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Friday Film Review: Operation Petticoat

Operation Petticoat (1959)
Genre: War comedy
Grade: B

Since today is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in many other countries, I decided to pick a film to pay tribute to those who’ve served. But I didn’t want preachy so that ruled out such things as “The Americanization of Emily.” And it had to have some romance so that ruled out a lot of others. With time running out to get this review done, I remembered a film I’d been thinking of reviewing for a while and here it is.

Lt Commander Matt Sherman’s (Cary Grant) submarine, Sea Tiger, got strafed and shot up pretty badly during a Japanese attack but, unwilling to give up on her before she’s seen any action (It would be like a beautiful woman dying an old maid), he talks the port commander into letting his now skeleton crew attempt to patch her up enough for them to get to a naval shipyard for major repairs. Since several of his officers and crew were transferred to other ships, he’s got to take what replacements he can get and what Sea Tiger gets is a new Supply Officer Lt. Nick Holden (Tony Curtis) who takes scavenging to new heights – or depths depending on if it’s your stuff that just got stolen requisitioned.

But it’s enough for the sub to get under way until a leak forces them to an island where Holden discovers 5 stranded Army nurses. With the Japanese expected there anytime, there’s no way – Holden argues – that Sherman can leave them there. Disgruntled but unable to argue with the facts, Sherman reluctantly takes the women on board then prays he can keep his men from trying to exchange information about the facts of life with their pretty new shipmates while they duck and dodge their way across the Pacific.

First some things to mention. This is a fluffy movie played for laughs and fun. There are a few moments which are supposed to be tense but with the tone of the film already set by then, it’s pretty obvious that nothing bad is going to happen and no one is going to die. Well, unless you’re Seaman Hornsby. By this point, people were ready to see comedies about WWII, which is mainly what the first half is about, and Hollywood “sex comedies” (tame by today’s standards) filled with busty leading ladies were being cranked out full blast, which is mainly what the second half is. This is also not a PC movie by today’s standards, though it’s held up better than a lot of other 50+ year old films, yet at the same time it’s also fairly tame with no nudity, sex scenes or profanities. There are lots of sexual innuendoes and the cramped quarters are used to good effect but it’s done in pretty light hearted fun and IMHO, you’d have to work at it to be offended.

Grant and Curtis’s characters both find their lady loves among the nurses but the film is actually more a bromance than a romance since they’re the ones with the major interactions. The way these two play off each other is wonderful though the humor never feels forced. Unlike Grant’s OTT performance in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” here he’s subtle. Watch Grant’s face as much as you listen to his dialogue because he’s a master at conveying a lot with only a wry look and a well timed pause. Con man Curtis is given some great lines to deliver but he doesn’t overdo it either and allows the laughs to flow from the actions and dialogue on screen rather than hamming anything up.

Directed by Blake Edwards, the rest of the cast is filled with a host of famous, soon to be famous and well known faces including Dina Merrill, Gene Evans, Dick Sargent, Arthur O’Connell, Madelyn Rhue, Virginia Gregg, Gavin MacLeod and Marion Ross. I will be honest and say that towards the end of the film, there’s a sort of pile on of events which ends in several island women, their children and a goat coming on board and that the, now pink, Sea Tiger limps into port after evading being sunk solely on the strength of a woman’s brassiere but watching Holden’s early scrounging missions and the way by-the-book Grant reacts to those expeditions is priceless.

Grant is suaveness personified, Curtis is cheeky fun, the rest of the cast backs them up well and the whole is a froth of mindless fun. If you’re willing to sit back and allow yourself to be entertained, there’s a lot here that can do it.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

16 Comments

  1. Kim in Hawaii
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 04:41:29

    Aloha! Thanks for the review … and the reminder that this film offers a comedic escape from the ongoing wars.

    Tony Curtis served aboard a submarine tender during WWII. He was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, which now proudly stands guard over the USS Arizona Memorial.

    Curtis became a painter, among other things, and one of his paintings is hung in the command building. Jamie Lee Curtis visited Pearl Harbor over the summer and stopped by to see her father’s work of art.

    This coming December is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I heard @ 350 survivors are returning, one more time, with their families. Given their ages, this will probably be the last time for that large number to return.

  2. dri
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 06:09:59

    Ahhh, I’ve been meaning to rewatch this … I remember adoring it as a child. And now having fully appreciated Tony Curtis’ parody of Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot, I’m only too eager to see him actually act opposite Cary. Hee.

    Regarding war films with some romance, may I recommend my new favourite war film (if you can have such a thing)?

    In Which We Serve.

