I am closing out my summer of sub movies by comparing two sub comedies. By the end of the 50s the sub subgenre had been played out and was ripe for parody. “Operation Petticoat” closed the decade with a humorous take on the silent service. Thirty seven years later, 20th Century Fox decided it was time for another sub comedy. Too soon? Let’s see.
“Operation Petticoat” was initiated by Tony Curtis as a vehicle for Cary Grant and himself. A young Curtis had enlisted in the Navy because he had enjoyed “Destination Tokyo” so much. Grant was a bit reluctant to make the film due to his age (something that did not bother Gene Hackman when “Crimson Tide” came along), but made a very good business decision in accepting the role. The movie was a huge hit (it was #3 at the box office that year) and he made $3 million from the deal. The film was directed by Blake Edwards (“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”) and was his first big budget effort. The movie had the full cooperation of the Navy, which allowed filming at Naval Station Key West and Naval Station San Diego. It also provided three WWII era subs, including the USS Balao, which it allowed to be painted pink!
“Operation Petticoat” takes place early in WWII. The USS Sea Tiger is caught at its berth during an air raid on Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines. The sub is sunk by fighters not carrying bombs (like in every other war movie). Lt. Commander Sherman (Grant) puts the crew to work refloating and refitting the boat. He is aided by the arrival of a country club warrior, Lt. Holden (Curtis). Holden is your typical cinematic scrounger and wolf rolled into one character. When they set sail, they pick up five nurses that are evacuating an island. Double entendres and sight gags ensue. Each of the leads gets a romantic arc. Holden is putting the moves on Barbara (Dina Merrill) and Sherman gets the buxom, but clumsy Dolores (Joan O’Brien). There is also something going on between the Chief (Arthur O’Connell) and the head nurse Edna (Virginia Gregg). They don’t get along until she solves his engine problem with her girdle. I mentioned sight gags, right?
The Sea Tiger goes through a series of misadventures. It sinks a truck because the boob with boobs Dolores accidentally hits the fire button (surprisingly not with a breast – there was still a Production Code in 1959). This “sinking” leads to the funniest joke, although it was unintentional – the sub comes under shore fire and has to retreat even though it is submerged! Mixing red and white paint results in the “pink sub” that Tokyo Rose taunts. They have an encounter with an American destroyer (“Take it down. Express!” Huh?) They avoid being sunk by depth charges by using the old expelling-debris trick. The key to identifying that they are Americans is adding one of Dolores’ bras to the debris. Hilarious sight gag and racist comment on Japanese women.
Incredibly, some of these misadventures are loosely based on actual incidents! A group of nurses were evacuated from the Philippines by the Spearfish. The Sealion was sunk at Cavite. The flames peeled the paint off the nearby Seadragon, uncovering the reddish undercoat. Tokyo Rose made reference to “red pirate submarines”. The USS Bowfin fired torpedoes at ships docked in a harbor. One of them went astray and hit a pier with a bus on it. This makes the movie more accurate than most sub movies.
“Operation Petticoat” is a movie very much of its time. The fact that it was a huge hit tells you something about the state of humor in the late fifties. In other words, what was funny back then is not necessarily funny today. I like old comedies, but this one does not hold up well. I find it incredible that it was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Screenplay. The sexual innuendo is broad (an appropriate word for the time frame) and never beyond blush-worthy. The idea of putting females on board a sub was inevitable and the results are predictable. The cast does play it with some enthusiasm. Grant does not satirize his character from “Destination Tokyo”, but instead plays the CO as bemused by the gals. Curtis is young Cary Grantish as the stock lothario/scrounger. The nurses are not particularly sexy by modern standards. Hell, one of them is Marion Ross of “Happy Days” fame.
“Down Periscope” has a title that implies it is a satire of “Up Periscope” and other WWII sub movies. Unfortunately, that satirical movie is yet to be made. “Down Periscope” is more of a “McHale’s Navy” for submarines. It was directed by David S. Ward (who wrote “Flyboys”, another comedy). It stars Kelsey Grammer as Lt. Commander Dodge. Dodge’s career is going nowhere because he is a screw-up and his immediate superior Rear Admiral Graham (Bruce Dern) is offended by the fact that Dodge has “Welcome aboard” tattooed on his penis. This joke alone tells us how far humor had “evolved” since “Operation Petticoat”. (Of course, were the movie to be remade today, we would get to see the tattoo.) To achieve promotion, Dodge must perform some “tasks” that will entertain the audience. He is given the impossible mission of evading the fleet (including his previous, critical captain) in an old WWII diesel boat and sink a dummy ship in a harbor. He is given a rusty old pig boat and a motley crew to accomplish his objective. The crew includes a gambler, a malcontent, a black baller, a fat slob cook, and one hot dive officer (Lauren Holly). Her presence on board will “make things hard on all of us”, quips the captain. The crew has an insane electrician who reprises the role of the daffy air traffic controller in “Airplane!”, except without the laughs. Dodge is also saddled with a very uptight exec (Rob Schneider). Command dysfunction is played for laughs, supposedly.
After a brief clean-up montage, the Stingray sets sail. Dodge tests the crush depth, just as the movie will test the audience’s ability to withstand crushing jokes. These jokes will include the electrician mimicking whale noises to deceive a tracking sub’s sonar. At this moment, I would have preferred being on a crippled sub at the bottom of the ocean. The movie jumps the USS Shark when Dodge and the crew dress as pirates to make the obnoxious exec walk the plank. If you survive this scene, you will be treated to a sub chase and the sight of the Stingray sneaking into the harbor underneath a tanker. Right underneath a tanker.
“Down Periscope” is a piffle. It is mildly amusing. The amount you laugh is directly dependent on your tolerance for mugging and fart jokes. When it comes to sex jokes, it is about as chaste as “Operation Petticoat”. It manages to get Holly into a tight-fitting uniform, but her character is not a dumb blonde like Dolores. The plot eschews satire. That would be too difficult apparently, although the subgenre is an easy target. The cast would not have been up to satire anyhow. We are not exactly talking “Tropic Thunder” here. I mean, Rob Schneider, for Christ’s sake. At least we got Kelsey Grammer, instead of Tom Arnold
There are few good submarine dramas, and no good submarine comedies. Of the two, “Operation Petticoat” is much the better. It may not be particularly funny now, but it was cutting edge at the time. It benefits from Grant’s charismatic presence and it has some foundation in reality. As a classic, it can be seen as a museum piece depicting what passed for a war comedy in the 1950s. Watch “Tropic Thunder” to see where we are now. “Down Periscope” serves as a similar curio, but in its case we have a brush with 1990s TV sitcom humor. Not the “Frasier” variety, more like “Coach”.
GRADES: Operation Petticoat = C+
Down Periscope = D