Ten years after the end of World War II, the subject of the war became safe for comedy, at least in America. From Broadway and TV and Hollywood came such projects as Mister Roberts, Operation Madball and No Time for Sergeants. One of the biggest hits of 1959, and a breakthrough for director Blake Edwards, Operation Petticoat joined the march of military hijinks and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Operation Petticoat opens in 1959, as a submarine called the USS Sea Tiger is about to be junked. Admiral Sherman (Cary Grant), the original captain, reviews his logbook, leading to the rest of film’s flashback of how the submarine was salvaged after nearly being scuttled by Japanese bombs in December 1941. Key to the restoration process was the larcenous, unscrupulous shenanigans of his new supply officer, Lt. Holden (Tony Curtis). The final humiliation is that the submarine is painted pink, presumably an emasculating color (and a dangerously conspicuous one), and this leads to a final round of tension with America’s own navy. This could be seen as a gentle though none-too-subtle satire on the masculine ego of warfare.
The film opens with stylish, witty, beautiful opening credits of sea creatures seen through a periscope. With its several battle setpieces, the movie feels like an early, prescient example of the comedy of expensive spectacle, and therefore in a line with everything from Stanley Kramer‘s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to Steven Spielberg‘s 1941, the films of John Landis, and, of course, some of Edwards’ own later efforts. Here, Edwards stages a few deft visual gags, neither as subtle as Jacques Tati nor as blunt as Kramer; he plants the idea in the unblinking space and lets the viewer wait for it, as when we expect to see Curtis turn around and show Grant’s muddy handprint on his impeccable dress whites.
Although the script (by Stanley J. Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, from a story by Paul King and Joseph B. Stone) was nominated for an Oscar for its combination of classical character development with setpiece incidents, much of these two hours feel slow and dated today. Particularly drawn-out is the long central tease about the presence of five female nurses on the sub, with predictable male responses of huffing and puffing or “hubba-hubba”. This leads to the kind of sexual (and sexist) tensions the story isn’t prepared to resolve. Operation Petticoat is an example of the era’s basically conservative teases, which pretend to be free and madcap while remaining tightly buttoned, no matter how many gags are wrung out of brassieres.
What it’s got going for it is the lightly attractive touch provided by Curtis and especially Grant, who spends the whole movie looking askance but rarely blowing his top, even when he should. While some of the military comedies use the standard opposition of the uptight, buffoonish commander vs. the insubordinate or conniving meatball, the better to convey tension between by-the-book bureaucracies and their supposed subversion, this film presents as cool a commander as you could wish. Captain Sherman tolerates Holden’s behavior and incorporates it into his shipshape command because it works, and thus the selfish meatball is gradually groomed for responsibility and team-playing, as in more standard wartime vehicles (e.g. John Garfield in Air Force ).
This unrestored print of a Universal film (licensed by Olive Films) shows tiny flaws and some color fluctuation in Russell Harlan’s pretty Eastmancolor photography, but it overall pleasing to the eye.