A submarine newly commissioned is damaged in the opening days of WW II. A captain, looking for a command insists he can get it to a dockyard and captain it. Going slowly to this site, they find a stranded group of Army nurses and must take them aboard. How bad can it get? Trying to get a primer coat on the sub, they have to mix white and red in order to have enough. When forced to flee the dock during an air attack, they find themselves with the world's only Pink submarine, still with 5 women in the tight quarters of a submarine.
Cary Grant ... Lt. Cmdr. Matt T. Sherman
Tony Curtis ... Lt. (j.g.) Nicholas Holden
Joan O'Brien ... Lt. Dolores Crandall, RN
Dina Merrill ... Lt. Barbara Duran, RN
Gene Evans ... Chief Molumphry
Dick Sargent ... Ens. Stovall (as Richard Sargent)
Virginia Gregg ... Maj. Edna Heywood, RN
Robert F. Simon ... Capt. J.B. Henderson
Robert Gist ... Lt. Watson
Gavin MacLeod ... Ernest Hunkle
George Dunn ... The Prophet
Dick Crockett ... Harmon
Madlyn Rhue ... Lt. Reid, RN
As with most movies from a different era, the attitudes are quite different. Feminists would hate this movie, if they saw it today. Hollywood would never make it now in first place, unless roles were reversed and men were made to look like sex objects. That would meet PC double standards.
Nonetheless, agendas aside, there is a lot of good humor in here; the story is interesting, and you get a well-known cast with Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Dina Merrill, Arthur O'Connell, Gavin MacLeod and Marian Ross. The latter went on to be big names on television more than movies, MacLeod on "Mary Tyler Moore" and Ross on "Happy Days."
This was Happy Days on a ship, at least when some attractive women board the vessel. Grant has the best lines in the film - speaking lines, that is. Good entertainment. Lots of laughs before the PC made it impossible to laugh at anything, including ourselves.
As long as you don't expect anything substantial, "Operation Petticoat" works quite well as light entertainment, thanks to a lively script with some pretty good material, two good leading performances by Tony Curtis and Cary Grant, and a solid supporting cast. While the whole story has very limited plausibility, it has its own internal logic and consistency, rather like the better of the more manic screwball comedies of an even earlier era.
The submarine setting is used creatively, and it has just enough realistic detail to keep it from getting too silly. Grant and Curtis have rather different styles, yet they work well together in setting the right tone for everything, and in involving the rest of the cast. While it would be hard to single out any of the other cast members, since none of them have a particularly large or important role, they all do well enough, and they make the secondary characters a solid part of the story.
There are plenty of amusing highlights, such as the pink paint and Curtis's scrounging expeditions. For all that it is just fluff, it fits together well, making for an entertaining, unpretentious movie.
In Tony Curtis's filmed tribute to Cary Grant for TCM he made much of his well known idolatry of the man who made him want to become an actor. As a kid growing up in the mean streets of New York, young Bernie Schwartz saw in Cary Grant all he ever wanted to be up there on the silver screen.
During naval service on board a submarine in World War II he got to see Cary Grant in Warner Brothers Destination Tokyo. As Curtis said, life has a funny way of working things out. What happens; Tony Curtis gets to star with Grant years later in a World War II service comedy that is set aboard a submarine.
Destination Tokyo was not one of Grant's best films, but Operation Petticoat definitely is. Right after World War II starts, Grant's new ship, the Tigerfish is sunk right in her berth in a remote Pacific Island. Grant persuades Admiral Robert Simon to make whatever repairs he can and try and get the ship back to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
Among other things Grant gets is a new officer Tony Curtis who hasn't exactly seen much sea duty, but he's quite the operator. The two develop quite an interesting relationship on the voyage.
And it's one thing after another on that memorable shakedown cruise back to Pearl Harbor. But Cary Grant is as unflappable and charming as ever, though even he seems a bit put out at times.
There are some pretty hilarious moments in Operation Petticoat, the sinking of a truck, the painting of the Tigerfish pink and then having to leave it that way until Pearl Harbor. And who can forget how they are saved from friendly fire at the climax of the film.
Operation Petticoat was one of the biggest commercial and critical hits that Cary Grant had in Hollywood. Coming right after North By Northwest it could well be argued this was the high point of his career.
The film holds up very well today, I think today's audience would laugh just as hard as they did in 1959.
* Nurse Barbara (Dina Merrill), the love interest for Tony Curtis' character, was played in the 1977 remake by Curtis' daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis.
* Tina Louise was offered but turned down the role of "Nurse Crandall" that Joan O'Brien ended up playing because she didn't like the abundance of "boob jokes" directed at her character.
* USS Balao SS285 was painted pink and was used for exterior shots in and around Key West. USS Archerfish SS311 wore the standard colors of gray and black, and was used for interior and exterior shots in and around Key West. USS Queenfish SS393 was used in opening and closing scenes, and was used for the "at sea" shots filmed in and around San Diego.
* Bob Hope always said it was his biggest regret that he turned down this movie.
* Some of the plot points of the movie were based on real-life incidents. Most notable were scenes set at the opening of WW II, based on the actual sinking of the submarine USS Sealion (SS-195), sunk at the pier at Cavite Navy Yard, the Philippines; Cmdr. Sherman's letter to the supply department on the inexplicable lack of toilet paper, based on an actual letter to the supply department of Mare Island Naval Shipyard by Lt. Cmdr. James Wiggin Coe of the submarine Skipjack (SS-184); and the need to paint a submarine pink, due to the lack of enough red lead or white lead undercoat paint.
* The nurses wonder why the toilet is called "the head." It's because on earlier sailing ships, the only toilet was a one- or two-holer that was perched out over the bow -- the "head of the ship."