“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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“KELLY’S HEROES” (1970) Review

“KELLY’S HEROES” (1970) Review

When one thinks of acclaimed movies about World War II, titles such as 1962’s ”THE LONGEST DAY” or 1998’s ”SAVING PRIVATE RYAN” come to mind. But an offbeat movie about a group of U.S. Army soldiers that go AWOL behind enemy lines to rob Nazi gold from a bank in a small French town does not conjure up images of Academy Award statuettes in one’s mind. In fact, I doubt that 1970’s ”KELLY’S HEROES” had ever received a prestigious award or nomination. 

”KELLY’S HEROES” began on a stormy night in 1944 France, in which a U.S. Army private named Kelly was ordered by his sergeant to find a German officer for information on the best taverns, restaurants, hotels and whorehouses in the nearby town of Nancy. Do you see where this is going? Instead, Kelly managed to nab a German officer who, in a state of alcoholic bleariness, revealed the location of a cache of Nazi gold being held at a bank in the German-held town of Clermont. Kelly then convinced the rest of the men in his squad and their gruff sergeant – Big Joe – to take advantage of the three-day furlough being offered to go after the gold. After all, their less than competent company commander, Captain Maitland, is rarely around to lead them and he had plans for a trip to Paris. Kelly also recruited an acid-tongued and avaricious supply sergeant named Crapgame and a proto-hippie tank commander named Oddball for support in his little caper. What followed was a hilarious, caustic and epic journey for a group of weary soldiers, determined to benefit somehow from a brutal war.

One aspect about ”KELLY’S HEROES” that struck me as . . . interesting was that the majority of the cast seemed to be between the ages of 30 and 45 during the movie’s production and looked it. Including the film’s main star, Clint Eastwood. The Army uniforms wore by most of the cast seemed historically questionable. One of the characters, namely Oddball, behaved like a slightly aged 1969/70 hippie with a questionable New York accent, instead of a 1940s Army sergeant. There are NO female characters in this movie whatsoever. The pacing threatened to bog down two-thirds into the film. And yet . . . and yet I LOVE this movie. In fact, I never get tired of watching it.

What do I love about ”KELLY’S HEROES”? Well, I could start with the screenplay, written by Troy Kennedy-Martin. It is a first-rate war story/caper that went into detail over Kelly’s discovery about the gold, his recruitment of his squad for the mission, the journey to Clermont . . . everything. Another aspect of the movie I had enjoyed was the witty dialogue. And who had received the cream of it? Who else but the King of Insults, Don Rickles. The movie also had some first-rate action that included a firefight near a field booby-trapped with mines, an attack upon a Nazi fuel depot by Oddball and his tank unit, and the final assault on Clermont that ended with a humorous and ironic twist. My favorite action sequence centered on the tank unit’s attack upon the Nazi fuel depot. There was something surreal and bizarre about Oddball’s tanks blowing nearly everyone to hell, while country-western music blasted from their speakers.

What did I love most about ”KELLY’S HEROES”? The characters, of course. Clint Eastwood portrayed the caper’s brainchild, Kelly – the former officer who was busted down to private. There was nothing particularly unique about Eastwood’s performance. Well . . . I must admit that I found his reactions to the lunatic characters around him rather funny. Especially when he interacted with the likes of Oddball. There are times – especially in this movie – when I feel that Eastwood might be one of the best reactors in Hollywood. Telly Savalas gave Eastwood a run for his money in terms of screen presence as Kelly’s sardonic, yet practical squad leader, Big Joe. After all, Kelly needed Big Joe’s cooperation to convince the rest of the squad to join him in on the caper. Whereas Eastwood reacted to the lunacy around him with facial expressions, Savalas did so with some very funny and caustic remarks.

Don Rickles. What can I say about his performance? He surely earned his moniker as the King of Insult Comedy in this movie. The man seemed to have twice the number of witticisms as the rest of the cast put together. And his performance as Crapgame, the caustic and avaricious supply sergeant was spot on. Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of the loopy tank sergeant, Oddball, is probably my favorite performance in the entire movie. On the surface, Sutherland’s Oddball seemed out of sync in a movie set during World War II. If ”KELLY’S HEROES” had been set during the Vietnam War, his Oddball would fit in beautifully. Ironically, Sutherland’s performance is one of the reasons why I love this movie. I really enjoyed watching Eastwood, Savalas, Rickles and especially Gavin McLeod (who played Oddball’s machine gunner and mechanic) reacting to his lunacy and hippie-style dialogue. A year before he had shot to fame as Archie Bunker in ”ALL IN THE FAMILY”, Carroll O’Connor appeared in this movie as the squad’s gung-ho division commander, Major General Colt. O’Connor literally infused the screen with a raw energy in his portrayal of the aggressive general with a tendency to refer to military action in football terms.

”KELLY’S HEROES” also had the good fortune to be filled with some memorable supporting characters that were portrayed by some first-rate actors. Stuart Margolin first made his presence known as Big Joe’s pragmatic and witty radio operator, Little Joe. Jeff Morris and Harry Dean Stanton provided plenty of comic relief as a pair of Southern-born soldiers that also happened to be friends. Richard Davalos (grandfather of Alexa Davalos of ”ANGEL” and ”DEFIANCE”) gave a memorable performance as the squad’s trigger happy marksman, Private Gutowski. Four years before ”CHINATOWN”, Perry Lopez was hilarious as the slightly dim-witted Private Petuko. Karl-Otto Alberty made a brief, but memorable appearance as the German tank commander in Clermont who ended up standing between our ”Heroes” and the gold inside in the bank. And Gavin McLeod turned out to be a perfect straight man to Sutherland’s loopy Oddball as the latter’s exasperated mechanic and gunner.

While perusing the Wikipedia website, I discovered that ”KELLY’S HEROES” had placed at #34 on the 100 Greatest War Movies list. Frankly, I would heartily agree. In fact, the movie appeared on my list of ten favorite World War II movies of all time. That is how much I love it.