Wednesday, August 19, 2015

RIP Yvonne Craig (1937-2015)

As a young BATMAN fan, I didn't know what to expect when Season 3 commenced (after a second season whose wobbliness even my 11-year-old self noticed) with the promise of introducing Batgirl. But long before puberty struck, I had learned who Yvonne Craig was, from a series of feature film roles I had seen: GIDGET, the Elvis vehicles IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD'S FAIR and KISSIN' COUSINS, SKI PARTY (AIP's indoor beach picture, also well remembered for featuring James Brown and His Famous Flames), and the MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. movie ONE SPY TOO MANY (in which she is unforgettable as the sunbathing U.N.C.L.E. receptionist), as well as a lot of television. I must have seen some of her many appearances on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS and 77 SUNSET STRIP, or on PERRY MASON, WAGON TRAIN or I'M DICKENS, HE'S FENSTER (all of which I watched regularly in those pre-teen days). I can't remember a time when I didn't know who she was.

If I had seen her in THE GENE KRUPA STORY as a kid, she might have started me shaving sooner; in her brief time onscreen, she turns up the heat on the 1950s standards of sexy. In her autobiography FROM BALLET TO THE BATCAVE AND BEYOND, she mentions that she and co-star Sal Mineo also played a make-out scene that turned out to be too hot for the studio to release; it was cut from the film - but what a nice Blu-ray supplement if would be, if the footage could be found.

I've never been a STAR TREK fan, but even I can't overlook the iconic value of the green girl she played.

Yvonne Craig was almost an anomaly in her time: a pert brunette. Her hair was one of the most interesting things about her, because it rarely fell to her shoulders; she wore it up, sprayed into a configuration that was complementary to her sculpted cheekbones and bright eyes. She could be sexually obvious, in that busty, lip-chewing Anne Helm way, but there was something conservative about her too - in several of her early cheesecake shots, she affects a surprised expression as if your gaze has somehow made her shockingly aware of how gorgeous she is.

But suddenly, she was being introduced to my favorite show as Batgirl. I wasn't too pleased, but I was pleased even less that the show was being diluted with this new character at the time it was being cut back from two weekly episodes to one.

The first Batgirl episode is magical, if you can overlook the theme song that Yvonne described as "the most awful thing I'd ever heard!" She was perfectly cast as Barbara Gordon, the librarian daughter of Commissioner Gordon, who lived with her pet bird Charlie in a ritzy Gotham City apartment - which she had somehow managed to modify with a secret passage into a garage that allowed her to change and pilot her ruffled Batgirl Cycle right into the streets, off a ramp disguised as a brick-framed advert. It was my first stab of Feuillade. Other stabs followed as Batgirl engaged in action not with her fists, but with a pair of shapely killer legs swathed in starry purple fabric and trained from top to bottom with the Ballets Russe. Those stabs were more in the neighborhood of Georges Franju. Perhaps more surprising than her nimble, dancerly showing as Batgirl, Yvonne Craig was a plausible librarian.

Another impressive thing about Batgirl? She had the smarts to incorporate the fall of a red wig into her disguise. It was the first - and it remains one of the only - gestures toward the keeping of a secret identity that struck me as a ruse that might possibly work. Though they were never put in the situation of having to outsmart each other, I never felt that Batman's encyclopedic intelligence (encompassing a thorough knowledge of fishing lures, foreign languages, and the ability to quote English poet John Donne) was really the equal of Batgirl's smarts. Yvonne Craig is far and away the best thing about an otherwise dismal season that introduced adversaries like Louie the Lilac and Lola Lasagna while putting the favorites like the Joker in surfer's baggies.

In the late 1980s, when I was writing my novel THROAT SPROCKETS, I conceived a movie theater called The House of Usherettes where the cashier, ticket-tearer, concession hostess and the usherettes were all young women hired for their resemblances to Sixties actresses. I mention four by name, singling out the four who made the most indelible impressions on me as a kid: Pamela Franklin, Stella Stevens, Barbara Steele and Yvonne Craig. I got to tell Yvonne about this one day at Wonderfest in Louisville, Kentucky back in 2006 - and, to add a meaningless detail that seems significant, it happened to be my 50th Birthday. Yvonne was charmed by the tribute and when I offered her an affectionately inscribed copy of my novel, she asked me, "Do you have my book?"

"Actually, I was going to buy a copy from you," I said.

But she wouldn't hear of it. "We'll trade books!" she said brightly, already signing a copy to me. As she finished, she looked at her charming sister Meridel, who was conducting the business at her table - all the proceeds of which went to Yvonne's favorite charities - and said, "Look, we're two authors swapping our books!"

Her book turned out to be a good read, in the way it feels good to get to know someone you've always admired. Dipping into it again might be a good way to bid her farewell.


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