Operation Petticoat (1959): Blake Edward’s Cheeky Service Sit-Com

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“On a sub you have to operate in close quarters.”

Operation Petticoat positions itself as an easy film to enjoy and a difficult one to love. It’s true Blake Edwards was capable of stirring up breezy even wacky entertainment, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Pink Panther to The Great Race. Even this is only acknowledging a very small subset of his filmography without consideration of the several exemplary dramas he directed.

He was usually aided by fine casts, who could carry the material smartly, and it’s little different here. Cary Grant was hardly ever ruffled nor stretched in his later career, and Operation Petticoat could hardly be considered more than a lark for him. He plays his quietly bemused self — this time a submarine Lt. Commander, who must make the most of a wonky situation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

For his part, Tony Curtis is all but at ease as the wheeler-dealer with a touch of sleazy class. Let’s just say he’s got an affinity for the finer things in life and the ladies who can give it to him. It’s generally a delight to see Cary Grant return to a sub after Destination Tokyo, this time joined by Curtis, who looks to be relishing going toe-to-toe and rustling the feathers of his boyhood idol.

Forgiving the shameless pun, without its two stars, the movie would be sunk by mediocrity. If we want to give a slightly backhanded compliment, Operation Petticoat is a fitting precursor to some of the popular sitcoms of the ’60s.

Helping the argument are the presence of Gavin MacLeod, Marian Ross, and Dick Sargent representing, of all things, McHale’s Navy, Happy Days, and Bewitched. And of course, although it transposed the action of a submarine crew to a rural locale, one cannot forget Petticoat Junction.

Like McHale’s Navy, it would be all but impossible to pull off the wartime comedy set in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor if we hadn’t at least won the war. This gives freedom for some creative license and a bit of zaniness sprinkled in with the typical military fare. One must only remember one gag recycled in the TV show, namely, sinking a truck with a torpedo.

Before they can even get afloat, they have to put their belching sub back into working order. The man up for the task is their latest addition Lt. Holden. Though the commander doesn’t relish the idea, he turns the other way and lets his junkman get to work pilfering everything he can get his grubby hands on. He’s able to do what no one else could, securing all the parts (by dubious means) to get them back in commission.

If we want to point out the film’s flaws, it takes about an hour to really churn up some steam by entering the waters of a 50s era rom-com afloat in awkward waters. Because once they get past the fear that the Sea Tiger will fall apart around them, they find their newest conundrum. They are being tasked with accommodating a batch of stranded nurses. It just isn’t done. It isn’t decent. And yet somehow in this film it happens and, subsequently, becomes the source for most of the comedy.

Quite mysteriously, all the shipmen aboard fall ill and need medical attention from the nursing staff. Their commanding officer all but scares them back to perfect health. Holden is all but smitten by bodacious blonde, Dina Merrill, who has the ill-fortune for always falling in love with Mr. Wrong. He’s not exactly the prototypical image of the upstanding, clean-cut boy next door.

Major Heywood (Virginia Gregg) strikes up a boiler room romance with the local fix-it man (Arthur O’Connell) because she proves just as resourceful as he is. He’s forced to mince every small-minded word he ever said about women and washing in his workspace. Commander Sherman is hardly on the lookout for such flings, simply trying to navigate their highly irregular and awkward situation and the perpetual clumsiness of Nurse Crandall (Joan O’Brien).

Between designated shower times for the ladies, the sharing of pajamas between co-eds, and allowing for Lt. Crandall’s curvaceous figure in the tight quarters of the submarine, he gets more than he bargained for, all played for wry comic effect, of course. It’s these later interludes milking the sheer awkwardness that exhibit touches of redolence on par with Pillow Talk or any such brethren. It’s a reason to miss the films of old. Cheeky and more brazen than expected, but mostly good-natured, especially compared to the hypersexualized culture we now live in.

operation petticoat 2.pngVarious scenarios spring to mind of farcical hijinks worthy of McHale’s band of Eight Balls. Prime examples are Holden setting up a supply depot casino to wrangle parts and even resorting to pig-napping to augment their New Year’s festivities. Seaman Hornsby causes quite the stir and in order to hold onto the plump porker, Commander Sherman generously opens up his subordinate’s quarters so a disgruntled native can raid them in recompense. He comes away with a golf bag, tennis rackets, and all the doodads you can imagine.

In another stroke of brilliance, some Einstein has the foresight to mix white paint with the red so they have enough for a new coat. For any of those who passed preschool, that makes — not gray — but pink. When they’re not picking up more passengers and wayward goats, babies are being born in the makeshift ward.

 The most cringe-worthy moment comes when they get caught in the crosshairs of a friendly battleship looking to sink the unidentified, highly irregular submarine. As one last resort, they signal their allies with a trail of women’s undergarments. Surely the Japanese would not resort to the same tactics. 

The resolution to the story is fit for the crowd-pleasing, sunshiny rom-com we’ve been offered. Cary and Tony say a cheering goodbye to their old friend The Sea Tiger, and we get some novel if unsurprising exposition about their love lives. In case you didn’t guess as much, a movie about a pink co-ed submarine is not going to push your brain or the envelope. For the generous viewer, it’s intermittently mirthful and relatively harmless amusement not to be taken too seriously.

3/5 Stars

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