Blake Edwards is best known for his collaborations with Peter Sellers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most notably with The Pink Panther films. Before that fruitful collaboration, Edwards really broke through on the Hollywood scene with Operation Petticoat, a World War II comedy aboard a submarine starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. It was Edwards’ first big budget feature and it proved to be a big success at the time, a critical and commercial smash that earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. Now Operation Petticoat lands on Blu-ray from Olive Films under their Olive Signature series with a gorgeous transfer of the film that captures all of the colorful glory of this offbeat war comedy.
Lieutenant Commander Matt T. Sherman (Grant) is set to helm the USS Sea Tiger when a Japanese ambush on the naval base in the Philippines sinks the submarine he was preparing to take into battle. This opening ambush presents the large scale that Universal put behind Operation Petticoat, with blasts and effects on a grand scale for the era. This wasn’t going to be any rinky-dink little comedy. Sherman and his men salvage the Sea Tiger and put all of their available resources into repairing the sunken sub. With supplies limited as well as officers, Sherman is forced to accept a new member to his crew Lieutenant, Junior Grade Nicholas Holden (Curtis).
The most effective aspects of humor in Operation Petticoat come from the clash of personalities between Grant’s professional and by-the-book Sherman and the loose, fast and easy dealings of Curtis’ Holden. There’s just something about Tony Curtis that oozes a sleazy charm and he really brings that to the forefront with the morally questionable dealings of Lt. JG Holden. Over time, of course, Sherman finds himself warming to the ways of Holden, who sneaks off into the night to steal much-needed supplies from the depot allowing the USS Sea Tiger to leave port and head on its dutiful mission. Eventually the Sea Tiger lands on an island where Holden sees fit to rescue five stranded Army nurses, which only complicates matters on the claustrophobic and clunky submarine.
While it’s a complication to the character dynamic established and introduces a romantic angle for each of the male leads, the addition of the nurses is when the storytelling engine of Operation Petticoat sputters like that of the USS Sea Tiger. There’s just too much going on with little conflict in the screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin (from a story suggested by Paul King and Joseph Stone). A romantic element forms between Holden and Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran (Dina Merrill) as it does between Sherman and the klutzy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall (Joan O’Brien), but much of the comedic hijinks lose their oomph as the film sputters along. The war becomes almost a background factor. There’s no real major mission for the crew of the USS Sea Tiger to embark on. The tension between Sherman and Holden evaporates.
Operation Petticoat is very much a victim and a product of its time. It was made in the time when the production code was still exerting its influence on what was and wasn’t acceptable in motion pictures, meaning that Blake Edwards and company couldn’t really draw too heavily on the sexual tension that would mount with five women on a submarine. It’s all a kind of safe and saccharine approach to the material that had ample room for humor that was left untouched because of the censorship mechanisms in place. This aspect of Hollywood still playing by arcane rules in 1959 is noticeable when the USS Sea Tiger is suddenly painted pink, much to the chagrin of all the males onboard. There is plenty of humor to be found in bright pink piece of military hardware, but Edwards and company approaches it as if that’s the extent of the joke.
While I think Operation Petticoat has a number of issues – it’s too long, overstuffed, and rather buttoned down – I still respect as it a piece of cinematic history, one the odd-fitting pieces of entertainment from an era that was fading quickly as the ‘60s would see a revolution in American cinema that shunned the tired war comedies that had become fad when the public had just enough time to distance themselves from the war. And Olive Films have placed their resources into preserving this movie and surround it with special features that delve into its place in history such as interviews with surviving cast members and archival footage. Operation Petticoat is one of those movies where you can see the potential that is never realized and there are a couple of unfortunate moments that don’t play well in 2017 with some rather crude racial caricatures. It’s still an interesting movie that allows you to see why Hollywood would undergo a radical change in a few short years. It may not be perfect, but at least Blake Edwards could always say he had a pink submarine before the Beatle ever sung about a yellow one.