Operation Petticoat represents what old Hollywood was so strong at; making a simple, lightweight comedy that manages to entertain without being meaningful or heavy-hitting. It’s a story that wouldn’t be today, it’s irresistibly rooted to the time it was made.
The bulk of the film’s story takes place in flashbacks, with present-day (1959) sequences bookending the main action, which is set in 1941. Cary Grant plays Lt. CMDR Matthew Sherman, who is upset when his sub, the USS Sea Tiger, is sunk while in harbour. Despite the protests of his boss, Sherman and his crew raise the sub and decide to set off for Darwin, Australia to fully repair the ship. With his crew on other assignments, he is given a new lieutenant, Nick Holden (Tony Curtis), who lacks submarine experience but is an excellent ‘scavenger’. As the story develops, the unorthodox Nick proceeds to exasperate the by the book Sherman, culminating in the arrival onboard of five stranded Army nurses. This leads to several awkward encounters and culminates in the battered old sub being painted pink and targeted by the Japanese. Onboard, friendships and more begin to develop between the men and their new recruits, while the Sea Tiger becomes a sanctuary for those affected by the war. Joan O’Brien and Dina Merrill co-star as two of the women.
An old-fashioned comedy like Operation Petticoat is a far cry from the blockbusters and superhero films of today. It’s a film that relies heavily on the three signature elements of filmmaking; the actors, the writers, and the director. The film is helmed by Blake Edwards, who would go on to wider acclaim with the Audrey Hepburn hit Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Edwards brings his usual flair, wit and breezy style to the production, giving enough time for the setup of the story, commanding the pace well and combining the various story elements with skill and surprising ease. The screenplay, credited to Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, is based on events that are supposedly factual (there was an actual submarine painted pink), but there are times when the humour becomes highly exaggerated without becoming ridiculous.
The submarine’s role in both the story and as a source of humour almost make it a character in its own right. It serves various purposes throughout the story; as a vessel of war, a transporter for stranded civilians and military personnel, a dilapidated wreck almost about to fall apart, and a symbol of perseverance and tenacity. The sub begins to matter to everyone on board her, and her ultimate fate is felt by the crew. Strangely, despite being a comedic film, it captures effectively the feeling of what it’s like to be on a submarine, with the cramped spaces, lack of facilities and unexplained noises. Imagine a comedic version of Das Boot.
The main pleasure of Operation Petticoat comes from the interplay between its two big stars. Cary Grant was in excellent form in 1959, coming to this movie off the back of his role in Hitchcock’s seminal classic North by Northwest. He is essentially the straight man, reacting to things around him, yet his skills at wordplay, facial movement, and sardonic humour are all in evidence and his comic timing is impeccable. He clearly relishes the film’s cheeky dialogue (‘Think of it like a good striptease. Don’t ask what’s happening, just enjoy what’s coming off’). Grant is ably matched by Tony Curtis, who famously imitated the older star in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. He plays the film’s cad, a wisecracking, unorthodox scoundrel who is an expert at ‘requisitioning’ things and doesn’t quite play by the rules. Curtis and Grant’s chemistry and their interplay are the highlights of the film.
The Blu-Ray release of Operation Petticoat captures the film’s Eastman colour in all its beauty and highlights the excellent photography skills of cinematographer Russell Harlan (To Kill a Mockingbird). Sixty years on, the film itself is very much a thing of the past and certainly bears the mark of the Hayes Code (the precursor to the rating system used today), which restricts some of the more off-colour jokes. It is at least a quarter of an hour too long, and its use of women isn’t exactly groundbreaking, though it is unlikely to be considered truly offensive. It demonstrates, ultimately, the power of a legendary star like Cary Grant. With him in place, this flimsy, feather-weight piece gets a boost it may not otherwise have received. He was a unique performer and nobody in modern cinema is able to capture what he brought so effortlessly to the silver screen.
Dir: Blake Edwards
Scr: Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richin, from a story by Joseph B. Stone and Paul King
Cast: Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Jean O’Brien, Dina Merrill, Dick Sargent, Arthur O’Carroll
Prd: Robert Arthur
DoP: Russell Harlan
Operation Petticoat is out on Blu-Ray and DVD now.