“OPERATION PETTICOAT” (1959) Review

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“OPERATION PETTICOAT” (1959) Review

Many would find this hard to believe, but I first came aware of the 1959 comedy, “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, when its television spinoff aired during the late 1970s. Mind you, the television series was no where as good as the 1959 movie, it was enough to attract my attention.

Over a decade had past before I first saw the movie. And I became an even bigger fan of the film than the TV series. Directed by Blake Edwards, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” is basically a flashback tale in which U.S. Navy Admiral Matthew Sherman visits the U.S.S. Sea Tiger, an old and obsolete submarine scheduled to be sent to the scrapyard. Because Sherman was the Sea Tiger’s first commanding officer, he begins reading his old log book, which recounted the submarine’s time during its first difficult month following the Japanese Navy’s attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On December 10, 1941, the Sea Tiger is sunk by a Japanese air raid, while it is docked at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. Sherman, then a Lieutenant-Commander, and his crew begin repairs, hoping to sail the Sea Tiger to Darwin, Australia. The submarine squadron’s commodore believes there is no chance of saving the Sea Tiger and begins to transfer some of Sherman’s crew to other boats. Sherman convinces the commodore otherwise and the latter begins to replace Sherman’s crew, beginning with an admiral aide with no submarine experience named Lieutenant (junior grade) Nick Holden. Unfortunately for Sherman, Holden had become a naval officer to escape poverty and find a wealthy spouse. Fortunately for the submarine commander, Holden proves to be a very effective supply officer, due to his skills as a scavenger and con artist. Thanks to Holden, the Sea Tiger acquires enough parts for repair and their departure from the Philippines. Once restored to seaworthy condition – barely – with only two of her four diesels operational, the Sea Tiger reaches Marinduque, where Sherman reluctantly agrees to evacuate five stranded Army nurses. Between dealing with Holden’s reluctance to reveal officer material, a partially operating submarine and five nurses with no where to go and causing mayhem on board, Sherman’s first month at war proves to be very difficult.

When I first saw “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, I wondered if I would like it as much as I did the television series. Needless to say . . . I did. I enjoyed this movie very much. It had a lot going for it. One, it had Blake Edwards as director. Before he directed“OPERATION PETTICOAT”, Edwards had worked as an actor, screenwriter and the occasional producer/director or writer of a series of television shows. The 1959 World War II comedy proved to be his first feature movie as a director . . . and he scored big. The movie featured every aspect of first-rate Blake Edwards comedy – the director’s unique humor; a cast of some very interesting and offbeat characters; and most importantly a well-written story.

Because of his past as a screenwriter, I had assumed that Edwards had written the movie’s script. I was wrong. Credit went to four writers – Paul King, Joseph B. Stone, Stanley J. Shapiro, Maurice Richlin. And I must that they had written one hell of a story. I liked how they and Edwards managed to recapture those desperate, early days of the war’s Pacific Theater, when the Japanese seemed to be grabbing a great deal of territory in the Pacific. I liked the fact that despite the presence of Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and five attractive actresses portraying nurses, neither Edwards or the four screenwriters did not glamorize the movie’s setting . . . aside from the spotless uniform worn by Nick Holden upon his arrival at the Sea Tiger or the characters. The Sea Tiger remained in a questionable condition throughout most of the film. And believe it or not, a good deal of the events featured in this film actually happened during those early months of the war in the Pacific . . . including the evacuation of military nurses from the Philippines, a submarine being forced to paint its surface pink, due to the lack of enough red or white lead undercoat paint. The movie nearly ended on an ironic note, when it faced great danger of being sunk . . . but not by the Japanese Navy.

