16 October 2016

Operation Petticoat (1959)

Directed by: Blake Edwards
Music: David Rose, Henry Mancini
Starring: Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Arthur O'Connell, Dina Merill,  
Gavin McLeod, Joan O'Brien, Virginia Griggs,  Clarence Lung
After some intensely stressful weeks at work, I was in the mood for some light-hearted relief, and it was with a sense of anticipation that I welcomed Operation Petticoat. I had put it on my Netflix queue simply because it starred Cary Grant, and also because it was directed by Blake Edwards. I'm sure I'd read the synopsis then, but by the time the DVD arrived, my sieve of a memory had forgotten anything to do with the film. But there it stayed, still in its sleeve, for a week, because my husband sniffed at my love for 'malodorous long-dead white men' – for some reason, I didn't feel like watching it alone. A week later, he was exhorting me to 'watch it, or send it back', so over a rained-out weekend, I decided to watch it. [And since my husband was at a loose end, he sat down to watch it as well, 'long-dead white men' notwithstanding.]

Set during World War II, Operation Petticoat tells the tale of a brave submarine and her besieged captain. [Well, not exactly, but it sounds good to put it that way.] Narrated in flashback, the film begins with Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) coming aboard the Sea Tiger, on the day it is being decommissioned, and sent to the scrapyard.
When he enters his former living quarters, he finds the Captain’s Log, in which he, then Lieutenant Commander, had religiously jotted down his notes while commanding the submarine in 1941.

Immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Lt. Cdr. Sherman had taken command of a brand new submarine, the Sea Tiger, and had put to port at the US-occupied Philippine Islands for provisions and fuel. In the course of a Japanese air-raid, the Sea-Tiger is sunk at the wharf.   
Sherman is undaunted; he will have the sub repaired [‘It needs only minor repairs, sir!’] and set back afloat. Unfortunately for him, it’s not that easy. ‘What you have out there is a periscope sitting on top of a couple of thousand tons of scrap metal,’ Squadron Commander Henderson (Robert F Simon) tells him. The submarine is ordered to be jettisoned at the naval graveyard, and his crew reassigned to other submarines. Sherman is not the kind to quit: his sub deserves a better epitaph than 'Commissioned 1940, sunk 1941; engagements none, number of shots fired: none', so he persuades Henderson to allow him to make repairs so it can be recommissioned. He's given two weeks to get her repaired enough to sail her to the nearest shipyard (Darwin, Australia) or the navy will blow her up before they evacuate.

With a skeleton crew (three of his officers and 18 of his men have been assigned to other ships), and with absolutely no way of obtaining crucial parts necessary to make her seaworthy, Sherman is at a standstill. His situation, until then exasperating, becomes initially amusing and then untenable when he sees his new replacement officer, Junior Lieutenant Nick Holden (Tony Curtis). 
Lt. Holden has never been on a sub, knows nothing about guns, or communication, or anything else for that matter. He had planned his career well, so as to not have to see any action at all. His need for a 'uniform' is purely mercenary – he wants to make money, and the easiest way to do that is by marrying it; no girl on the 'right side of the tracks' is going to look at a man like him, but a uniform is a social leveller. So, he had ended up becoming the 'Admiral's aide', sent to Manila, there to look after the social side of the military camp. Unfortunately for his plans, war breaks out, the Admiral's transfer is cancelled, and Lt. Holden is in danger of being stuck at Bataan when the Japanese attack. He has never been to sea. This, then, is the man whom Lt. Cdr. Sherman has to endure on the journey, fraught with danger, to the Darwin shipyard.
That's the least of Sherman's troubles: yeoman Ernest Hunkle (Gavin McLeod) is distraught – he hasn't been able to requisition any supplies at all, not even toilet paper. [The letter that Sherman dictates to the naval shipyard at Cavite was taken word by word from an actual letter sent by the skipper of the USS Skipjack, Lt. Cdr. James Wiggins Coe to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.]