    Directed by David Lean (and Noel Coward), written by Noel Coward and also starring him in a role that was nothing like the flamboyant strutting egotism I dreaded, John Mills in said romance being utterly adorable and lovely, and Richard Attenborough in an utterly riveting (and uncredited!) debut. Such an amazing film, both structurally as well as tonally. Cos for a morale-boosting propaganda film, it’s quite unflinching about the trauma of war both on the sailors (in this case) and the families waiting for them. And the romance is utterly lovely and heartwrenching. The comedy is very witty and wonderful, it’s all very elegant but no less affecting for it.

    On YouTube.

    Hope you’ve seen it, Jayne!

  3. Jayne
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 06:35:48

    @dri: I haven’t seen it but have added it to my Netflix queue. Ooooh and it’ll be available as a streaming video soon!

  4. Robin L. Rotham
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 07:10:52

    One of the best movies ever! I must have watched it a hundred times in junior high, when it played six times a day on some old movie channel. Even all these years later, I still can’t hear “panties and a bra” without thinking of Seaman Hornsby and his affliction.

  5. EmilyW
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 07:29:14

    Cary Grant has got to be one of the most handsome men ever to walk this earth. I love Bringing Up Baby.

  6. Darlene Marshall
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 07:58:04

    I remember this one, and it was entertaining. The romantic comedy I’d pick for Veteran’s Day would be Donovan’s Reef with John Wayne, directed by John Ford. I like this one because it deals with US veterans who stayed in the South Pacific after the war and created new lives there, but the war was always a part of their lives and for some of them, their loves and families.

    It also had a great cast.

  7. Amy Kathryn
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 08:17:12

    I love the glimpse into the future when Cary is with his family. I have a hard time deciding between this one and Father Goose for military Cary. I may lean a little towards Father Goose because of Leslie Caron.

  8. Jayne
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 09:12:54

    @Darlene Marshall: I’ve never seen this one either. And too bad that it’s not at Netflix. I’ll have to watch for it on cable TV.

  9. Barb in Maryland
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 09:30:17

    Great pick! And yes, Amy, Father Goose is wonderful too. My favorite Cary Grant WWII flick, though, is the very serious Destination Tokyo: a submarine movie NOT played for laughs. Yeah, I know, the special effects aren’t very special, but the the drama is great and the tension is excruciating.
    @Darlene–yes! Donovan’s Reef–with Kauai subbing for the South Pacific. Good fun.
    Also fun, but no with real romance, is Wackiest Ship in the Army-with Jack Lemmon and Rick Nelson(later a tv series with Gary Collins in the Jack Lemmon role).

  10. Karen Z
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 09:37:12

    I love this movie! My sister and I watched it with my dad all the time when we were kids. The others mentioned are all worth watching too! (I may need to have a marathon…)

  11. Sandra
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 10:18:08

    @Darlene Marshall: Yes…. Lee Marvin and the Aussies. The button-down Boston Brahmin heroine, who isn’t so button-down after all. I’m not always a Wayne fan, but I’m fond of Donovan’s Reef. It’s so rarely that you get see him do something that’s almost straight comedy.

    It’s been years since I’ve seen Petticoat. I need to hunt it down and watch it again.

    Thanks, Dad, and all the rest of you who serve(d).

  12. carmen webster buxton
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 10:51:50

    I remember this one fondly! I agree the best chemistry is between Grant and Curtis. Since SOME LIKE IT HOT also came out in 1959, presumably Grant had not seen it when he was making this movie, but it would have been fun to know what he said to Tony Curtis after he did see it.

  13. RowanS
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 11:05:29

    Wasn’t there a TV version of this with Jamie Lee Curtis in it? Back in the late ’80′s, maybe?

  14. Marguerite Kaye
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 11:43:48

    I agree, I’d love to know what Cary Grant thought after he’d seen Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis is shameless (and brilliant).

    Darlene, I agree on In Which We Serve, it’s classy. I read somewhere that all the sea scenes were filmed in a huge big tub (cold, not hot) in the studio.

    And what about Cary Grant in I Was A Male War Bride for another WWII film? I loved the role reversal in this, and I don’t know why but I thought he was even sexier in female clothes.

  15. Jayne
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 18:06:40

    @RowanS: Yes, there was. It apparently ran for one season then most of the cast were replaced for season two which didn’t go over well and it was cancelled shortly after.

  16. Jayne
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 18:10:18

    @carmen webster buxton: @Marguerite Kaye: Count me in on wondering if Grant had seen Curtis’s impersonation. I would be he loved it.

    I had thought about doing “I Was A Male War Bride” or “Operation Mad Ball” but Petticoat just called to me Wednesday afternoon. ;) Florence is a sexy thing in her borrowed hair, isn’t she?

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