I did have a few problems with “OPERATION PETTICOAT”. Although most of the movie was set between December 1941-January 1942, the hairstyles and makeup for the actresses portraying the nurses clearly reflected the late 1950s. Hollywood tend to be rather sloppy about women’s hairstyles and fashion in movies set in the near past. And “OPERATION PETTICOAT” was mainly set seventeen to eighteen years before its release. The nurses proved to be another problem in the film. The moment the nurses boarded the Sea Tiger, a hint of sexism seemed to permeate the movie. Nearly every scene that featured the nurses, the score written by David Rose and an uncredited Henry Mancini would shift into a cheesy tune fit for a soft core porn film . . . 1950s style. The biggest problem proved to be two characters – the commanding officer of the nurses, Major Edna Heywood; and the Sea Tiger’s Chief Machinist’s Mate Sam Tostin. The latter proved to be something of a misogynist, who could not stand the idea of women aboard the submarine. I could have tolerated that. I could have tolerated his dismay over Major Heywood’s interest in the Sea Tiger’s engines, due to her father being an engineer. What I could not tolerate was Tostin’s lack of respect toward Major Heywood’s status as an officer . . . and the fact that the screenwriters allowed him to get away with such lack of respect due to her being a woman. And the fact that the screenwriters wrote a romantic subplot for the pair struck me as ridiculous. The moment Tostin said these words to Major Heywood:

Chief Mechanic’s Mate Sam Tostin: [speaking to Maj.Heywood in the engine room] You know, I spent alot of years disliking women. But I don’t dislike you.

Maj. Edna Heywood, RN: Oh?

Chief Mechanic’s Mate Sam Tostin: You’re not a woman. You’re more than a woman. You’re a *mechanic*

I hope the screenwriters and Edwards did not expect audiences to take this relationship seriously. A deep-seated misogynist like Tostin had no business being given a romantic interest in this film . . . especially with an upright woman like Major Heywood.

In my opinion, the two best aspects of any movie are usually the screenplay and the performances. I have already expressed my views of the movie’s plot. As the performances, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” was blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to see that a few cast members went on to become television stars – Gavin MacLeod (“THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW” and“THE LOVE BOAT”), Dick Sargeant (“BEWITCHED”), and Marion Ross (“HAPPY DAYS”). Ross did not get much of a chance to strut her stuff in this film. But MacLeod gave a hilarious performance as the high-strung and nervous Yeoman Ernest Hunckle, who worked closely with supply officer Nick Holden.  Sargeant gave a very endearing, yet funny performance as the young Ensign Stovall, who seemed to be Holden’s number one fan aboard the Sea Tiger and possessed a penchant for putting his foot into his mouth. Gene Evans was equally funny as the gruff Chief of the Boat (COB) Chief Torpedoman “Mo” Molumphry. Joan O’Brien seemed to display a talent for physical humor as the well-meaning, yet clumsy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall. And Clarence Lung made a great straight man for Tony Curtis as Holden’s “partner-in-crime” U.S.M.C. Sergeant Ramon Gallardo. Other fine supporting performances came from Ross, Madlyn Rhue, Robert F. Simon, Robert Gist and George Dunn.

Despite my dislike of the Major Heywood/Chief Tostin relationship, I must admit that both Virginia Gregg and Arthur O’Connell did great jobs in capturing the essence of their characters. Especially O’Connell, who still managed to be funny, despite portraying one of the most misogynist characters I have ever seen on screen. Dina Merrill gave a solid performance as Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, the lovely nurse who managed to captured the attention of the very engaged Nick Holden. Before he did “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, Tony Curtis worked on Billy Wilder’s famous Roaring Twenties comedy, “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. In that film, he did an impersonation of Cary Grant that caught a great deal of attention at the time. Ironically, the two ended up co-starring in this film in less than a year. And they clicked very well on screen, despite the clash between their characters. Curtis was smooth as ever as the morally gray Nick Holden, who hid a larcenous and opportunist nature behind a charming and affable façade. Looking back, it occurred to me that if Curtis had been older than Grant, he could have easily portrayed the Matt Sherman character . . . and that Grant could have portrayed Holden. I realize that many people might disagree with me, but the acting styles of both actors seemed strongly similar to me. And although Grant could have easily portrayed a character like Nick Holden, I cannot deny that he did a superb job as the harried, yet strong-willed Matt Sherman. Watching Grant convey Sherman’s confusion, resolve, and quick thinking over a series of personal and military crisis was a joy to behold. In a way, Grant marvelously managed to keep the story together, thanks to his performance.

