BOOTLEG FILES 561: “The Batgirl Pilot Episode” (1967 unaired TV pilot).
LAST SEEN: The film can be found on several online sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It finally turned up last month.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive piece of Batman lore.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Yes, it finally turned up last month.
For many years, this week’s entry was one of the most popular bootlegged offerings in the realm of “Batman” memorabilia. Last month, it finally gained a legitimate home entertainment release. But the back story surrounding this endeavor is so good that it deserves to be included in The Bootleg Files.
In the spring of 1967, the executives at ABC were in a panic. Their hit program “Batman” was concluding its second season with unexpectedly dismal ratings, and there was little enthusiasm to renew a series that lost most of its audience.
However, series producer William Dozier was convinced that “Batman” could rebound if some new energy and talent was injected into the show. His solution was to introduce a young female crime fighter as a partner for Batman and Robin. Considering that one of the network’s most popular series – the British import “The Avengers” – had a sexy female crime fighter as its leading lady, the idea seemed like a winner. And, in any event, DC Comics had reintroduced a character named Batgirl in its “Batman” series of comic books earlier that year. (An earlier version of Batgirl appeared briefly in the early 1960s.)
The problem for the network hierarchy came in Dozier’s decision to cast Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. Craig was an up-and-coming actress who acted in a number of TV series and a few films, including a pair of Elvis Presley musicals. But she was not a household name and the network leadership was uncertain if it made sense to give a major starring role to someone that was still an unknown factor to most viewers. (Some trade journal reports at the time suggested that Mary Ann Mobley was considered for the role, but there is no evidence that she ever tested for it.) To calm the network chiefs while proving his point, Dozier offered to shoot a pilot episode that would display Craig’s star power and the viability of incorporating a female lead into “Batman.”
The pilot episode only ran seven-and-a-half minutes and was not intended to be seen by the public. As a result, Dozier kept production costs to a bare minimum, confining most of the action to a single set and using only three of the “Batman” cast members (Adam West, Burt Ward and, in a brief cutaway shot, Neil Hamilton). And rather than pay for a big-name actor as the guest villain, Dozier tapped minor character actor Tim Herbert to play the nefarious Killer Moth.
The episode opens with Dozier’s booming narration. “Gotham City, like any other large metropolis, abounds in girls of all shapes and sizes,” Dozier claims, while a montage of young women parade across the screen. “Debutantes, nurses, stenographers and librarians.”
We never get to see the debutantes, nurses or stenographers, but we get to meet a librarian – Barbara Gordon, played by Yvonne Craig. As luck would have it, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his youthful ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are at the library along with another millionaire, Roger Montrose, who challenged Bruce Wayne in a bet about an obscure butterfly. Barbara produces a rare book on butterflies to help settle the bet – and speaking of butterflies, the miscreant Killer Moth and his crew are seated at a table watching the millionaires. Oddly, no one seems to notice these characters – especially since they are all wearing large hats with insect antennae.
Ah, but Bruce Wayne recognizes something is odd, and he races with Dick Grayson out of the library to change into their crime fighting costumes. Killer Moth has his gang try to abduct Roger Montrose, and they lock Barbara in a back office while their kidnapping is underway. But what they don’t realize is that Barbara has a secret closet in that office that contains her Batgirl costume.
Batman and Robin arrive and briefly fight with Killer Moth and his henchmen. But Killer Moth has a special gun that blasts out a material which creates an imprisoning cocoon around the Dynamic Duo. To everyone’s surprise, Batgirl comes flying through a window and picks up the fight, reeling off several balletic kicks and knocking books off the shelves at the criminals. Batgirl pulls out a make-up compact that contains a laser gun, and she melts away the cocoon that trapped Batman and Robin, who join her in putting an end to Killer Moth’s antics. But just as soon as the fight is over, Batgirl vanishes, leaving Batman and Robin to wonder about the surprise visit by this new crime fighter.
Years later, Yvonne Craig recalled a show-must-go-on attitude that made her performance in this pilot something of an agony. “I was terribly excited about going to work,” she stated.” I woke up, rushed to the bathroom – and promptly slammed my foot into a chair and broke my little toe. Since it was understood that I was going to be doing my own stunts on the show, I was told that I was to jump through a candy glass window as part of this presentation film. I did the stunt on the first take, and the stunt supervisor was so happy for me that he ran over to hug me – and stepped on my broken toe!”
Also creating a problem for the actress was the Batgirl mask. “For the pilot film, I wore a mask with pointed edges that left marks on my cheeks and made me look as though I had been crying for a week,” she recalled. When ABC approved the inclusion of Craig as Batgirl into “Batman,” a new mask was created that did not leave any disfiguring remnants.
The one aspect of this pilot that is interesting is the light bantering edge between Batman and Batgirl during the fight sequence. Batman is initially something of a stuffy father figure in his attitude toward Batgirl, but she responds playfully and views the Caped Crusader as an equal rather than as a role model. There is nothing overtly sexual in this exchange, but there is a chemistry between West’s paternal Batman and Craig’s saucy Batgirl that, sadly, would not be plumbed as Batgirl became a part of the show’s third season.
When Batgirl officially became part of “Batman,” the character was introduced in an episode tied to Burgess Meredith’s Penguin character; the Killer Moth character never became part of the series. Alas, the arrival of Batgirl and the injection of a series of new sexy villains – including Joan Collins, Barbara Rush, Zsa Zsa Gabor and, most notably, Eartha Kitt’s replacement of Julie Newmar as Catwoman – failed to bring back the “Batman” viewership. (It didn’t help that ABC cut the show from a twice-a-week affair to a once-a-week offering.) The third season of “Batman” proved to be its last.
The seven-and-a-half minute Batgirl pilot disappeared after the series ended its network run. Over the years, bootleg copies circulated among Batman enthusiasts. When YouTube and other online video sites began to gain in popularity, this rare film found new viewers via the Internet, albeit in horribly duped versions that looked like they were at least 10 generations removed from the original source. Recently, Warner Bros. has been actively forcing the removal of these unauthorized postings from YouTube and other sites as part of the preparation for the long-overdue DVD/Blu-ray release of the complete “Batman” series, which hit retail channels last month. But while a proper home entertainment release is now available, the bootleg clips are still online – a reminder of the power of fans when it comes to keeping elusive materials alive in a grey market environment.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.