Shortly after the beginning of World War II, a shipyard is bombed. Among the casualties: the USS Sea Tiger, a brand-new submarine that had yet to make it out of the dock. Enter Lieutenant Commander Matt Sherman (Cary Grant), who manages to convince his superiors that the Sea Tiger doesn't deserve such an ignoble fate. Sherman is given permission to try and repair the ship enough to take it to a more advanced facility, but he's only got two weeks and a skeleton crew. He is assigned one man: Lieutenant JG Nicholas Holden (Tony Curtis), a fast-talking aide who's never seen real combat in his life. Very quickly, Lt. Holden proves himself a real sneaky asset in repairing the Sea Tiger, but his ideas for improving morale go too far for Lt. Cmdr. Sherman when he brings five new shipmates aboard...all of whom are women.
Directed by Blake Edwards, Operation Petticoat is a fun, if somewhat uneven wartime comedy. Its primary strengths include its Oscar-nominated screenplay and a talented cast, which together provide more than enough juice to get the film past its unnecessary two-hour running time and some character stuff that feels like a missed opportunity.
In general, films from another era can be forgiven for some expression of old-fashioned ideals, but the idea of a comedy from 1959 focused on gender may sound a bit worrisome. Thankfully, the screenplay, by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, is not only witty but is fairly gentle in its depiction of sexual tension and light on stereotypes. Two sailors bicker over a crude remark. "Quit talkin' about her that way. She's a woman!" "So?" "Well, my mother's a woman." "So?" "I don't know. It all just seems to tie in somehow." In another scene, Lt. Dolores Crandall (Joan O'Brien) helpfully informs Sherman that his unease about their situation might stem from something he's "not getting enough of -- vitamins and minerals!" Although the women often provide earnest care (such as when a suspiciously large number of crewmen need to see the sub's five new nurses), they're just trying to be helpful, not displaying naivete. Maj. Henderson (Virginia Gregg) proves to be an asset in the engine room, and when Holden is running his smooth operator routine on Lt. Barbara Duran (Dina Merrill), and rattles off her measurements just by looking at her, she shoots back dryly, "I see you've issued supplies before."
The strength of the screenplay is mostly in those one-liners, which still retain their comic snap. Both Grant and Curtis are particularly adept with this kind of witty repartee, and the film's ensemble cast all rises up to meet them. At the same time, Edwards displays the knack for physical and slapstick comedy that he would eventually become known for thanks to the Pink Panther series. One fatalistic soldier is splattered with a red fruit during an air raid. A missile fires wide of its intended target and slides right up the beach into a supply truck. The ship's mechanical issues are illustrated by a mixture of rattling and gurgling that sounds almost like a toilet flushing. The film reaches peak goofiness when Lt. Holden and a partner help steal a pig for the crew's New Year's dinner, and the Japanese farmer who owned the pig shows up on the boat to complain. Witty wordplay, some good-natured revenge, and the sight of a pig wearing an officer's coat and hat make for one of the film's most charming sequences. Edwards also handles what little action the Sea Tiger sees with ease, including an exciting submarine finale that manages to incorporate crying babies and ladies' undergarments into the action.
Although Grant and Curtis both shine individually, it's disappointing that the characters remain mostly antagonistic toward one another right up until the end. Although he knows he's depending on it to get the Sea Tiger and its crew to safety, he never quite warms to Holden's endless scheming, and Holden resists Sherman's desire to teach him something other than how to play tennis. The pig-stealing sequence shows Sherman has a sense of humor, but that's about as close as the two men get to enjoying each other's company. Actually, Curtis' skill at playing Holden almost backfires: there are a number of times (particularly in a scene involving a raft) where he comes off as less than sympathetic, even dislikable. Curtis' charisma saves the day, but his arc calls for a little more positive initiative in scenes where the finished film just keeps upping Sherman's frustration. A dramatic moment between Sherman and Crandall also feels somewhat abrupt and tonally jarring, occurring so closely after one of the film's best sight gags.
For such a light and straightforward comedy, Operation Petticoat feels a bit long at just over two hours. No scenes leap out as unnecessary, it's more that the whole film seems to have a bit of air in it, such as the numerous callbacks to the film's bookending device of Sherman on the Sea Tiger re-reading his wartime journals. Regardless, the charm of the film wins out: much like the crew of the Sea Tiger, the movie's a little rough around the edges, but enjoyable to be around.
Olive offers Operation Petticoat on Blu-ray with an updated and possibly even entirely re-painted image of Cary Grant and Tony Curtis looking at a pair of legs coming down the sub's entry ladder that was used on some foreign posters. The title has been updated to a "stamp" design (like the "urgent" stamp the crew couldn't successfully rustle up), and the back cover features the same legs, now with a body attached (but still no head). The one-disc release comes in a cheap Infiniti Blu-ray case, and there is an insert advertising other Olive Films releases inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Olive / Paramount's 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer of Operation Petticoat is strong overall but very inconsistent. Print damage, including scratches and flickering discoloration, are constant throughout the film. Color in general appears a bit weak, with skin tones leaning a bit more gray than pink. It also feels as if the source was cobbled together from a number of available elements, as sometimes the quality can drop even when no optical transitions are about to occur. However, the majority of the presentation offers pretty strong detail and clarity for a film that's 55 years old. As usual, with Olive releases, no untoward digital fiddling appears to have been done, such as noise reduction or edge enhancement.
Sound is an unremarkable LPCM 2.0 stereo track, which clearly and cleanly presents the dialogue, but still has a dated, slightly limited dynamic range. Some sounds can come off as slightly flattened or exhibit a slight echo or fuzziness, but separation is very strong. Disappointingly, Olive continues their trend of not including subtitles or captions on their releases.
Operation Petticoat won't top any lists of the world's greatest WWII films, but it's a fairly fresh story, filled with great performances and some perfect dialogue. Olive's Blu-Ray release isn't exactly a slam dunk, but it's a solid double, earning this disc a recommendation.
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