The Funny Papers: Operation Petticoat (1959)
There are classic comedies that capture the perfect blend of superior direction, cast, writing, and appealing aesthetics. You can tell that it works well when we find ourselves forming nostalgic bonds to such films. Even if the content seems outdated to our modern lens, we happily re-watch them. Again and again. One such film that fits that bill for me is Blake Edwards’ Operation Petticoat (1959).
On September 2, 1945, the Japanese delegation officially signed their unconditional surrender aboard the USS Missouri, thereby ending World War II. Many war films followed into the 1950s. By the second half of that decade, America was more than ready to tackle the subject with a lighter touch – with humor and even some sexual innuendo.
On the heels of the success of Pillow Talk (1959), writing team Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, along with Paul King and Joseph B. Stone, created the perfect comedic tone for a battle of the sexes in the midst of battling the Japanese at sea. Enormously successful Pillow Talk (1959) was released just 2 months prior to Operation Petticoat (1959), for which the seasoned writers Shapiro and Richlin earned Academy Awards for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. This popular formula for sex comedy trended from the late 1950s into the 1960s. Why not take that gender battle to war… on a pink submarine?
Blake Edwards was a rising star in directing who evolved from a bit actor during WWII to writing screenplays and scripts for radio, television, and film. Edwards grew up with an inherent understanding of Hollywood and the film world. By the age of 3, his family moved to LA, where his stepfather worked as a film production manager. His mother had remarried when Blake was a baby – to Jack McEdwards, son of silent film director J. Gordon Edwards. According to a 1971 interview in “The Village Voice,” Blake said of those early days: “I worked with the best directors – Ford, Wyler, Preminger – and learned a lot from them. But I wasn’t a very cooperative actor. I was a spunky, smart-assed kid. Maybe even then I was indicating that I wanted to give, not take, direction.”
Blake Edwards had just finished directing The Perfect Furlough (1958), starring Hollywood power couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, which was also written by Shapiro, when he began production for Operation Petticoat (1959). Blake Edwards’ The Perfect Furlough, a CinemaScope Eastmancolor rom-com that focused on sex-starved servicemen, was released a week after Curtis and Leigh’s 2nd daughter Jamie Lee was born. Wasting no time, Edwards, Curtis, and Shapiro and writing team got cracking to make another comedy that centered on sex-starved servicemen with Operation Petticoat.
The basic premise takes us through the waters of Japan in the middle of World War II in a badly damaged submarine. The crew is resourceful and always on the look-out for repair and supplies. And like all farce comedies, the obstacles of immense ridiculousness must ensue. In this case, it presents challenges such as a Pepto-Bismol shade of pink painted sub, bringing aboard unexpected guests such as a crew of servicewomen, and even a pig disguised as a sick sailor.
The new coat of unmistakable pink paint makes them a looming target in those dangerous waters, from both the enemy and allied crews alike. The tight quarters with the women officers in snug-fitted uniforms bring an array of distractions and a slew of battle-of-the-genders jokes and innuendos.
We see a large cast of familiar faces. This includes the comic chemistry of our two main stars, Cary Grant as Lt. Commander Matt Sherman and Tony Curtis as Lt. Nick Holden. Curtis had admired Grant from his youth and in seeing him in films like Destination Tokyo (1943), another submarine war film. It was fated that their paths would cross again. In 1959, the same year as Operation Petticoat, Grant starred in one of his most popular Hitchcock roles as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest and Curtis impersonated Grant in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
The naval uniform was a familiar fit for Tony. Curtis served in the U.S. Navy, aboard a submarine tender, USS Proteus. He enlisted following the attack on Pearl Harbor at age seventeen. By the time of the signing of the Japanese official surrender aboard the USS Missouri, Curtis was on deck of his ship’s signal bridge looking across the Tokyo Bay to witness this historic event. After a decades-long and successful acting career of more than a hundred films, Tony received full military honors at his funeral on October 4, 2010, at the age of 85 years-old.
