AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 124 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On December 10, 1941, a Japanese air raid sinks the newly commissioned submarine the USS Sea Tiger while docked at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. Lieutenant Commander Sherman and his crew begin repairs, hoping to sail for Darwin, Australia before the Japanese overrun the port, but the squadron commodore transfers most of his crew to other boats and Lieutenant Nick Holden, an admiral’s aide lacking any submarine training or experience, is assigned to the Sea Tiger. A series of disasters begins as the falling apart submarine picks up an escaped prisoner and five stranded nurses as it slowly heads towards Pearl Harbour….
One of the funniest parts of the brilliant Some Like It Hot is when Tony Curtis does a pretty good impersonation of Cary Grant when his character masquerades as a billionaire heir to the Shell fortune with a bit of a problem downstairs. I don’t know if this was a factor in the making of Operation Petticoat which was originally set up some time before, but it was certainly a major reason for me looking forward to watching it. I have a weird blind spot about director Blake Edwards. I can’t stand his most iconic picture Breakfast At Tiffany’s, I think it’s a terrible movie and found it an absolute chore the two times when I decided to sit through it. Yet I adore much of his other work, The Party and his Pink Panther films in particular being some of my favourite movies to turn to when I’m going through a bad time, they always cheer me up. And every now and again he showed a knack for serious stuff too with the likes of The Days Of Wine And Roses [which for me ties with The Lost Weekend as the greatest of films about alcoholism] and Experiment In Terror. Operation Petticoat is firmly a comedy, though far less reliant on slapstick then would later be the case. Made at a time when service comedies were very prevalent, especially in Britain, the material is pretty thin really, and seems even more thin when stretched over two hours, while situations such as women aboard a submarine had been handled several times before in movies, one of them being Hell And High Water which by coincidence I reviewed a few weeks ago. But it’s a highly pleasant romp, staying within the limits of plausibility and therefore a more restrained affair than the farcical comedy you sometimes expect it to become. It’s never sidesplitting but still ensures that the chuckles and the smiles come thick and fast, while the two stars are terrific together even though all the way throughout Grant does little more than a puzzled turn of the head and a coy half-smile – though of course because he’s Cary Grant he gets away with it.
It was Curtis who supposedly initiated this project. He’d joined the U.S. Navy during World War II with the intent of entering the submarine service in part because his hero Grant had appeared in the submarine movie Destination Tokyo. Many years later, Curtis suggested to Grant that they make a film in which Grant would stare into a periscope as he did in that film. Grant thought he was too old for the role and Bob Hope later said that turning it down was his biggest regret. Jeff Chandler was allotted to star and the film was put into production, but then he pulled out to film The Jayhawkers instead. 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. The story by Paul King and Joseph Stone was inspired by some true events, including the evacuation of some nurses by a submarine, the sinking of a submarine at Cavite Navy Yard, a submarine fighting with only her red lead undercoat visible, even a letter to the supply department of Mare Island Naval Shipyard complaining about lack of provisions. Most of the filming was done in and around Naval Station Key West, now the Truman Annex of Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, which substituted for the Philippines and Australia, while the USS Sea Tiger was portrayed by three different American World War II Balao-class submarines. Grant was well into his LSD-taking period and two reporters expecting the usual bland interview were stunned to find him unusually relaxed, open and keen to share with them the extraordinary experiences he had undergone making the film – which went on to become a major critical and commercial hit. 1979 saw a TV series.
The Universal Pictures globe neatly becomes the view through a periscope through which various examples of marine life appear during the credits. And then the tone is really rather sombre for a few minutes. It’s 1959, and U. S. Navy Rear Admiral Matt Sherman, boards the obsolete submarine the USS Sea Tiger, prior to her departure for the scrapyard, and you get a sense of that strange but definitely genuine love that a sea captain may have for his vessel. Then he opens his bag, pulls out his old journal, and begins to read from it. We flash back to 1941 when a Japanese air raid sinks the Sea Tiger, reducing it to little more than,“a periscope sitting on top of a couple of thousand tons of scrap metal”, though Sherman insists it’s only suffered “minor damage”. Believing that there is no chance of repairing the submarine, the squadron commodore transfers most of Sherman’s crew to other boats, but sends him Lt. Nick Holden, “the darling of the high brass social set”, who lacks any of the experience necessary, being previously employed as an “ideas man” and a “recreation officer”. Understandably Sherman and what remains of his crew mock this man and find his presence ridiculous. However, while the script continues to portray Holden as a man used to the finer things in life, it quickly gives him skills as a scrounger which certainly come in handy seeing as the submarine where, “the only requisition that’s been filled is the requisition for more requisition paper”, has virtually nothing that isn’t damaged, Curtis’s social climber/con artist being really a variation on the character he played in Edwards’s earlier Mister Cory. What Holden and his men can’t acquire from base warehouses, they “midnight requisition” from various military and civilian sources, and along the way pick up Marine Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, a thief escaped from prison who of course just has to come along in case he squeals. Re-floated and restored to barely seaworthy condition, with only one of her four diesel engines operable, Sea Tiger puts out to sea after a native witch doctor performs a protection spell for the voyage.
