Published on June 27, 2016
Operation Petticoat is a 1959 American color World War II comedy film from Universal-International, produced by Robert Arthur, directed by Blake Edwards, that stars Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.
The film was the basis for a television series in 1977 starring John Astin in Grant’s role. Other members of the cast include several actors who went on to become television stars in the 1960s and 1970s: Gavin MacLeod of The Love Boat and McHale’s Navy, Marion Ross of Happy Days, and Dick Sargent of Bewitched.
Operation Petticoat tells in flashback the misadventures of the fictional U. S. Navy submarine, USS Sea Tiger, during the opening days of the United States involvement in World War II. Some elements of the screenplay were taken from actual incidents that happened with some of the Pacific Fleet’s submarines during the war.
Paul King, Joseph Stone, Stanley Shapiro, and Maurice Richlin were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing.
In 1959 U. S. Navy Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant), ComSubPac, boards the obsolete submarine USS Sea Tiger, prior to her departure for the scrapyard. Sherman, her first commanding officer, begins reading his wartime personal logbook, recalling earlier events.
On 10 December 1941, a Japanese air raid sinks the Sea Tiger while docked at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. Lieutenant Commander Sherman and his crew begin repairs, hoping to sail for Darwin, Australia before the Japanese overrun the port. Believing there is no chance of repairing the submarine, the squadron commodore transfers most of Sherman’s crew to other boats, but promises Sherman that he will have first call on any available replacements. Lieutenant (junior grade) Nick Holden (Tony Curtis), an admiral’s aide, is reassigned to the Sea Tiger despite lacking any submarine training or experience.
Holden demonstrates great skill as a scrounger after Sherman makes him the submarine’s supply officer. Early on, he teams up with Marine Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, an escaped prisoner (he was caught misappropriating Navy property to operate his own restaurant), to obtain materials desperately needed for repairs, persuading the captain to sign on Ramon as the ship’s cook. What Holden and his men cannot acquire from the base warehouses, they “midnight requisition” from various military and civilian sources.
Restored to barely seaworthy condition, with only two of her four diesel engines operable, the Sea Tiger puts to sea, a belch of black smoke from the No. 1 diesel periodically emerging from her starboard quarter. She reaches Marinduque, where Sherman reluctantly agrees to evacuate five female Army nurses stranded there. Holden is attracted to Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran (Dina Merrill), while Sherman has a series of embarrassing encounters with the well-endowed and clumsy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall (Joan O’Brien). Later, when Sherman prepares to attack an enemy oiler moored to a pier, Crandall accidentally hits the “fire” button prematurely. The torpedo misses its target, comes ashore, and “sinks” a truck!
USS Balao standing in for Operation Petticoat’s fictional USS Sea Tiger. A belch of smoke from the troublesome No. 1 diesel engine can be seen off the starboard quarter.
Captain Sherman tries to put the nurses ashore at Cebu, but the Army refuses to accept them, as the Japanese are closing in. When Sherman is unable to obtain needed supplies from official sources, he allows Holden to set up a casino in order to acquire them from the soldiers who have taken everything useful into the hills for use by the resistance. One item Chief Torpedoman Molumphry has been asking for is paint. Holden manages to get some red and white lead primer paint, but does not have enough of either to prime the entire submarine. The two are mixed together, resulting in a pale pink primer that the chief reluctantly orders be applied. A Japanese air raid forces a hasty submergence and escape before the crew can apply the top coat of navy gray.
Tokyo Rose mocks the mysterious pink submarine operating in the Celebes Sea; the U. S. Navy believes it to be a Japanese deception and orders it sunk on sight. An American destroyer spots the surfaced Sea Tiger and opens fire, then launches depth charges when the submarine crash dives. Sherman tries to trick the destroyer by sending up an oil slick and launching blankets, pillows, and life jackets, but the depth charging continues. Finally, at Holden’s suggestion, Sherman ejects the nurses’ lingerie. Retrieving Crandall’s bra convinces the destroyer’s captain that “the Japanese have nothing like this”, and he ceases fire. The Sea Tiger, still pink, arrives at Darwin, battered but under her own power.
Sherman’s reminiscence ends with the arrival of Commander Nick Holden, his wife (the former Lieutenant Duran), and their sons. Sherman promises Holden command of the new nuclear-powered submarine named Sea Tiger. Sherman’s wife (the former Lieutenant Crandall) arrives late with their daughters and rear-ends her husband’s staff car, causing it to lock bumpers with a Navy bus. When it drives away, dragging his car with it, Sherman reassures his wife that it will be stopped at the main gate. As Captain Holden takes out the old Sea Tiger on her final run, a familiar backfire and belch of black smoke sounds from the No. 1 diesel.