The television series, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” did not last beyond its second season. The ABC network made too many changes to the show. Besides, the idea of five Army nurses aboard a Navy submarine for such a long period of time seemed a bit too ludicrous to accept. I did enjoy its first season. However, I enjoyed even more its predecessor, the 1959 film. During his first stint as a movie director, Blake Edwards took a gritty and realistic setting – namely the early weeks of World War II for the United States forces in the Pacific – a sly sense of humor, a crazy premise of nurses aboard a pink-coated submarine and a superb cast led by Cary Grant and Tony Curtis; and created a comedic piece of cinematic gold. I could watch this movie over and over again.

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“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

During the 1950s and the 1960s, the Hollywood film industry had released many films that were later dubbed as”blockbusters”. These films were made to compete with the growing popularity of television during the post-World War II era. Most of the blockbusters released during the 1950s turned out to be period dramas and musicals. The period dramas and musicals continued way into the 1960s. However, they were joined by all-star comedies with long running times. One of these comedies turned out to be 1965’s “THE GREAT RACE”

Directed by Blake Edwards, “THE GREAT RACE” told the story of a long distance road race from New York City to Paris in 1908, between two daredevil rivals. One of these rivals happened to be Leslie Gallant III (aka “The Great Leslie”), a handsome, brave and dashing daredevil who represented the epitome of the well-bred American gentleman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leslie also possessed a slightly condescending manner that matched his superficial perfection to a “T”. The Great Leslie’s daredevil rival was a swarthy, mustache-twirling villain named Professor Fate. But whereas Leslie’s successful stunts gave him respectability from American public, businessmen and the media, Fate has been nearly regulated to the status of a buffoon, due to his constant failures. The latter resulted in Fate’s eternal grudge against his more handsome and successful rival. When the white-suited hero proposed a long road race from New York City to Paris in order to promote a new car (the Leslie Special) designed by him and built by the Weber Motor Company, Fate decided to thwart Leslie’s plans of victory by building his own super car for the race (the Hannibal Eight). Meanwhile, a female photojournalist and suffragette named Maggie Dubois managed to convince the editor of the The New York Sentinelto hire her to cover the race.

I might as well be blunt. I tend to have mixed views about Hollywood blockbusters. I either love them, in spite of themselves. Or I dislike them. While viewing some of these blockbusters from the 1950s and 60s, they struck as bloated as some of today’s blockbusters. And “THE GREAT RACE” certainly seemed like the blockbuster of the bloated variety. With a running time of two hours and forty minutes, it seemed to long for a mere comedy. Really. The movie also shared a similar flaw with another 1965 blockbuster, “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”. In other words, it is a long comedic movie about a race in which only a small percentage of the film featured the actual event. First of all, Edwards and his co-writer, Arthur A. Ross, spent at least 40 to 45 minutes of the film setting up his characters and the preparation for the race. Forty-five minutes. And although the next two hours centered on the actual race, moviegoers only saw the participants race during the first leg of the race that featured the results of a series of sabotage committed by Fate’s assistant, Maximilian, against Leslie and Fate’s other competitors. Most of the movie centered around the main characters’ adventures in the small Western town of Boracho, in the wintry chills of Alaska, Imperial Russia and a fictionalized European country called Carpania and its capital of Potsdorf (during which the movie became a spoof of Anthony Hope’s classic, “The Prisoner of Zenda”). Moviegoers were able to see the race one last time, when the Leslie Special and the Hannibal Eight raced along the outskirts and within the city of Paris – the final destination. For a movie called “THE GREAT RACE”, very little racing was actually seen.

Another problem that “THE GREAT RACE” shared with “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”was the abundance of slapstick humor in the story. It came dangerously close to being too MUCH for my tastes. I did not mind the Boracho saloon fight (an obvious spoof of fight scenes in Hollywood Westerns). Nor did I mind Maximilian’s sabotage of Fate’s other competitors at the beginning of the race. But Fate’s attempts to sabotage Leslie’s daredevil stunts in the movie’s first fifteen or twenty minutes and the pie fight inside the Potsdorf royal kitchen irritated me to no end. I believe that both scenes may have unnecessarily dragged the film.

