“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. ┬áSargeant 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 fa├žade. 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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