By the late 1950s, Cary Grant was more than just a household name. He was still churning out hits for more than a quarter-century. Grant was 55 years-old for the release of Operation Petticoat and worried that he may have been too old for the part. The role of Commander Sherman was originally offered to Jeff Chandler. Bob Hope was also offered a role, which he later regretted turning down. Tina Louise of “Gilligan’s Island” fame was offered Joan O’Brien’s role as nurse Crandall, but she refused because she didn’t want to be simply an on-screen “boob joke.”
The supporting cast rolls out like a who’s who of familiar faces and classic television, such as Dick Sargent from “Bewitched,” Marion Ross from “Happy Days,” and Gavin MacLeod of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Love Boat”:
- Cary Grant as Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Matthew T. “Matt” Sherman, USN
- Tony Curtis as Lieutenant, Junior Grade (later Commander) Nicholas “Nick” Holden, USNR (later USN)
- Joan O’Brien as Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall, NC, USAR
- Dina Merrill as Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, NC, USAR
- Gene Evans as Chief Torpedoman “Mo” Molumphry, USN, Chief of the Boat of the Sea Tiger
- Dick Sargent as Ensign Stovall, USN (billed as Richard Sargent)
- Arthur O’Connell as Chief Motor Machinist’s Mate Sam Tostin, USN
- Virginia Gregg as Major Edna Heywood, NC, US Army
- Robert F. Simon as Captain J.B. Henderson, USN
- Robert Gist as Lieutenant Watson, USN, Sherman’s Executive Officer (XO)
- Gavin MacLeod as Yeoman Ernest Hunkle, USN
- George Dunn as The Prophet (of Doom)
- Dick Crockett as Petty Officer Harmon, USN
- Madlyn Rhue as Second Lieutenant Reid, NC, USAR
- Marion Ross as Second Lieutenant Colfax, NC, USAR
- Clarence Lung as Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, USMC (billed as Clarence E. Lung)
- Frankie Darro as Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class Dooley, USN
- Tony Pastor, Jr. as Fox
- Robert F. Hoy as Reiner
- Nicky Blair as Seaman Kraus
- John W. Morley as Williams
- Ray Austin as Seaman Austin
This film centers on the screwball antics of their adventures, with a special focus on the ‘odd coupling’ of cool and collected Commander Matt Sherman (Grant) in contrast to playboy rule-breaker and chaotic cad Nick Holden (Curtis). These personality differences make for a priceless recipe for classic comedy, but it is the women who bring a surprising icing on this cake.
Dina Merrill as 2nd Lt. Barbara Duran, is Nick’s love interest and connected to co-star Cary Grant in her personal life. Heiress/philanthropist/actress Merrill’s cousin was Barbara Hutton, once married to Grant. Merrill was married three times, including actor Cliff Robertson. But the stand-outs in the female cast are Joan O’Brien’s 2nd Lt. Dolores Crandall and Virginia Gregg’s Major Heywood.
2nd Lt. Crandall is a wonderful slapstick highlight. On the surface, it’s easy to think of Crandall as a stereotype of a ditzy Monroe type with every opportunity to target her character as an ongoing busty joke. But she is much more. Dolores is portrayed as a caring, nurturing, and sympathetic character who is more embarrassed by her curvy attributes than flamboyant. The real humor here isn’t in her anatomy, but rather in her ability to pull off physical comedy. Female slapstick comediennes are rare in the studio era so it’s terrifically refreshing to see Crandall be included in this limited group, not unlike an understated Judy Holiday.
Additionally, Major Heywood is another classic Hollywood rarity- the mature female role of competence. Not nearly as openly sarcastic as a Thelma Ritter character, but this lady outwits her male peer with ingenuity, creativity, and intelligence- in a man’s game. I can think of few on-screen examples of female characters of a mature age who could convincingly out best men in such a masculine occupation as the ship’s mechanic while also possessing a soft, romantic side.
Blake Edwards’ Operation Petticoat (1959) is a fun comedy medley of wartime action (like sinking a truck with a torpedo), a large cast of comforting faces, and all the delightful tension as expected from a co-ed pink sub in the middle of a war zone. If you’re in need to sink below from life’s chaos, this is the perfect escapism respite.
– Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing as her day gig, Kellee Pratt teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and more). She’s worked for Turner Classic Movies as a Social Producer and TCM Ambassador (2019). An unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayhawk66 or her own blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com).