Silly Sexual Politics Undermine 'Operation Petticoat'

Silly sexual politics prevent this film from being a bona fide classic.

Operation Petticoat

Director: Blake Edwards
Cast: Tony Curtis, Cary Grant
Distributor: Olive Films
Rated: NR
Year: 1959
US DVD release date: 2014-07-01

Blake Edwards was one of the greatest comedic directors of Hollywood’s Golden Era. From the truly iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Pink Panther to 10, his works often transcended the realm of comedy and became part of a larger discussion. Think how his adaptation of Truman Capote’s beloved novella for example, gave Audrey Hepburn her most famous part and helped redefine the fashion of an era, or how his farcical adventures with Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) led to endless imitations and parodies (even if The Pink Panther series itself was already satirizing the clichéd procedural drama). If something can be said about Edwards’ work, it is that it was always interesting; even his lesser films feature exciting performances or unique takes on genre.

Take, for example, Operation Petticoat, his 1959 naval drama starring Tony Curtis and Cary Grant. This mostly forgotten comedy went on to inspire a television series in the late '70’s, and has been relegated to random screenings on Turner Classic Movies, but thanks to a new Blu-ray edition from Olive Films, we are reminded of the film’s many charms. At the time of filming, Curtis and Grant were perhaps two of the biggest movie stars in the world, and Curtis was such a Grant admirer that he actually shaped his performance in another 1959 hit (Billy Wilder’s legendary Some Like It Hot) after Grant.

In Operation Petticoat, you can see why Curtis was so fond of Grant: the man exuded a charisma the likes of which the screen never saw again. His flirty-yet-nonchalant looks were enough to capture the hearts of men and women alike, and he excels at this US Navy Admiral Matt Sherman (whose obvious British accent is never explained). We first meet him as he boards the Sea Tiger, the submarine he commanded during the war. As the Admiral looks fondly at the vessel about to be sent to the scrapyard, a flashback takes us to the time when the Sea Tiger was a glorious part of the Navy.

The submarine is first sunk by a Japanese air raid in 1941, which forces Sherman’s crew to be redistributed among other working vessels, leaving the Admiral with nothing but first dibs on whoever is chosen as replacement, one of them is Lieutenant Nick Holden (Curtis), who, unlike the patriotic Sherman, joined the Navy for more personal reasons, mostly having to do with escaping poverty and being able to provide for himself. At first, this odd couple seems poised to eternal conflict, but as it happens in these comedies, they soon learn to complement each other and become indispensable as a team.

Operation Petticoat doesn’t seem to be offering any new thrills or a unique kind of comedy; instead, it finds wonders in how familiar everything about it seems. From the snappy dialogue, to the way in which the ensemble interacts, to the sillier moments (the Sea Tiger undergoes a makeover that must be seen to be believed) the film is the definition of good old fashioned entertainment.

As with many of Edwards' works, it’s interesting to study how certain elements were more accepted during the era when the director was making his films. In this case, it’s fascinating to see how the film looks as women as nothing more than companions worthy of these two fine specimens of virility and manhood. It’s not that the film is necessarily sexist—although how could it not be when discussing men and women in the Navy?—it’s mostly that what the film sees as good would now come off as very politically incorrect.

The Army Nurses that serve as love interests to our heroes, are given personalities that can be fierce and determinate, but seem made specifically to comply to the needs of the men around them, even if it’s obvious that in order for them to even be in their positions, they have to be extraordinary women. That the film sees them mostly as “nurses” who, beyond their official job, also have to nurse these men is a unique snapshot of times believed to be simpler, if only because things were less questioned.

But perhaps to dwell on the film’s silly sexual politics would be to accuse it of doing something it might’ve done unconsciously and what better way to prove this than by the very fact that the film makes these moments work, whether it’s romance or comedy, we don’t seem to mind how wrong some things look, reminding us why Edwards’ work is so uniquely of its time.

Olive Films has done a splendid job with the high definition transfer of Operation Petticoat. As with all of their other releases, this one is presented without any bonus materials, which is a shame given how terrific and ahead of their time some of the battle sequences are.


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