Cary Grant Blu's: 'Operation Petticoat' and 'Father Goose'

Cary Grant and Joan O'Brien in Operation Petticoat (1959)

The extras in these Olive Films Blu-rays will give you a new appreciation for these films.

Operation Petticoat
Blake Edwards

Olive Films

28 Nov 2017

Father Goose
Ralph Nelson

Olive Films

28 Nov 2017


First, a confession: I believe most of the extras on most DVDs are a waste of time, an excuse for more puffery in which everyone talks about how wonderful it was to work with everyone else. The extras I value are those, mainly on classic films, that put the product in the context of its time. I know such extras have done their job when they give me new appreciation for movies I didn't think much of before.

Two excellent examples are the new Olive Signature editions of previously released Blu-rays featuring two films from the late phase of Cary Grant's career, Operation Petticoat (1959) and Father Goose (1964). Both were very popular hits from a time when Grant was well into comfortable iconhood. Both were made by his production company, which meant he was calling the shots with vehicles intended to promote his own stock. Both films are colorful escapist comedies set in the Pacific theatre during WWII. Both run a leisurely two hours. And both, alas, have tended to underwhelm my finicky cravings.

Operation Petticoat takes place aboard a submarine barely salvaged from a Japanese attack. The story builds tension between the beleaguered captain (Grant) and his dandy-ish, unscrupulous supply officer (Tony Curtis), who eventually learn to complement and assimilate each other's worldviews as the former becomes more flexible and the latter more of a company man.

The main problem presented in the plot has nothing to do with the Japanese enemy, who are virtually invisible. It's that this all-male environment must suffer the insult of accommodating five rescued nurses. Jokes are made about all manner of things: undergarments, bust size, nudie tattoos, even the bathroom (called "the head"). Curtis' slightly effeminate playboy is the only character comfortable with the women's presence, while more extreme characters, like the engineer, grouse that women "shouldn't handle a man's machinery".

This feminizing, if not emasculating, influence reaches its low or high point when the sub is painted a bright pink, leading to a last act in which the American sub is fired upon even by its own forces. Thus, we see the danger of subverting rigid gender roles and allowing any forms of compromise and fluidity, except that the story is firmly on the side of promoting that fluidity and compromise and causing its rigid characters to rethink their assumptions.

In my review of the previous no-frills Blu-ray, I locate the film in its era of military comedies and as a foreshadowing of "the comedy of expensive spectacle". Director Blake Edwards already shows his deft manner with visual gags and the two stars lend their light touch to the proceedings, while I found the sex-comedy element "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."

This time around, I went directly to watching the film (with subtitles on) while hearing the commentary by Adrian Martin, a critic with a special interest in Edwards as an auteur. Even though Edwards was grateful for the new freedom brought to his career by this film's success, he felt somewhat cramped by Grant's control and didn't rank it especially highly in his output. Most of his critics agree with him, and this point is also made in Chris Fujiwara's liner notes.

Yet, as Martin and Fujiwara both observe, Edwards' style and consistent themes are clear, and not just because Edwards went from a pink sub to the Pink Panther movies. For Edwards, sex and the body were anarchic forces that undermine gender roles, and this movie shows the modest seeds of what would flower in, say, Victor/Victoria (1982) and Switch (1991). If this movie remains constrained by its time, at least you can see it straining against the constraints. The sub's scandalous domesticity, finally extending even to babies and goats, becomes the thing that saves it from its persecution for pinkness.

In a very interesting half-hour ramble by Grant biographer Marc Eliot, he goes so far as call it a "bromance" and identify Curtis as Grant's "leading lady", as the plot demonstrates how they mediate their initial screwball tensions into a working "marriage". In this view, the women are something of a decoy or displacement that allows such a marriage to come to fruition.

Eliot observes that Curtis idolized Grant, whose role in Delmer Daves' Destination Tokyo (1943) had influenced young Curtis' decision (when he was still Bernie Schwartz) to join the Navy and work on a submarine. In turn, Grant had been tickled by Curtis' parody of Grant in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), and this mutual admiration led to onscreen chemistry. That was a movie where Curtis spend much of the picture in drag, as had Grant in Howard Hawks' military comedy I Was a Male War Bride (1949), a point that lends resonance to a movie about an emasculated submarine.

