Movie Review – Operation Petticoat (1959)

A rather average Blake Edwards comedy released the same year as that other Cary Grant movie that would destined to become a classic of all times – NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). OPERATION PETTICOAT is written by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin.

The film is one long flashback of Admiral Sherman (Cary Grant) who used to be the first captain of an old WW2 sub about to be commissioned.

Cary Grant stars as Lt. Cmdr. Matt T. Sherman, the commander of the WW2 submarine USS Sea Tiger docked at its port in Philippines.

December 1941. Before it can join the battle in the Pacific, Sea Tiger is damaged heavily by the attacking Japanese fighter planes. Rather than decommission the one-year old ship right away, Sherman manages to get the permission to fix his sub within two weeks – which does not seem possible given the impossibility of getting any parts or supplies.

But the next character who shows up will change the fate of the sub — Lt. Nicholas Holden (Tony Curtis) has served previously as the “idea man” and an “entertainment officer” providing Navy’s liaison “with Hollywood.” He has never set foot on a submarine and with his pretty-boy looks and spoiled mannerisms he does not look like he is ready for the rigors of sailing for war.

Yet Holden, who actually grew up in a tough neighborhood and a dog-eat-dog world, has one skill that comes in handy for the rule-and-order straight-arrow Sherman who cannot cut through the Navy red tape and order 150 rolls of toilet paper for his crew: Holden can scavenge, steal and do anything and everything possible to get things done. He is a smooth, sweet talking and shameless operator who knows the “easy way” to get everything. He asks to be assigned as the “supply officer” of Sea Tiger and his request is accepted right on the spot.

Pretty soon, due to clandestine visits to navy supply depots in black faces and black burglar outfits, Holden and his men manage to get whatever is needed in record time. Soon the black-smoke belching and wheezy sub is swimming again on a single faulty engine.

After sailing for open seas, a major plot point arrives when five female officers stranded on an island board the ship, thanks to Lt. Holden.

From that point on till the end, the story transforms into a comedy of double entendres and innuendos, of sexually suggestive and socially embarrassing chance encounters and confrontations among a boat full of men and five attractive women. A submarine is not made for “co-educational purposes” and that generates a lot of tension, a lot of one liners and laughs.

The film is full of sexist wisecracks that would not fly today like “When a girl is under 21, she’s protected by law. When she’s over 65, she’s protected by nature. Anywhere in between, she’s fair game. Look out.”

At one point, since they can get their hands only on red and white paint, they end up painting the whole submarine with pink primer, becoming the butt of jokes in the Navy. But when the “Tokyo Rose”starts to make radio broadcasts inviting the “pink submarine” to surrender, the US Navy command, certain that the Americans do not have a pink submarine, think all that talk might actually be a Japanese ruse to slip a pink sub masquerading as a US vessel behind the US lines. Thus the US surface ships are ordered to sink the pink sub wherever it is spotted.

At the end Sherman’s pink sub survives the attacks and the ridicule and the war of the sexes in tight quarters. It even survives a goat on board and two babies delivered by the female officer who also happened to be a nurse.

USS Sea Tiger returns to its home port listing on one side, its engine misfiring and belching out black smoke. The funny looking sub is jeered and ridiculed until the proud ship shows the colors and gains the respect of all the US sailors present at the port for homecoming.

The last scene — we zoom back to the present time. Lt. Holden is now the Captain of the decommissioned US Sea Tiger and Sherman is an Admiral giving Holden the good news – he is going to be the captain of a brand new nuclear sub.

Both have married and had kids with the female officers with whom they have flirted in the sub during those eventful days of WW2. Both are happy and the film leaves us there while the going is still good.

Cary Grant and Tony Curtis excel in their roles. They are cast superbly. Both are very believable and deliver their lines with authority. Lots of good one liners and innuendos. But ultimately this is a feel-good comedy reflecting the specific conditions of WW2. Half a century later it probably has lost all its relevance and shine, especially for the younger generation born in the ’80s and ’90s.

A 7 out of 10.