The same year that saw the release of the deathless classic North by Northwest saw Cary Grant taking care of slightly more mundane business in Blake Edwards' workaday comedy Operation Petticoat. Perhaps "workaday" is an uncharitable description of a film that features a temporarily pink submarine and still won the support of the U.S. Navy, but Operation Petticoat hasn't aged especially well. Still, on the strength of Grant and co-lead Tony Curtis, Edwards' film remains a diverting enough escape from reality.
These are the voyages of the submarine U.S.S. Sea Tiger, as remembered by its skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Matt T. Sherman (Grant), on the occasion of its decommissioning. When Sherman inherits the tub—err, sub—he finds it's a bucket of bolts barely holding itself together. Nevertheless, he's determined not to let the vessel languish, but to get it into action. Sherman's plan leaves him reluctantly dependent on his unscrupulous new junor officer, Lt. JG Nicholas Holden (Curtis), who makes himself the laughing stock of the crew by arriving in dress whites. Holden makes no bones about his history of wining and dining his way to desirable positions (most notably with an admiral's wife who needed a rhumba partner and got, in Holden, a two-time champ), and he's no less unapologetic about either the thieving tactics he uses to make himself indispensible as a supply officer or his penchant for skirt chasing at any opportunity. Amusingly stricken, Grant's Sherman steals glances at it all while attempting to look the other way. He advises one crew member, "It's like watching a stripteaser. Don't ask how it's done. Just enjoy what's coming off."
Matters get more complicated when the Sea Tiger stumbles its way into WWII action (circa 1941) at the same time as Holden foists five unwelcome female guests, stranded army nurses, on Sherman: Lt. Dolores Crandall RN (Joan O'Brien), Lt. Barbara Duran RN (Dina Merrill), Maj. Edna Heywood RN (Virginia Gregg), Lt. Reid RN (Madlyn Rhue) and Lt. Colfax RN (Marion Ross of Happy Days fame). The women are basically relegated to stereotypes: four wide-eyed beauties and a savvier older broad in Gregg. Familiar faces crop up in the male supporting cast, most notably soon-to-be sitcom staples Gavin MacLeod (providing fine comic relief) and Dick Sargent, as well as Arthur O'Connell as an engineer who learns to stop worrying and love more than his machinery. The Oscar-nominated original screenplay by Stanley Shapiro (That Touch of Mink, Pillow Talk) and Maurice Richlin (The Pink Panther) has enough such quality one-liners to barely keep Operation Petticoat afloat despite the musty sexual politics and warmed-over Bilko antics. If the film feels as creaky as the Sea Tiger these days, it's still a monument to Hollywood production values of the time.
Of course, Edwards adds energy from behind the camera (of Rio Bravo and Red River lenser Russell Harlan), including the engineering of playful periscope titles to set the mood and roping in Henry Mancini for uncredited contributions to David Rose's score. Viewers will be surprised to learn that a few of the incidents depicted in the film—including the sub's brief life in pink—derive from true, stranger-than-fiction Naval tales. A yet more curious fact to liven up viewing of the movie: it was filmed during peak LSD usage by Grant, to which some have attributed his game, relaxed demeanor at the time.
Olive Films has done the best it could with the fifty-five-year-old Operation Petticoat, which is pretty good indeed. It's evident that this is one of Grant's pictures that hasn't been especially well-preserved, and presumably print sources were limited, but the one used here, though scratched and a bit dusty and dirty, suffers very little from color wavering and telecine wobble (common problems for films of this vintage); rather, color is one of this fairly handsome transfer's best qualities. Detail is solid, and film grain has a natural, pleasing texture. Best of all, this hi-def disc offers an unequivocal leap up in quality from the dismal DVD release that Grant fans have had to live with for years. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track offers clean and nicely balanced audio, with clear dialogue; dynamic range is expectedly limited, but the sound never crosses over into the canned feel that can distract from enjoyment of a vintage picture. Olive Films has no extras to offer on this disc, but it's a must-have for fans of the stars: I, for one, am a completist pleased as punch to add another hi-def title to my Cary Grant collection.
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