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Director Blake Edwards gets no writing credit but Operation Petticoat falls neatly into line with his other Tony Curtis movies about con artists and social pretenders -- Mister Cory, The Perfect Furlough. It also dovetails nicely with writer-producer Stanley Shapiro's later Doris Day & Rock Hudson comedies, with their gentle examination 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 captain jettisons the nurses' underwear out a torpedo tube to convince a U.S. destroyer that the Sea Tiger 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!"
Synopsis: The submarine Sea Tiger is severely damaged in the first days of WW2, before its captain Lt. Commander Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) has even left port. Sherman receives permission to attempt a repair, and re-floats the sub with the help of his hard-working crew. Aided by the illicit scavenging talents of his new officer Lt. Holden (Tony Curtis), Sherman sets sail for the safety of Australia. Along the way they pick up five stranded nurses, causing a minor commotion among the crew and officers. 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). But Lt. Dolores Crandall (Joan O'Brien) accidentally causes Sherman to misfire a torpedo, spoiling the Sea Tiger's one chance at combat glory.
Operation Petticoat isn't exactly a farce and it's certainly not an anything-goes service comedy like Operation Mad Ball, with doofus officers snookered by miscreant Sgt. Bilkos. All the ingredients are there but the script and direction keep the show within the limits of credibility. Like 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 may seem like a worthless ceremonial officer useful only for dancing with the admiral's wife, but he turns out to be the perfect scrounger for 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 where Holden turns his talent to pig stealing, 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.
Cary Grant's main acting chore is to endure to Holden's mischief and the various provocations of the nurses. In contrast to his mugging in Arsenic and Old Lace, Grant's typical reaction is a perplexed turn of the head and a coy half-smile, delivered with impeccable timing. Captain Sherman holds his temper even when nurse Crandall fires that errant torpedo. In keeping with the odd idea that accident-prone women are funny and therefore attractive (the Lucy syndrome?), Sherman and Crandall eventually get together.
The nurses demonstrate their skills as future navy wives by delivering two babies on board this '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 becomes overt when a supply shortage forces the crew to paint the sub bright pink. The crew is humiliated by jeers from other ships but Commander Sherman is just happy to reach his port. Even with these 'cute' touches, Operation Petticoat never undercuts its basic tone 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 are the nurses that warm up to the male leads, maintaining their dignity while bumping klaxon buttons with their bottoms. One agreeably sexist running gag shows the crew having difficulty squeezing by each other in the sub's narrow corridors -- where the nurses seem compelled to breathe deep and stick their chests out. Madlyn Rhue and Marion Ross (Happy Days) also get their share of comedy bits, reacting in shock to the (unseen) pornographic 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 cranky ship's engineer. And it goes without saying that Gene Evans Hell and High Water, Park Row) is on board -- every submarine movie needs the gruff Evans, it's a Hollywood law.
The film is framed by Sherman's present-day (1959) farewell to the sub before she's finally junked. All of the romantic entanglements have been 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, and remains a satisfying light comedy.
Lionsgate's release of Operation Petticoat will be a disappointment to DVD fans -- it's indifferently transferred in an unacceptable flat-letterboxed format. Audio is okay, but this favorite Cary Grant show isn't going to look very good on a widescreen monitor. The disc carries no Lionsgate logo, indicating that it's an unrevised reissue of a 2001 Republic pressing. There are no extras and no subtitles.
This title is currently unavailable on DVD. Explore more Cary Grant titles here.
by Glenn Erickson