Lt. Holden, ever the opportunist, sees a way to slime into Sherman's good graces. What the Sea Tiger needs is a supply officer, who can get the necessary supplies from the back alleys. Sherman is initially dismissive – 'You, Mr Holden? You will ruin your manicure.' but with no other alternative, agrees to appoint Holden as the ship's new supply officer. 
With Hunkel (and his list) and the sailor called the 'Prophet of Doom' (George Dunn) in tow, Holden proceeds on a very unorthodox scrounging mission er, supply procurement mission. While the Prophet is busy prophesying doom, they hear the sound of a jeep outside. The Prophet need not have worried: Holden is more than up to the task of persuading the guard that he is following Admiral Nimitz's orders. 
When they return to the sub, Sherman is relieved to see the supplies being unloaded (though he knows he'd better turn a blind eye to where Holden got the Navy supplies from), but not too happy at the addition to his troop Holden has brought along Sergeant Ramon Gallardo (Clarence Lung), promising to get him off the island in return for his help. 

Sherman is even less pleased when he realises that Gallardo is a) a Marine b) an escaped prisoner (he was incarcerated for stealing US army supplies for his restaurant) and c) '...there isn't a burglar, swindler, pickpocket or fence in the islands that doesn't love, know and respect him.'
He absolutely refuses to let Gallardo on board; the man's not only a thief, he's a deserter. Why, yes, sir, says Holden; he's all that. He's also one  more thing an informer; and if he's not on board the sub when it sails, why, 'he'll just tell everybody everything.' 

Sherman is just beginning to realise the depths to which his unscrupulous new officer can sink. As he writes parphrasing Churchill in his log that night (19th December 1941), 'Never have so few stolen so much from so many. What they can't find in the warehouses, they improvise.'

Henderson is not too pleased with Holden's 'improvisations' either, though Sherman claims they cannot have Henderson's property. ['You must have it, you  have everything else!' responds Henderson.]
Yet another air-raid cuts short the commander's interrogation, for which Sherman is devoutly thankful. He hurries to the docks to see if the Sea Tiger has been hit; luckily, it has not, but its camouflage is in tatters. Sherman decides they are sitting ducks where they are, and so, have to put to sea immediately. Henderson is aghast put to sea in that tub? However, the sub is ship-shape and Bristol fashion [well, almost: one of its four engines is working, the other, well, they'll know after they put it back together, and if smoke belches out regularly from the No.1 diesel engine, what of it?], and Henderson waves the motley crew of 'the scavengers and these liars' on their way, with exhortations to not engage any enemy vessel, 'or even an enemy swimming in the water – he may kick a hole in your side!'

But Sherman's luck holds, and the submarine, belching smoke and groaning horrifically, gets under way. Holden is taking a well-earned rest when he suddenly realises that his idea of 'making the best of it' and his captain's do not necessarily match. But the appearance of water in the living quarters cuts short a very interesting conversation between the captain and his newest recruit, and Sherman soon gives orders for the sub to put to port at Marinduque for the necessary repairs. They have to get the sub repaired and get off the island before the Japanese return for another air raid. 

Lt. Holden and his accomplices are sent out to scout the situation. It's more a ploy to get Holden out from under Sherman's feet; even knowing Holden as he does, Sherman could not have expected what the latter 'scavenges' this time.
A boatload of women well, five stranded US Army nurses, to be exact: Major Heywood (Virginia Gregg), Lieutenants Duran (Dina Merrill), Crandall (Joan O'Brien), Reid (Madlyn Rhue), and Colfax (Marion Ross). While willing hands help the women onto the submarine's deck, Sherman is unpleasantly aware of what all this female pulchritude is going to mean in the sub's all-male enivironment. 

It is bad enough that Lt. Crandall is accident prone, hitting the collision alarm on her way down to quarters; worse, as Sherman tries to make clear, the newcomers are all women, and the crew, well, they are all men. He's not to worry, says Major Heywood reassuringly; they're all aware of the facts of life. Sherman is not quite as sanguine: so do his men know the facts of life, that is.  
What the flustered submarine captain wants to ensure is that there is no exchange of information on the subject!