Things are already bad enough aboard this noisy, rocking thing continually belching black steam, but then Sherman reluctantly agrees to evacuate five stranded female Army nurses from an island, and you will be able to predict some of what follows, though there’s a logic to much of it. Lt. Dolores Crandall is big busted and is based on the slightly odd but popular idea that clumsy women are not only funny but very attractive, but because of her boobs it makes sense that Sherman will give out an order that she has to be given free passage when she’s walking about seeing as nobody can get past her without major touching. Likewise, the women can only dry their clothes in the engine room. Of course fratenising between the sexes is forbidden, but humans will be humans. Holden is attracted to Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, though these days the way that he virtually drags her into his room and gives her his clothes is rather uncomfortable to watch, Holden seeming sleazy and almost a sex pest. On the other hand, when Sherman takes a shine to Crandall he does his best to keep his hands off her. Then there’s Sam Tostin the very misogynistic engineer who initially really dislikes Major Edna Heywood – though his feelings begin to change when it becomes obvious that she knows more about engines than he does.“You’re more than a woman, you’re a mechanic” he says to her, and means it as a compliment. The complications are certainly not all of a romantic nature though. A series of events results in the submarine being painted pink. More evacuees eventually have to be admitted, and also a pig. And, unless you’ve forgotten, there’s also a war on and both the American and Japanese forces are looking for this very conspicuous submarine.
The occasional bursts of action are well handled with good model work and rear projection, and even a few stock footage shots fit in surprisingly well – if you’re not concentrating like me then I doubt you’ll notice them. The obligatory sequence in which the fragile submarine must dive ever lower as depth charges rain down around it doesn’t disappoint, what with this particular submarine always being in constant danger of falling apart without any outside help. The film doesn’t really have anything to say about war except how absurd it can get, but that’s fine because more emphasis is on Sherman having to deal with so much [it’s funny just watching him walking about and coming across a problem every few seconds] and the battle of the sexes [looking forward to co-screenwriter/producer Robert Shapiro’s Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies]. There’s a gag involving Holden and some aides wearing black face which you probably wouldn’t get today, even though the way it’s written it’s not in any way shape or form racist. Some may find other moments and lines a tad sexist seeing as they’re delivered by people we like – for example, “Sir, Sea Tiger was built to fight. She deserves a better epitaph than “Now, you can’t let it go that way”. That’s like a beautiful woman dying an old maid”. But that’s the case with many old comedies, in general we’ve become rather too sensitive these days and I hope that one day things turn around and we can laugh at more stuff again. Here, there are gags involving bras [these prove to be very useful indeed] and showers, but the three prominent female characters aren’t really sexualised and there’s some surprising sensitivity here and there, while it’s still all good clean family entertainment that makes the likes of the Carry On films seem very crude. The ‘rudest’ thing is probably a sailor with a mostly unseen naked woman tatooed on his chest.
There are some solid zingers in the dialogue, though moments when we expect some pratfalls, like Holden stealing a pig, are held back on. This may disappoint some, and there are sections when the energy level could do with being boosted, which isn’t good for a comedy like this. Some trimming here and there may have helped. But the not always particularly impressive Curtis is very good here as he tones down his usual rather nervous delivery to better match the smooth-as-always Grant, even though he was no doubt really nervous in real life acting alongside his aging idol who’s even allowed to say, “I like having grey hair, that way I can worry without showing worry”. The pair’s timing is terrific to watch and it’s a shame that they didn’t’ make any other films together. Most of the supporting characters get their moments, including a typically gruff Gene Evans, who seemed to turn up in quite a few submarine movies! Operation Petticoat is one kind of comedy you don’t really get today and, while this is partly to do because of the change in mores since 1959, I think it’s a bit of a shame. It’s a highly amiable piece which somehow doesn’t seem crass in mixing a comedy foreground with a World War 2 background.
This was formerly out twice on Blu-ray on Region A from Olive Films, though Eureka say they are using a new transfer. The image sometimes fluctuates between being very grain heavy and having very little grain at all, but there’s nothing major to complain about. Colour balance is excellent and there’s plenty of sharpness. Unfortunately Eureka have not seen fit to port over the special features from the second Olive release, leaving their release bare bones, though I know that boutique labels aren’t loaded with money so I’m not going to moan when a company which almost always provides some special features to go with a film decides not to bother occasionally.
Comedies like Operation Petticoat seem almost like relics from a bygone age these days, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fair bit of fun to be had. Recommended
*Presented in 1080p from a new high-definition digital restoration
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*Uncompressed LPCM audio