Paint the Town Pink in Operation Petticoat

Throw a bunch of free-spirited, unqualified men and women together in uniform and see where the wacky antics leads.
By  · Published on January 25th, 2009

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Operation Petticoat (1959)

There aren’t many movies out there that land squarely in both the War Genre and the Comedy Genre. It’s a difficult balance to strike – one that was attempted a decent bit during WWII with films like The More the Merrier, but where actually taking the story out into the theater of war for laughs wasn’t undertaken that often. With Operation Petticoat, we have a prototype for films like Stripes and McHale’s Navy. Throw a bunch of free-spirited, unqualified men and women together in uniform and see where the wacky antics leads.

There really isn’t a plot to speak of in this film. It follows the classic comedy formula of throwing in a bunch of characters together and have them bounce around each other. The Pinball Machine Method of comedy. This is fairly unsurprising it was directed by the legendary Blake Edwards, who, at the age of 86 continues to make movies today. The reason the film is so entertaining is that the pinballs Edwards gets for the film are Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.

Grant plays Lieutenant Commander Matt Sherman, a charismatic man who happens to be assigned the command of a submarine that is falling apart. Luckily, his Lieutenant Junior Grade is Nick Holden (played by Curtis) a selfish ladies’ man who doesn’t take the military seriously. As expected, the two men play off each other continually throughout the movie, taking verbal jabs and escalating their feud while somehow managing to keep the sub afloat (underwater).

Without a true plot to speak of, you really watch the film for the comic set ups that all have fairly quick payoffs. Holden goes AWOL for a night of drinking. Sherman sells Holden’s golf clubs and tennis rackets to a villager. Reapeat.

Imagine a sketch comedy show where all the characters intertwined and they all took place in one location, and you’re starting to get a good idea. Now imagine that each sketch is funny and makes you like the characters more, and you’re mostly there. Curtis and Grant shine throughout, making each encounter better and better throughout the film until they have to solve an actual wartime problem together. But, staying true to the comedic form, that problem is absurd, involving their own Navy firing upon them and the crew having to pretend to be sunk by floating debris up to the surface. Of course, most of that debris happens to be the bras from every nurse on board.

Most famous of all the gags is the painting of the submarine pink. A jab both at the unprofessionalism of the crew and the egregious lack of equipment faced by the military during war time, there isn’t enough red or white paint to coat the ship with, so Sherman orders that they mix the two colors together to make enough. It may seem a bit dated, but it’s a simple concept that pays off well when the ship pulls into port alongside a ton of other waving and whistling military men.

Operation Petticoat is a simple film with some fairly straightforward laughs, but it’s a solid film and one that has influenced a small amount of films that have attempted that difficult crossover into humor with bombs dropping. By the end of the film, there’s a nice moment where Sherman hands over the commander’s log to Holden who has, somehow, earned command of the sub. But other than that minute of screen time, nothing really matters, no problem is ever truly severe, and the heroes will always smile their way through. As with any classic comedy, it presents the lighter side of life where heavy consequences just don’t exist. The genius is that it succeeds in doing so with such heavy subject matter – making it a truly brilliant film.

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