Blasts from the Past! Blu-ray Reviews: OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959)

This title is currently available on Blu-ray from Olive Films ( –

When I think of the highest grossing and most successful films of 1959 and 1960, plenty of big ones leap to mind… Ben-Hur, North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, Spartacus, Psycho and Ocean’s 11. Perhaps this reviewer has been living in a vacuum, but one title that doesn’t immediately come to the forefront is Operation Petticoat. The newest Blu-ray from Olive Signature arrives today with plenty of bonus features and insight into this hugely successful production, which was one of the most popular films of its day.

While it may not be as well remembered, this movie was a massive success right from its premiere in December 1959, playing at theaters through the following year. In fact, Operation Petticoat has been quoted by many sources as being the third highest grossing film of 1960, trailing only Psycho and Ben-Hur. As stated in the extras, the production was most notable for its prominent use of risqué humor and innuendo.

The story involves Navy Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) reminiscing about his time as a Lieutenant on the USS Sea Tiger submarine at the beginning of WWII. After an attack in the Philippines, Sherman is teamed with Jr. Lieutenant Nick Holden (Tony Curtis). The pair are assigned to sail the damaged sub to safety in Australia. Of course, these two leaders couldn’t be any more different and get off to a rocky start. Sherman is stiff and does everything by-the-book, while Holden has a chaotic, playful, by-any-means-necessary approach to getting things done. Adding comedic tension among the crew is the surprise arrival of a group of nurses who join the team on their journey.

So, how does the movie hold up to its contemporaries? The saving grace to this endeavor (and the main reason for its success) are its two stars, Grant and Curtis. Both were coming off big hits (North by Northwest and Some Like It Hot) and a team-up between them must have been irresistible to the movie-going public. There was plenty going on behind-the-scenes as well. Curtis, the younger of the performers, was a huge fan of Grant’s work and was reportedly thrilled to be acting alongside his hero. Together, the two share an excellent rapport onscreen as they try to find common ground. The pair appear to be having a great deal of fun together and the upbeat vibe rubs off all around.

And that’s a very good thing, because many other elements of the film are quite dated. While the feature was noted in its day for being zippy and fast-paced, it feels much slower and drawn out by today’s standards. The submarine remains docked for roughly the first 45 minutes of the film. Sure, there’s a prank or two pulled between the leads and their superiors early on and admittedly the movie requires some time to introduce all of the crew members, but the pacing does tend to drag in a few spots.

Many of the gags are a bit obvious as well. When the nurses come onboard, events pick up a bit as they characters begin to interact awkwardly in the tiny passageways, leading to the film’s biggest laugh (as characters bumping each other cause a missile to be fired, roll onto the sand of a nearby island and blow up a truck). However, many of the jokes are blunt and obvious. And with the exception of one nurse who happens to be a gear-head, the ladies often appear to simply get in the way and cause trouble for the crew. Of course, as expected for a project of its era, there is some politically incorrect material here.

While making a comedy set during WWII seems like an ill-advised idea, the tone here is breezy enough to get away with it, and the anti-war theme and occasional critiques of gender roles are welcome touch. In the end, the results are something of a mixed bag. There are certainly funny moments and generally, this is a nice little movie. However, for newcomers, it is also one that won’t linger in the mind long after the end credits roll.

The Blu-ray image quality is solid. There’s some grain in the picture here and there, but the restoration is generally an improvement over DVD. This disc also features a bevy of extras that add plenty of details into the production. There’s a particularly informative commentary track by a film critic that goes into how the project came together and gives many fascinating tidbits about the performers and their experiences on set. Additionally, there are several pieces that attempt to award the film a little more credit for a couple of its more progressive ideas.

A lot of attention is paid to director Blake Edwards… this is an early title in his resume and there is a lot of discussion about his influence on the film. Amusingly, Edwards himself wasn’t quite as enamored by the end results as the critics here are. He referred to the production and the film itself as “pleasant” and reportedly had little else to comment about it. To be brutally honest, he’s right… the movie isn’t nearly as effective as his later features Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964) and The Party (1968). Still, one can see the artist developing his comedic talents setting up and paying off running jokes.

This movie also featured many familiar faces in supporting roles, and a pair (Gavin MacLeod and Marion Ross) are interviewed and share their stories about the production. Additionally, there is a great piece about Cary Grant and his life, with facts about the actor that this reviewers hadn’t been aware of previously. Viewers will also find newsreel footage from the movie’s big premiere and see a reel of the actual submarine used in the feature at sea during its service years.

In all, the Olive Signature Blu-ray does a fine job of updating Operation Petticoat and presenting some remarkable information about its production. Even if the title itself isn’t as noteworthy as some of its more familiar contemporaries of the era, this disc is a curious and enjoyable novelty.

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