Operation Petticoat (1959): Blake Edwards Oscar-Nominated Military Comedy, Starring Cary Grant in his Most Commercial Film

Blake Edwards’ slick, often funny military comedy, Operation Petticoat, starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, was one of the year’s most popular films, earning $6.8 million in domestic rentals. 

Occupying the third position as top-grosser, the movie followed Hitchcock’s Psycho, which made $8.5 million in rentals in its initial run. 

Grant, whose contract stipulated points and residuals, reportedly made more than $3 million, making this comedy his most profitable film to date in what was already a long and brilliant career.

Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin’s scenario, based on a story by Paul King and Joseph Stone, received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, but did not win (see below).

The film tells the adventures and tribulations of a fictional WWII submarine USS Sea Tiger, sunk in the Philippine Islands during the beginning of the War.  The Navy is prepared to write off the damaged submarine, anchored in Manila.

Cary Grant stars as Sherman, the submarine’s skipper, who along with his crew tries to repair the sub and then reach Australia for a refit. The voyage includes detours along the way, including the acquisition of a group of stranded female Army nurses, an attempt to sink a Japanese ship, and a hurried stopover to overhaul and repaint the sub which quickly goes awry.

In a multi-generation plot, Grant is contrasted with Tony Curtis, who plays Holden, an admiral’s aide who turns ou to be a smart mercenary supply officer.  Though lacking skills, Holden proves resourceful as a prccurement officer, when he befriends with Ramon, a local crook who ‘s able to swipe everything necessary to get the ship on its way.

Though he gets many laughs, in this comedy, Grant (under)plays the straight part and Curtis the juicier and flashier.  Even so, Grant shines throughout, holding the entire picture on his robust shoulders, getting laughs from gestures and reactions of being blank and startled, rather than from witty lines of dialogue.  Under the smooth and assured direction of Blake Edwards (who would do “The Pink Panther” comedies with Peter Sellers in 1960s and 1970s), the whole cast is good, particularly the men.

Some of the film’s events and characters are inspired by true facts and  real people, but the plot is so well structured and outlandish and in its outrageous happenings that it becomes irrelevant just how much realism was inserted into the proceedings.

The Department of Defense and the Navy supported the production, which was shot around Florida’s Naval Station Key West, standing in for the Philippines, and California’s Naval Station San Diego.

Women Aboard Wartime Submarine

The N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther was critical in his December 8, 1959 review, noting that the plot device of women aboard a wartime submarine was strained. “That is the obvious complication upon which are pointedly based at least 60 per cent of the witticisms and sight gags in the film. How to berth the nurses in the exceedingly limited space, how to explain to them the functioning of the bathroom facilities, how to compel the sailors to keep their well-diverted minds on their work–these are the endless petty problems that vex Commander Grant.”

Recycling: TV Series (1977-1979)

“Operation Petticoat” was so popular that it was adapted into a TV series, which ran from  1977 to 1979, starring John Astin in Cary Grant’s role of Lieutenant Commander Sherman, and Tony Curtis’ own daughter Jamie Lee Curtis as Lieutenant Duran, the female nurse that Curtis’s character has married in the 1959 picture.

Most of the cast was replaced in the second season, and after low ratings and 24 episodes, the show was removed off the air.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Story and Screenplay (Original): Paul King and Joseph Stone; Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin.

Oscar Context

The winners were Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, who were also nominated for the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy, “Pillow Talk.”  The other nominees were Ingmar Bergman for “Wild Strawberries,” Francois Truffaut for “The 400 Blows,” and Ernest Lehman for Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”