Yet, bloated or not, I cannot deny that “THE GREAT RACE” is a very, very entertaining film. Edwards and Ross did a top notch job in creating a story set during the pre-World War I era in the United States and Europe. During this period, Western society was in its last gasp of clinging to the nineteenth century – a world filled with constricting fashion for women, elegant manners, European royalty with some political power, and binding society’s rules. And yet . . . Edwards and Ross’s story made it clear this world was also disappearing, due to the presence of motorized vehicles on the roads, the suffragette movement, the popularity of daredevils like Leslie and Fate, the threat of political loss for European royalty and the diminished presence of Native Americans in the West. What made “THE GREAT RACE” so amazing was that Edwards revealed these social changes in a cinematic style straight from silent era films like “THE PERILS OF PAULINE”, with slapstick comedy added for good measure.

Speaking of the movie’s comedy, I realize that I had complained a good deal about some of it. However, Edwards and Ross’ script did provide plenty of comedic moments that I absolutely enjoyed. One such moment featured the Great Leslie’s meeting with the board members of the Weber Motor Company. The meeting itself merely served as the springboard for the race. But a surprise visitor gave the scene a comedic touch that I found particularly funny. Other funny moments included:

*Maggie Dubois’ reaction to singer Lily O’Lay’s flirtation with Leslie

*The entire Boracho sequence

*Miss Dubois’ brief, yet successful attempt to replace Hezekial Sturdy as Leslie’s co-driver

*Fate’s explanation of the attraction between Leslie and Miss Dubois

*The entire Alaska sequence

*Fate, Miss Dubois and Max’s arrival in a Russian town

*General Kuhster’s attempt to instruct Fate on how to impersonate Crown Prince Hapnick’s laugh

*Leslie and Miss Dubois’ quarrel during the last leg of the race

*Fate’s rant against Leslie’s perfection after the two competitors reached the Eiffel Tower and the finish line

“THE GREAT RACE” also included an entertaining score written by Henry Mancini. The composer also co-wrote two songs with Johnny Mercer – a charming tune called “The Singing Tree” (that also served as the movie’s main tune) and a rousing song called “He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”. Donfeld aka Don Feld designed some colorful costumes, reminiscent of the fashions of the 20th century’s first decade. However, I must admit that I found some of Natalie Wood’s costumes a bit over-the-top – namely two of the Western outfits she wore in the Boracho sequence. The movie also featured a swordfight between Leslie and a Carpanian aristocrat named Baron Von Stuppe (Ross Martin) during the Potsdorf sequence. And I consider that particular swordfight to be one of the best in Hollywood history. I am aware that Curtis had some theatrical sword fighting experience in some of the swashbucklers from the 1950s. But Ross Martin’s skills with a sword took me by surprise. Perhaps he had learned it, while training for the theater.

As far as I am concerned, the best asset of “THE GREAT RACE” was its cast. Edwards managed to collect a top-notch cast filled with extremely talented performers. Aside from the stars, the movie was filled with some great talent. Arthur O’Connell and Vivian Vance were hilarious as Maggie Dubois’ long-suffering editor and his pushy suffragette wife, Henry and Hester Goodbody. Marvin Kaplan portrayed Frisbee’ Mr. Goodbody’s slightly befuddled assistant. The Boracho sequence featured a hilarious performance by Larry Storch as the town’s ruthless local outlaw, Texas Jack. And Dorothy Provine gave one of the movie’s best performances as Boracho’s local saloon chanteuse, Lily O’Lay. Not only did she give a rousing rendition of “He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”, she also injected her character with plenty of wacky humor and charm. The Carpania sequence provided George Macready to give a solid performance as Prince Hapnick’s solid, but traitorous aide, General Kuhster. And Ross Martin was deliciously suave and villainous as Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, General Kuhster’s ally in the coup d’état against the Crown Prince.

