitter, but I wasn’t surprised that he just barely participated in that part of the story, and allowed himself to be taken out of the action pretty much instantly rather than prolong the embarrassment.

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Monster Squad 1.2 – Mr. Mephisto

Since his mother missed out on tonight’s episode, she was treated to a breathless recap of the mid-show deathtrap. Our son is absolutely loving this series, and, excitement overflowing, he explained that Dracula and Frank N. Stein were going to get turned into sausage – blood sausage and a frankfurter, of course – and then the Wolfman crashed through the window to rescue them, and I thought the kid was going to pop. I explained that we’ll probably watch the next episode Sunday morning. Waiting that long, he’ll definitely pop.

The villain this week is Mr. Mephisto, a crooked dollmaker played by Barry Dennen. We saw him several months ago as one of Shane’s hilarious henchmen in a season three Batman story. Dennen has had an amazing number of small roles over the course of his career, but he may be best known as that deliberately, extraordinarily normal character in The Shining who shows the Torrances around the hotel.

I’m absolutely loving all the underplayed gags and puns in this show, dropped without winks or tuning up the volume on the laugh track, just simply mentioned in the dialogue as naturally as any other information. This time out, there’s a gentle lob thrown at “Sid and Marty Craft,” lyrics from “Paper Doll” and “Guys and Dolls,” and the first appearance of a recurring character played by Griffin GA’s own Edward Andrews. He plays a guy named Goldwyn who is the mayor of the city, and we learn in this story that this city is simply called “Metro.” That’s right, Metro Mayor Goldwyn. We also learn that the wax museum is owned by a woman called Mrs. Tallow. For such a dumb show, it sure is making me chuckle.

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Monster Squad 1.1 – Queen Bee

An astonishing true fact: for several weeks in 1976-77 when Monster Squad was on the air, it was my favorite TV show. To say that it has aged badly isn’t really accurate. It was honestly not good in the first place, but wow, they got some fun guest stars.

So, William P. D’Angelo, who was briefly the head of NBC’s children’s programming, had created the hit Run, Joe, Run in 1974. In ’76, he formed a production company with Harvey Bullock and Ray Allen, and they produced a film (The Nativity), a couple of TV specials, and a handful of series. These included the first season of Alice and a whole mess of live-action Saturday morning shows, like The Red Hand Gang, McDuff the Talking Dog, Big John Little John and this adorably dopey show. With a lot of help from Stanley Ralph Ross, with whom D’Angelo worked on Batman, they stole the hearts of all hundred and two people who actually watched this series.

I adored it. I had the coloring book, the magic slate, and the Milton-Bradley board game, which immortalized a couple of the Monster Squad’s baddies long after this show was canceled and forgotten. If it was ever repeated anywhere, it’s news to me. When a company called Fabulous put it out on DVD a few years ago, I thought it was an April Fool’s prank. They pressed enough copies to sell to all hundred and two people who knew what it was, and it’s been out of print ever since.

So it’s a superhero show, starring famous monsters. A young criminology student played by Fred Grandy, later to serve the good people of Iowa in Congress, builds a supercomputer in the basement of a wax museum where he works. The computer’s “oscillations” bring statues of Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s Monster to life, and, feeling guilty about all the naughty things their real incarnations did, they vow to fight crime.

Okay, so that origin is actually a lot sillier than Captain Scarlet’s.

The show was made for no money at all. I’ve said that about shows we’ve watched here before, but I mean it this time. They didn’t even have enough green makeup for Michael Lane’s eyelids. Lane plays Frank N. Stein, and Buck Kartalian – occasionally a gorilla in the Apes movies – is Bruce W. Wolf, and Henry Polic II, best known as the sheriff in When Things Were Rotten, is Count Dracula. A typical Monster Squad installment has two sets: the goodies’ base, and the baddies’ base. Using the budgetary know-how that D’Angelo and Ross got from season three of Batman, the baddies’ base is inevitably a black “limbo” set, with props and dressing in front of black curtains.

