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The Iron Petticoat

The Iron Petticoat(1956)

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teaser The Iron Petticoat (1956)

It's one of the unlikeliest pairings in the history of movies: Katharine Hepburn, the theater-trained, Oscar®-winning actress whose style was the height of brittle sophistication; and Bob Hope, the knockabout comedian whose low-comedy vaudeville roots remained visible in his sight gags and one-liners. The now-infamous The Iron Petticoat (1956) was the pair's only movie together -- unsurprisingly, since the two were at odds during filming and their joint effort was a critical and commercial failure. Now, the film may be seen with fresh eyes from a historical perspective in its release on Blu-ray/DVD.

These outlets offer the first opportunity in five decades for U.S. audiences to see The Iron Petticoat, which casts Hepburn as Captain Vinka Kovelenko of the Russian Air Force and Hope as Major Charles "Chuck" Lockwood, an American flyer. Angered at being passed over for a promotion, Vinka lands her plane on an American base in Germany. Under Chuck's tutelage, with the aid of champagne and frilly garments, she succumbs to capitalism and falls in love -- only to have the Russian Embassy plot to kidnap her and return her to Moscow with threats of treason charges.

It all began with a screenplay by the legendary Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Twentieth Century, His Girl Friday), developed from a story idea by producer Harry Saltzman, that borrowed heavily from MGM's Ninotchka (1939). In that Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett/Walter Reisch script, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, a humorless Soviet agent (Greta Garbo) is seduced by Western values and a Parisian playboy (Melvyn Douglas). That movie, a rare comedy vehicle for its star, carried the famous tag line, "Garbo laughs!"

Other films covering the same territory included MGM's Comrade X (1940), co-written by Hecht and starring Hedy Lamarr as a Soviet streetcar conductor who becomes entangled with an American reporter (Clark Gable); and the Howard Hughes production Jet Pilot (1957), in which a gorgeous 20-year-old Janet Leigh plays a Soviet pilot who falls for an American Air Force officer, just as a 48-year-old Hepburn does in The Iron Petticoat. Jet Pilot, which costarred John Wayne, was not released until 1957 but had begun filming in 1949. To add to the confusion, MGM would release Silk Stockings, Cole Porter's musical adaptation of Ninotchka starring Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, also in 1957.

Hecht had written his script with Hepburn in mind, and her friend Robert Helpmann, the Australian actor/choreographer who was set to play the supporting role of Vinka's Russian ex-lover, helped talk her into signing on. Ralph Thomas was chosen to direct, and Cary Grant originally was sought to play the leading man in the film, which had the working title of Not for Money. Thomas later said that, when Grant proved unavailable and Hope was cast instead, Hepburn initially had welcomed "the challenge of working with a professional comic."

The movie was filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, with location shooting around London. It was a co-production among Hope Records, Inc., Benhar Productions, Inc., and Romulus Films UK, with Hope's company owning the Western Hemisphere rights (including North America) and Romulus owning those for the Eastern Hemisphere (including Great Britain). In September 1955, MGM was granted theatrical distribution rights in the Western Hemisphere for a period of 10 years.

Hope reportedly insisted on top billing and Hepburn conceded without argument. In addition to Helpmann, the supporting cast included Noelle Middleton as Hope's upper-crust British fiance, James Robertson Justice as a Russian espionage agent and Alexander Gauge as an American senator.

Both Hepburn and Hope were coming off well-received performances -- she in her Oscar®-nominated portrayal of the lonely spinster of Summertime (1955), and he in an unusually realistic turn opposite another Oscar®-winning actress, Eva Marie Saint, in the romantic comedy That Certain Feeling (1956). Hope had also played it "straight" more than usual in The Seven Little Foys (1955). According to biographer Scott Berg, Hepburn said she "had been told that this was not going to be a typical Bob Hope movie, that he wanted to appear in a contemporary comedy." She felt Hecht's script was "witty enough," and she was intrigued by an opportunity to develop a variation on Garbo's character in Ninotchka.

The Iron Petticoat was Hope's first picture to be filmed outside the U.S. (and in the land of his birth; he had left his native England as a child). According to biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, Hope -- who enjoyed the image of a happily married family man -- was glad to get out of Hollywood because of some highly negative publicity surrounding an alleged affair with scandal-prone actress Barbara Payton. Charlie Earle, a publicity agent at Hope's home studio, Paramount, told Quirk at the time, "Working with Hepburn may give him some class, some respectability. God, I hope so!"

Hope, who arrived in England with his gag writers in tow, quickly called Hecht and informed him that he had "minor suggestions" for improving the Petticoat screenplay. Hecht brought Hepburn along to a hurried conference at Hope's hotel. It soon became clear that the "suggestions" amounted to a complete rewrite with a generous number of typical Hope jokes supplied by his writers. In the filmed script, there's even a reference to Hope's frequent Paramount costar when a Russian character starts a fight by calling Hope "Dog Nose" and he responds, "Oh, got a little Crosby blood in ya, huh?"

Hecht's reaction was to walk away from the film, leaving Hepburn to fend for herself as best she could with the aid of director Thomas. She had arrived in London in the discreet company of Spencer Tracy, her married lover, and Quirk speculates that she may have been distracted by the attention he required. She was also dealing with the after-effects of an eye infection suffered after a dunking in Venice's Grand Canal during the filming of Summertime. At any rate, she soldiered on and, from all reports, maintained a polite if distinctly cool attitude toward her costar.