Peter Falk garnered a great deal of notice as Maximilian, Professor Fate’s loyal, yet slippery henchman. And he deserved all of the good notice he had received, thanks to his subtle and sly performance. More importantly, Falk managed to create a first-rate comedic team with the likes of Jack Lemmon. Keenan Wynn’s role as Hezekiah Sturdy, Leslie’s assistant. Wynn basically gave a solid performance as Leslie’s right-hand man. But Edwards gave him two scenes in which he absolutely shone without saying a word. One featured a moment in which his character tried to work up the courage to ask a beautiful Carpanian aristocrat to dance at the royal ball. Another featured his silent, yet long-suffering reactions to Leslie and Miss Dubois’ final battle-of-the-sexes quarrel during the race’s last leg into Paris.

Tony Curtis had worked with his two co-stars in previous movies. He had co-starred with Natalie Wood in 1964’s “SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL” And he worked with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic, “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. In “THE GREAT RACE”, he re-created screen chemistry with both of them for the second time. In this movie, Curtis portrayed the handsome, clean-cut and well accomplished daredevil, Leslie Gallant III aka the Great Leslie. Superficially, his character seemed rather dull and bland in compare to Lemmon and Wood’s more theatrical roles. Superficially. But after watching Curtis portray the embodiment of early 20th century male perfection, one could finally understand why Professor Fate disliked him so much. Curtis’ Leslie struck me as INSUFFERABLY perfect. Anyone who spends even a day in his company could easily develop an inferiority complex. And Curtis did such a superb job in portraying Leslie’s rather annoying perfection with an excellent mixture of slight pomposity and tongue-in-cheek. Some of the best moments featured a long speech by Leslie, followed by a cinematic twinkle in his eyes or on his teeth that led other characters to do a double take. Curtis’s Great Leslie gave a perfect example of why straight arrow types are secretly despised.

The one character that managed to create cracks in Leslie’s perfectionism turned out to be the suffragette/journalist, Maggie Dubois – portrayed with great enthusiasm and perfection by Natalie Wood. The curious thing about Miss Dubois was that she was portrayed with a mixture of both Leslie and Fate’s personalities. Like Leslie, Miss Dubois was an accomplished and highly intelligent woman who also happened to be a multi-linguist and excellent fencer. On the other hand, she shared Fate’s cunning and talent for lies and manipulation. She also possessed a moral ambiguity that led her into conning Hezekiah to relax his guard, so that she could handcuff him onto an eastbound train. Unlike other women, Miss Dubois never allowed herself to swoon at Leslie’s feet . . . even if she wanted to. Instead, I found it a pleasure to watcher her tear down Leslie’s self-esteem, until he found himself declaring his love for her.

One cannot discuss “THE GREAT RACE” without mentioning Jack Lemmon’s superb performance. His Professor Fate has to be one of the best roles in the actor’s career. More importantly, I believe that Fate is one of the most entertaining villains in Hollywood history. This was a character that seemed to revel in his villainy with a bombastic manner, a five o’clock shadow on his chin and deep impatience and contempt toward anyone who was not . . . well, him. Yet, he was shrewd enough to surmise that Maggie Dubois’ dedication toward women’s sufferage would prove to be the Great Leslie’s Achilles’ heel. And his rant against his handsome rival near the film’s conclusion was a delicious study in Fate’s own insecurities about Leslie. If portraying the moustache-twirling villain was not enough, Lemmon also portrayed the affable, yet drunken Crown Prince Hapnick of Carpania with a slight effeminate twist during the film’s parody of “The Prisoner of Zenda”. Hapnick’s regal, yet slightly drunken entrance turned out to be one of the film’s highlights for me. I always thought it was a shame that Fate and Hapnick never really got the chance to interact with each other. Considering Lemmon’s comedic talent, such a scene would have been a hoot.

As I had stated earlier, “THE GREAT RACE” has plenty of obvious flaws. It is an overblown film about a long distance road race, in which little of the actual race was shown. And there were times when the slapstick comedy threatened to become just a bit too much. Especially during the famous pie fight sequence. But Blake Edwards, with co-writer Arthur Ross, created a fun and colorful film that re-created the world of old-fashioned road races and daredevil stunts during the turn of the last century. It also featured colorful costumes and settings, great humor, one of the best screen swordfights ever and a superb cast led by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. I highly recommend it.