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By 1959 a big turnaround in WW2 movies was underway, and makers of light service comedies began producing outirght escapism about combat itself. Unless they were really gaga to see Gregory Peck or Clark Gable, wives and girlfriends were not keen on hard-nosed realistic fare like Pork Chop Hill or Run Silent, Run Deep. The enormous hit Operation Petticoat stretched credibility to combine Mister Roberts with elements more suited to a romantic farce... even the title tells the audience that the show is a safe date movie. Produced by Cary Grant's own company, Petticoat is a late-career vehicle that doesn't tax his abilities. Tony Curtis had just performed a wicked impersonation of Grant in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot and was reportedly excited about playing opposite his personal idol. Together they enliven this audience-pleaser set aboard the Sea Tiger, a broken-down submarine that welcomes five navy nurses below decks for a perilous ocean voyage -- running away from the enemy.
Director Blake Edwards' career was just beginning to kick into high gear. He receives no writing credit but the show falls neatly into line with his other Tony Curtis movies about con artists and social climber -- Mister Cory, The Perfect Furlough. Petticoat also dovetails nicely with co-writer Stanley Shapiro's later Doris Day / Rock Hudson comedies, with their plunge into the double standard of sexism. The predicament of five females bunking in Cary Grant's submarine is handled with taste and sensitivity -- until an opportunity arises for a joke. Grant's overtaxed captain jettisons the nurses' underwear out a torpedo tube to convince a U.S. destroyer that his sub is on the same side. An officer on the destroyer holds up an extra-large brassiere, calling off his attack because, "the Japanese haven't got anything like that!" In a newer movie, that line would be at least two kinds of PC poison.
The storyline plots the course of a submarine that steers away from confrontations with the enemy. The Sea Tiger is severely damaged in the first days of the war, before its captain Lt. Commander Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) has even left port. Sherman's crew re-floats the sub aided by the illicit scavenging talents of his new officer Lt. Holden (Tony Curtis). They set sail for the safety of Australia, along the way picking up five stranded nurses. This causes an understandable commotion below decks. The devious Holden sets his sights on seducing Lt. Barbara Duran (Dina Merrill) while the other nurses both help and hinder the functioning of the ship. Major Edna Heywood (Virginia Gregg) turns out to be the perfect machinist's mate for engineer Sam Tostin (Arthur O'Connell). Lt. Dolores Crandall (Joan O'Brien) accidentally causes Sherman to misfire a torpedo, spoiling the Sea Tiger's one chance at combat glory. The film's biggest laugh line is the deathless announcement, "We sunk a truck!"
Operation Petticoat is not an anything-goes service comedy like Operation Mad Ball, in which doofus officers are snookered by miscreant Sgt. Bilkos. All the ingredients are there but the script and direction keep the show within the limits of credibility. As with much of Uncle Sam's forces in the South Pacific, the Sea Tiger must find a way to get back in action despite a breakdown in the spare-parts procurement system. Tony Curtis' unprincipled Lt. Holden begins as a ceremonial officer useful only for dancing with the admiral's wife, but soon proves himself an artful scrounger of needed equipment and supplies. Curtis adjusts his nervy go-getter persona to harmonize with the acting style of Grant, the past master. Given an unpromising scene in which Lt. Holden turns his talent to stealing a pig, we expect a series of slapstick pratfalls. Curtis instead gives each porker a dainty two-finger squeeze for quality, as if he were shopping for produce.
The relaxed tempo gives Grant and Curtis plenty of breathing room to earn their high salaries. It's likely that the absence of star actresses was an economy decision. Cary Grant's main acting chore is to play straight man to Curtis's mischief and the various provocations of the nurses. There's nothing revolutionary about Grant's approach. His typical 'cute' reaction is a perplexed turn of the head followed by a coy half-smile, delivered with impeccable timing. Captain Sherman contains his temper even when nurse Crandall fires that errant torpedo. In keeping with the Lucille Ball Rule that terminally clumsy women are funny and therefore attractive, Sherman and Crandall eventually get together.
The movie gives the impression that The Navy was a great place for young guys and gals to get together and build families. The nurses demonstrate their skills as future Navy wives by delivering two babies on board the 'kind and gentle' submarine. The Sea Tiger loses its chance to fight yet does its bit by rescuing some Philippine islanders, including the pregnant women. This feminization trend reaches its zenith when a supply shortage forces the crew to paint the sub with bright pink primer paint. The ship is humiliated by jeers from other ships but Commander Sherman is just happy to reach his port. Even with these cutesy touches, Operation Petticoat maintains a reasonable measure of credibility.
Prolific producer Robert Arthur (The Big Heat, Man of a Thousand Faces, Father Goose) assembles a fine cast presumably eager to work opposite Cary Grant. Joan O'Brien and Dina Merrill maintain a basic dignity even when taxed to bump klaxon buttons with their bottoms. One agreeably sexist running gag shows the crew having difficulty squeezing past each other in the sub's narrow corridors -- where the nurses seem to think that breathing deep and sticking their chests out will make things easier. Madlyn Rhue and Marion Ross (of Happy Days) also get their share of comedy bits, reacting in shock to the obscene tattoo on the chest of seaman Hunkle (Gavin McLeod, later of The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Dick Sargent has a plum role as a younger officer enthusiastic about the nurses and Arthur O'Connell is more restrained than usual as the ship's cranky engineer. And it goes without saying that Gene Evans is on board. The veteran of Samuel Fuller's Hell and High Water and Park Row is a fixture in classic submarine movies. You gotta have the gruff, cigar-chewing Evans on board, it's a Hollywood law.
The story is framed by Sherman's present-day (1959) farewell to the Sea Tiger before it is finally junked. The various romantic entanglements are settled in the most conventional way, and Sherman's favorite nurse is still a klutzy menace. The uncomplicated Operation Petticoat is about as relaxing as a war movie can get. Its ideal audience probably skews toward an older crowd these days, but it remains a satisfying light comedy.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Operation Petticoat is the first decent home video presentation of this crowd-pleaser from an earlier era of Hollywood entertainment. The VHS releases were always flat full frame. The DVD released from Lionsgate in 2008 wasn't widescreen enhanced, and it was time-compressed as well, indicating it had been converted from a PAL source.
Color and formatting are excellent on Olive's HD transfer, with the only proviso being that the element used has a higher than usual number of digs and tiny scratches, especially near the ends of reels. Viewers keen on clean images will probably ask why the schmutz couldn't be digitally wiped away. Whatever the verdict is, just be mindful that even big studios no longer clean up all of their library releases. Removing those "thousands of instances" of surface dirt is one of the things that makes Criterion Collection discs more expensive.
A parting thought: Operation Petticoat would make an interesting double-bill with Cary Grant's previous submarine picture, 1943's Destination Tokyo. In that wartime morale builder the star plows his ship right into Tokyo Bay to play havoc with the Japanese fleet. Although the younger Grant did a creditable job as a mostly dead-serious seaman, he seems perfectly at home in a pink ship dealing with diapers, brassieres, and the rascally Tony Curtis.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Operation Petticoat Blu-ray rates:
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