It's not just the women; chief mechanist Tostin (Arthur O'Connell) has all of the seafaring man's superstious belief that women on board ship are bad luck. And that's one women; here, there are five! Well, what does Tostin suggest he do? asks his exasperated-beyond-limits captain; throw them overboard? Well, sir, says Tostin, that's something to think about...  
If all this is not enough to test a man's patience, Lt. Holden is holding a raffle to pick five 'lucky men' to donate their clothes to the women, to much hilarity among the crew. Then there's Tostin's irritation at having Major Heywood (hanging women's clothes to dry) in the engine room, Lt. Crandall's indisputable assets along with her propensity for accidents, the crew suddenly falling 'ill' en masse, Lt. Holden's blatant insouciance Lt. Cdr Sherman is aware that he's taken on more than one man can tackle. 
Lt. Holden, however, is like an India rubber ball; nothing keeps him down for too long. The next morning, he's showing Lt. Duran around the sub, 'explaining everything'. ['Oh, he is, is he? mutters Sherman.] Matters come to a head when Lt. Crandall has another 'accident', much to Sherman's consternation. 
As he later notes in his log, 'Sighted tanker, sunk truck'. They skedaddle the hell out of the vicinity as return fire from the shore comes near to sinking them, even as Sherman wonders whether Lt. Duran could be a Japanese agent. He's more than pleased to think that the next morning, they will dock at Cebu, and the women will be the Army's problem. Alas for such hopes: the Japanese are closing in, the men have taken to the hills, and no, the commander cannot take the women. Also, he cannot provide any supplies: they have been taken up the hills too. But Sherman needs supplies, and to get the supplies, they need... Lt. Holden. 
So. Lt. Holden decides to set up a casino to get the much needed supplies; steals game for the men's New Year's Eve supper (thus allowing his captain to get some of his own back, and delight in Holden's discomfiture); provides torpedo man Molumphrey with some much needed paint to paint the submarine... Oops.
The newly-painted submarine is easy to spot and the Japanese are sure this is a new US ploy to advance on the seafront. The US Navy control office, having checked with their high command, knows they have no pink submarines, and think Japan's warnings to the submarine is a double game to lull suspicion. Hunted by both countries on the high seas, how is Sherman going to get the sub, his men, the women, children and goat (don't ask!) to safety? What other unexpected surprises does Holden have in store for him? 

There's lots of laughs, a bit of dalliance, a soup├žon of sexism, and even a witch doctor, a pig in disguise, and a baby, before this tale comes to its belching end. 
Intelligently crafted, Operation Submarine’s effortless humour depends on the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. It also depends on the chemistry between Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, a man who’s admitted to growing up idolising the former. Grant, then at the peak of his prowess, strikes the right note between dedicated sea-captain and a beleaguered man who has to make ‘a pact with the devil’ to get his beloved vessel to sail. He uses both dialogue and expressions to great comic effect.
Tony Curtis is excellent foil, delivering his lines with such consummate ease that even the most banal of them [and there aren’t that very many banal lines] elicit a laugh. Curtis plays his out-for-the-main-chance conman/scavenger Holden straight, and the laughs come from the reactions of his captain to Holden’s more outrageous comments/actions. This is the role that comedian Bob Hope often said he regretted turning down. Holden is a shameless opportunist, ready to cash in on any situation, and totally and completely devoid of any scruples whatsoever. He's the only man I know,' writes his exasperated captain who nevertheless has a sneaking respect for his lieutenant's scavenging abilities, 'who will be presented the Navy Cross at his court martial.' 
As a military comedy, Operation Petticoat has aged quite well. Based on many true incidents from different US naval submarines [a pink submarine – yes, there actually was one; the ‘sinking’ of a truck, the sinking of the submarine Sea Lion, the letter by the captain demanding toilet paper from supplies, etc.], Operation Petticoat takes a light-hearted and witty look at the turmoil and privations of war time. The air of versimilitude is enhanced because the actual shooting was done on three different US Navy submarines – the USS Balao [SS285], the USS Archerfish [SS311] and the USS Queenfish [SS393].

The screenplay [Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin] is peppered with one-liners and deadpan humour. When Sherman informs his superior that he and his crew think they can get the Sea Tiger repaired and back into the war, the put-upon officer looks at him exasperatedly: 'Yes, on whose side?

Or as Holden, after he's pulled up for having breakfast in bed on his first day on the submarine, picks up his soaking wet socks from the floor, asks:  'Is this normal, or should I be nervous again?' Or Sherman, told by Lt. Watson that Lt. Holden is on his way back from one of his 'missions': 'War is hell, Mr Watson!' 

If you want a couple of hours of clean, wholesome entertainment, slight sexist humour notwithstanding, do have a watch.

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