So all the money went to the guest stars, and there are some very, very surprising faces turning up here for, what, maybe two days work for a couple hundred bucks? The Monster Squad’s first arch-villain is the Queen Bee, played by the amazing Alice Ghostley, who was in darn near everything back then, from Bewitched to Grease. One of her “henchbees” is Hamilton Camp, who would later play one of the versions of HG Wells in the timey-wimey episodes of Lois & Clark.

The budget is totally ignored by the writing, which assumes the show will be able to pull off anything. Actually, as scripts, they’re not bad. I like how the writers throw out some gags just in case anybody’s paying attention and the actors underplay them. This time, there are acronyms for agencies that spell out the US TV networks. A later episode has a parody of the just-launched Famous Amos cookie brand, which nobody outside Los Angeles had heard of at the time.

From adult eyes, it’s cringe-inducing and dopey, but it’s perfect for children. Ours watched with curiosity and interest until the fight scene at the end – about which, more in a later installment – and then he started hopping up and down and punching the air. He absolutely loved it. I don’t imagine anybody over the age of about nine could embrace this very much, but this seems like one of the neatest things he’s ever seen.

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Batman 3.25 – The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra

Far out, baby! Your mind’ll be blown when those wild hepcats, the mad mod Dr. Cassandra and Cabala, totally flatten those square superheroes, Daddy-O! Or not.

So here’s Stanley Ralph Ross’s final episode of the show, and it appears to have been made for no money at all. They didn’t have budget left for stuntmen in the fight scene – which, in the episode’s best moment, Commissioner Gordon clocks at usually lasting forty seconds – so the villains are given invisible pills. Then Batman turns out the lights.

The villains include six of the most famous arch-criminals on the show, all freed from jail to work with Dr. Cassandra: Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Egghead, and, bizarrely, King Tut, whom we just saw two installments previously restored to health and memory. The villains are played by stand-ins who don’t get any dialogue and who aren’t seen in close-up. It’s a phenomenal missed opportunity on one hand – again, imagine how a contemporary superhero series would do this at the end of a season – but it completely convinced Daniel. This might have been one of the highlights of the entire series to him, seeing six classic villains teamed up with newcomers. He’s too young to realize what a big fake-out it really is! And he loved the fight. Seeing our heroes flail around the set being “punched” by invisible villains had him howling with laughter.

As for the newcomers, they’re played by Ida Lupino and her husband Howard Duff. The actors were actually separated at the time, but they wouldn’t get around to divorcing for another sixteen years! Lupino had a long list of disparate film and TV credits and is remembered as one of the first women directors in Hollywood, with a few movies and lots of sixties TV episodes – everything from The Fugitive to Gilligan’s Island – to her credit. Duff had played Sam Spade for years on radio, and starred in ABC’s Felony Squad. He’d actually made a Batclimb cameo in season two in character as his Squad character Detective Stone. Together, the couple had starred in the CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve for two seasons in the fifties.

Tune in next time for the final episode, and, more than a year after she was first approached to play a role, Zsa Zsa Gabor!

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Batman 3.23 – I’ll Be a Mummy’s Uncle

Yes, I know it isn’t fair to hold fifty year-old TV programs to contemporary standards, but why, why didn’t they hold this one back and use it as the season – and consequently – series finale? They must have known that the ratings were in the basement and a renewal probably wasn’t happening, and this episode, ever so briefly, provides the first time that a villain invades the Batcave and knows where it is. It’s all resolved by amnesia-gas and a blow to Tut’s head, but for just a moment… this looked game-changing in a way that sixties television so rarely is.

It’s also tremendously entertaining from start to finish. Almost all of Stanley Ralph Ross’s scripts were great, (and one more of the final three is his), and he had a ball writing for Tut and Victor Buono certainly had a ball playing him. There’s also a tremendously amusing bit of continuity here, when Tut finds the Batdummy that deceived him in the previous episode and petulantly beats it up!

Also appearing this week: Henny Youngman, the “take my wife…please!” guy, in an unbilled cameo as the real estate agent who sells Tut the plot of land next to Wayne Manor (Bruce totally should have checked to make sure the land didn’t have any abandoned mine shafts in it), and Angela Dorian, who was yet another Playboy Playmate – I think the third – to show up in this series.

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