World War II films were in their heyday in the late 1950s, framing both comedy and drama. Along with westerns, it was the majority genre of the era. So, on the war film front, you get solid, understated comedy with “Operation Petticoat.” It stars Cary Grant and includes an excellent performance by Tony Curtis, whose equally famous daughter Jamie Lee was in the regrettably drab TV series of the same name nearly a generation later. Although “Operation Petticoat” doesn’t have quite the feminine touch that Grant would experience five years later in another war-comedy – “Father Goose” (click here for my review).
(1959; 124 minutes; unrated; directed by Blake Edwards and starring Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and Joan O’Brien)
THEY ALL LIVE IN A PINK SUBMARINE
(NOTE: I expanded this review Aug. 26, 2015, with additional opinion – none changes from the original, though – as well as updating links and correcting a few typos.)
Two-time Oscar nominee Cary Grant simply defines the elegance and panache of Hollywood’s elite. His string of notable films over a three-decade career added up to his being designated the Second Greatest Male Star of all time by the American Film Institute (Grant’s peer Humphrey Bogart ranks first).
Grant’s best-known films include such classics such as “North by Northwest,” “Charade” or “His Girl Friday” and one that is very funny light comedy is “Operation Petticoat” from 1959, which was resurrected as a TV series in the 1970s. Grant would go on to star in another WWII comedy five years later called “Father Goose” with Leslie Caron. Both take place right after Pearl Harbor, but offer quite differing turns for Grant who is nevertheless long-suffering as each character.
Just as legendary as Grant, or Curtis for that matter, is director Blake Edwards. It doesn’t have quite the punch of his comedy classic “10” with Bo Derek (click here for my review) or even the rib-tickling fun of his “Pink Panther” efforts with Peter Sellers, but “Operation Petticoat” is good storytelling that draws from the well of competent writing that’s handled by an excellent director. Edwards was at the helm for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the little-remembered R-comedy “S.O.B.” where Julie Andrews, who was Edwards’ wife at the time, went topless. He was nominated for an Oscar for penning “Victor Victoria” in 1982. Edwards died at 88 in 2010 of pneumonia.
In “Operation Petticoat,” Grant plays U.S. Navy Cmdr. “Matt Sherman,” who is a submarine skipper who wants to get into war and will make a pact with the devil (or at least with Tony Curtis). As the sub is being readied for combat, it is damaged by an enemy bombing raid. In the meantime, Curtis, who plays society-first “idea man” “Lt. Nick Holden,” joins the crew of real sailors and quickly shows he’s made of more than just clippings from the society pages (remember those?).
Curtis earns his way into Grant’s favor through his con-man approach to life and his ability to scrounge the parts necessary to fix the sub. He’s appointed “supply officer” and handles it with ease. Curtis is affable and fun in this role, along with just the correct amount of insouciance about his larceny.
Although damaged, the “Sea Tiger,” which was actually three different U.S. Navy subs during filming, sets to sea on a mission just to get to a more secure U.S. base in the Pacific for full repairs.
During its mission Grant has been ordered not to engage the enemy, but ultimately does manage to attempt an attack on a Japanese ship at dock at an island. True to form, the crew, helped by the bumbling of a klutzy nurse (more on this later), manages to torpedo a truck on a beach. “We sunk a truck!” Grant exclaims in exasperation.
Oh, and the sub turns pink when the crew must mix red and white paint to have enough to cover the vessel.
For the supporting cast, it is a solid group of actors who execute their roles the way it was written.
Gavin MacLeod, who would skipper his own ship one day on “The Love Boat” (click here for my review of the TV series), plays “Ernest Hunkle,” himself a longsuffering clerk for Grant’s messages to the incompetent command structure. MacLeod is younger in this film, but his voice is unmistakable. I liked him best as the semi-hippie sidekick to Donald Sutherland’s hippie in the WWII classic “Kelly’s Heroes” with Clint Eastwood (click here for my review).
Dick Sargent, who was one of two actors to play “Darrin” in the TV classic “Bewitched,” plays “Ensign Stovall,” one of the sub’s officers. Sargent, who had the formal Richard in the credits here, turns in his usual competent role but he doesn’t manage to squeeze out any scene-stealers here, although he doesn’t have much of a chance with both Grant and Curtis in the cast. Sargent was also in “That Touch of Mink” with Grant and Doris Day.
The small but important role of “Ramon” is played by Clarence Lung to perfection as the deserted-turned-sidekick of Curtis. He was in a string of TV episodes on series including “My Favorite Martian” and “My Three Sons.” He also did an episode of “Bewitched,” but before Sargent replaced Dick York as “Darrin.”
The key subplot – and just about the final straw on Grant’s patience – is when he sends Curtis ashore at one point to snag what they need and returns … with five Army nurses. “Women!” Grant exclaims. “Wow! That’s what I call scavenging,” Sargent says in wonder in his best single moment of the film.
The nurses were left on an island where the sub stops for further repairs when their aircraft left just before an enemy raid. Virginia Gregg, whose best-known film is probably “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” plays “Maj. Heywood,” the leader of the nurses. Other nurses include Marion Ross, who would become best known as “Mrs. Cunningham” on TV’s legendary “Happy Days;” Joan O’Brien, whose feminine pulchritude and overall clumsiness is the highlight of her role; and socialite-star Dina Merrill, who would much later play a stuck-up society matron in the horrid “Caddyshack II” (click here for my review).
Of course all’s well that ends well, but with nary a dry eye as well as a smile as “The End” appears.
The film comes full circle at the end: it started years after the war as the “Sea Tiger” is being sent to decommissioning and scrap. You’ll find out what happened to both Grant and Curtis, as well as to which nurse married each.
It’s worth the wait.
“Operation Petticoat” was the 12th ranked film at theaters in 1959 and had $3.9 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. It had tough competition as the classic “Ben-Hur” was No. 1 with $36.9 million and Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was second with $21.9 million. “Operation Petticoat” is the only film from 1959 that I have reviewed as of the date of the expansion of this review (Aug. 26, 2015).
Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- MacLeod would later have his own command as skipper of “The Love Boat” and several supporting actors from “Operation Petticoat” would join him for a cruise, including Merrill, Sargent and Ross, who even did the pathetic “Love Boat: The Next Wave” (which doesn’t count as a real “Love Boat” and I’m not giving you its link).
- Grant was known for his reputed use of the hallucinogen LSD for therapy, and, one writer said that Grant even demanded that all ships shown in “Operation Petticoat” move from left to right (as we read in English). With a minor backup by the sub at one dock, all the vessels in the film do, indeed, move left to right. Wow, man. That’s strange. Mighty strange.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The ‘sinking’ of a truck was inspired by real incident that happened in 1944. On August 9th, USS Bowfin (SS-287) followed four ships into Minami Daito Harbour. As she fired her six bow torpedoes at the moored ships, hitting three and sinking two of them, one torpedo went astray and hit a pier. A bus parked on it was blown up and thrown into the water by the explosion.”
- “Operation Petticoat” has a link to TV’s “Gilligan’s Island,” too. Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Tina Louise was offered but turned down the role of Nurse Crandall that then went to Joan O’Brien because Louise didn’t like the abundant boob jokes directed at the character.”
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