Eliot also mentions the fascinating detail that an interview promoting this movie was where Grant discussed his psychiatric treatments with LSD, which he credited with "freeing" him, and much time is also spent discussing Grant's sense of having multiple identities, e.g., the cockney Archie Leach vs. the dashing "Cary Grant", and the sexual confusion of, say, being married to Virginia Cherrill while still traveling with boyfriend Randolph Scott. Edwards would also go on to a long career in therapy, so it seems Grant influenced him in that sense.

Two supporting players who went on to major TV careers, Gavin MacLeod and Marion Ross, offer anecdotes in another bonus, while another segment combines essentially irrelevant interviews with Edwards' daughter Jennifer and actress Lesley Ann Warren, neither of whom mentions Operation Petticoat nor had anything to do with it. (Warren was in Victor/Victoria.)

Cary Grant and Leslie Caron in Father Goose (1964) (IMDB)

A Universal newsreel that begins with a boring speech by President Eisenhower and then segues into a piece about Cary Grant demonstrates how such alleged newsreels functioned as stealth promotion of Universal films; a similar newsreel is included on the Father Goose disc. A final bonus is many minutes of WWII-era footage, both in black and white and in color, of the actual sub used in the filming and many soldiers aboard it. The footage is silent except for the affected dubbing of projector noise.

Eliot essentially continues his lecture on an extra for Father Goose, which he describes as a project invented strictly for the purpose of trying to win an Oscar for Grant, who was trying to play "against type" in the same manner that Humphrey Bogart had scored an Oscar for playing against type on The African Queen (1951).

This was also a project that revealed Grant's intense desire to father a child, which had motivated him for several years and which came to its fruition when he married Dyan Cannon, who bore him a daughter and who wrote in her memoir about attending the filming. Eliot states that Grant basically summoned Cannon after spotting her on a soap opera, and this was shortly after his disappointment at failing to persuade Sophia Loren to leave her husband for him.

Historian David Del Valle provides the commentary on this film, and he spends much of it reading from the memoirs of both Cannon and the film's co-star, Leslie Caron, as well as from an interview with one of the child actors.

In Father Goose, Grant plays a scruffy, unshaven, cantankerous recluse who gets more or less blackmailed or hornswoggled into working for the Brits, led by Trevor Howard as the local commander, on a Pacific island during WWII. When I first saw the film a few years ago, I couldn't understand why there appeared to be Africans working the docks on a British Pacific base. As the commentary makes clear, it's because the island footage was shot in Jamaica and simply employed local extras.

Bear in mind, this was an era when Hollywood artifice evinced a complete disregard for realism, not unlike today. In retrospect, it must be admitted that Operation Petticoat did have the grace to cast Filipinos as its Filipinos, although shot in Florida.

Anyway, this island crank manages to rescue a prim teacher (Leslie Caron) and her seven uniformed (and uninformed) schoolgirls, so it's kind of The African Queen by way of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) -- both John Huston movies, incidentally. When Leslie and Cary's characters abruptly decide to get hitched after getting under each other's nerves all movie, it feels more like a capitulation than a development. According to Eliot, Grant's character was supposed to die at the end while saving the kids but Grant refused to stray that far from type (just as he'd put the kibosh on Edwards' idea that he should wrestle with a pig), and it was probably smarter as a business decision than an aesthetic one.

This trivia won a screenplay Oscar for Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, while Grant achieved not a nod. He made one more movie and retired to raise his daughter. In his final years, he picked up another wife and an honorary Oscar and went on the road with a tour about his life, during which he died of a stroke. The fact that we still watch his movies and write books about him and listen to commentaries on Blu-rays, even those we may consider minor amid his output, says volumes about the magnetism of his persona and legacy.

Another extra on the Blu-ray is devoted to the film's director, Ralph Nelson, a former TV director who had freshly won an Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963) -- one reason the Oscar-hungry Grant chose him to direct. His son, internet pioneer Ted Nelson, tells stories about his father's rough childhood as a juvenile delinquent and train-jumping runaway.

His restless youth was turned around by the war and his time as a flying instructor, leading afterwards to his early directing triumphs and, for example, his suggesting the title The Twilight Zone to buddy Rod Serling. Ted admits to having been estranged from his dad, and we're left with the feeling that there's a lot more to hear, and we want to hear it. So yes, this is what bonus features are good for.

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