Thomas would later comment, "I wish I had made the picture when I was a little more experienced, because of the problem of handling these very diverse personalities. Really, they were playing in two different pictures: She was a mistress of light, sophisticated, romantic comedy, and he was much broader." Despite the obvious difficulties, he found Hepburn "marvelous to work with... She understood all the problems, she gave everything she had, she is the most cooperative person that ever breathed, and even when it was obvious the picture wasn't working out, that we were headed for disaster, she never lost her spirit."

According to Berg, Hepburn privately considered Hope "the biggest egomaniac with whom I have ever worked in my entire life" and complained that he transformed The Iron Petticoat into "his cheap vaudeville act with me as his stooge." Asked by Quirk about the film in 1957, she had responded, "The less said about it the better. Just thinking about it gives me a headache. It was a mess!" Although she claimed never to have seen the final product, she considered it the low point of her professional resume.

Hope had been kinder in his official evaluation of Hepburn: "This dame is terrific -- an expert in her craft and so electrifying on set that if you don't watch out, you're likely to wind up as part of the scenery."

The Iron Petticoat opened in New York in December 1956 and was given a general release by MGM in January 1957, but quickly faded away. Prior to the U.S. release, Hecht received approval through the Screen Writing Credits Committee to have his name taken off the MGM version. In a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Hecht claimed that "The movie was written for a lady, Miss Katharine Hepburn, and ended up instead as a role for the hero, Mr. Bob Hope... It had nothing to do with the movie I wrote."

At a reported cost of $275, Hecht took out a full-page advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter to address a public letter to "My dear partner Bob Hope: This is to notify you that I have removed my name as author from our mutilated venture, The Iron Petticoat. Unfortunately your other partner, Katharine Hepburn, can't shy out of the fractured picture with me. Although her magnificent comic performance has been blowtorched out of the film, there is enough left of the Hepburn footage to identify her for her sharpshooters. I am assured by my hopeful predators that The Iron Petticoat will go over big with people 'who can't get enough of Bob Hope.' Let us hope this swooning contingent is not confined to yourself and your euphoric agent, Louis Shurr."

Hope responded with his own full-page ad: "My dear Ex-Partner Ben: You once wrote The Front Page, and now you've followed it up with the back page... I am most understanding. The way things are going you simply can't afford to be associated with a hit. As for Kate Hepburn, I don't think she was depressed with the preview audience rave about her performance. Let's do all our correspondence this way in print. It lifts The Iron Petticoat." The letter was signed "Bob (BlowTorch) Hope."

The reviews of the day were scathing, with frequent mention of Hepburn's inconsistent accent. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that "Miss Hepburn's Russian affectations and accent are simply horrible, and Mr. Hope's wistful efforts with feeble gags to hold his franchise as a funny man are downright sad. The notion of these two characters falling rapturously, romantically in love is virtually revolting. If this was meant to be a travesty, it is." As for Hecht's having his credit removed, Crowther noted that, "A witness to the finished picture may readily figure why."

New York Herald Tribune critic William K. Zinsser: "'Vy you are smilink?' Katharine Hepburn asks Bob Hope, trying her best to sound like a Russian in The Iron Petticoat. Nobody's smilink. In fact, for Hepburn and Hope fans, this should be a day of cryink... When Miss Hepburn, encased in an army uniform that does nothing for her lissom figure, turns to Hope and says 'I vas vorried,' she has good reason."

Some contemporary viewers, appreciating the movie's novelty value, have been more forgiving. Critic Hal Erickson of Rovi writes that those who take a fresh look at the film "are astounded at how well Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn worked together."

MGM's distribution deal for The Iron Petticoat ended in December 1966, and until now the film had not since been seen in the Western Hemisphere. In the U.S. it was never broadcast on television or released on home video. In 1970 MGM returned all 35mm duplication and printing elements to Bob Hope, who paid $38,500 to settle the picture's debts and gain access to duplication negatives and prints created for the MGM release. Today, no one at The Bob Hope Legacy or Hope Enterprises, Inc., knows what happened to these elements.

The movie was shot in VistaVision, a wide-screen process with unusual clarity and beautiful color saturation that had been developed at Paramount. The high-definition restoration, using 2K digital scanning of the original VistaVision camera negative and the positive separation masters (held by Romulus Films), was begun in early 2012 by Technicolor Creative Services and Deluxe Digital in the U.K. Final color correction and HD mastering was completed at Cinepost in Atlanta.

In a final ironic link between the mismatched costars, both lived to a ripe old age (Hepburn, 96; Hope, 100) and died within a month of each other in 2003.

Producers: Betty E. Box, Harry Saltzman
Director: Ralph Thomas
Screenplay: Ben Hecht (screenplay); Harry Saltzman (story, uncredited)
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Music: Frederick Wilson
Film Editing: Frederick Wilson
Cast: Bob Hope (Major Charles "Chuck" Lockwood), Katharine Hepburn (Captain Vinka Kovelenko), Noelle Middleton (Lady Connie Warburton-Watts), James Robertson Justice (Colonel Sklarnoff), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Kropotkin), David Kossoff (Dr. Anton Dubratz), Alan Gifford (Colonel Newt Tarbell), Nicholas Phipps (Tony Mallard), Paul Carpenter (Major Lewis), Sidney James (Paul)

by Roger Fristoe

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