Operation Petticoat

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Operation Petticoat
Operation Petticoat poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Blake Edwards
Produced by Robert Arthur
Written by Paul King
Joseph B. Stone
Stanley J. Shapiro
Maurice Richlin
Starring Cary Grant
Tony Curtis
Dina Merrill
Narrated by Cary Grant
Music by David Rose
Henry Mancini (uncredited)
Cinematography Russell Harlan
Edited by Frank Gross
Ted J. Kent
Granart Company
Distributed by Universal-International
Release dates
  • December 5, 1959 (1959-12-05)
Running time
124 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $9,500,000 (US/ Canada)[1] [Note 1]

Operation Petticoat is a 1959 comedy film directed by Blake Edwards, and starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. It 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. The film tells, in flashback form, the misadventures of a fictional American submarine, the USS Sea Tiger, during the opening days of World War II with some elements of the screenplay taken from actual incidents.

Paul King, Joseph Stone, Stanley Shapiro, and Maurice Richlin were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing.


In 1959, United States Navy Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant), ComSubPac, boards the obsolete submarine USS Sea Tiger prior to her departure for the scrapyard. The first commanding officer of the Sea Tiger, Sherman begins reading his wartime personal logbook and recalling earlier events [Note 2]

On 10 December 1941, a Japanese air raid sinks the Sea Tiger while she is 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 Sea Tiger, the commodore of the squadron transfers most of Sherman's crew to other boats, but promises him 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 became a naval officer not out of patriotism, but to escape poverty and find a wealthy spouse.

Holden demonstrates great skill as a scavenger and con artist after Sherman makes him the submarine's supply officer. He teams up early on with Marine Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, an escaped prisoner (he was caught misappropriating Navy property), to obtain materiel for the Sea Tiger's desperately needed repairs. What they cannot find in the warehouses, they "midnight requisition" from sources as varied as a civilian refrigeration plant to US Army barracks plumbing.

Restored to barely seaworthy condition with only two of her four diesels operational, the Sea Tiger puts to sea and 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 but clumsy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall (Joan O'Brien). Later, when Sherman prepares to attack an enemy oiler moored to a pier, Crandall accidentally launches the torpedo prematurely. It misses the ship, instead obliterating something else on the beach. "We sunk a truck!" Sherman says in disbelief before being forced to flee.

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, he allows Holden to set up a casino to obtain them from soldiers. One item Chief Torpedoman Molumphry (the Chief of the Boat) has been asking for is paint. Holden manages to obtain some red and white lead primer paint, but does not have enough of either color to prime the entire sub. The two have to be mixed together, resulting in a bright pink primer that the chief reluctantly orders applied to the Sea Tiger. A Japanese air raid forces a hasty departure before the crew can apply a top coat of navy gray.

Tokyo Rose mocks the mysterious pink submarine operating in the Celebes Sea; the United States Navy believes it to be a Japanese trick and orders it be sunk on sight. An American destroyer spots the surfaced Sea Tiger and opens fire, then launches depth charges when Sherman crash dives. Captain Sherman tries to trick the destroyer by sending up oil and launching blankets, pillows, and life jackets, but the attacks continue. Finally, at Holden's suggestion, Sherman ejects the nurses' lingerie. Crandall's bra convinces the destroyer's commander that "the Japanese have nothing like this," and he ceases firing. The Sea Tiger, still pink, arrives at Darwin, battered but under her own power.

Returning to the present, the arrival of Commander Nick Holden, his wife (the former Lieutenant Duran), and their sons, interrupts Sherman's reminiscences. Sherman promises Holden command of a new nuclear-powered submarine to be named the 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 bus. When the bus drives away, it drags the car along. Sherman reassures his wife that it will be caught at the gate. Captain Holden takes the Sea Tiger out on her final voyage.



USS Balao standing in for Operation Petticoat '​s fictional USS Sea Tiger.

Curtis took credit for the inception of Operation Petticoat. He had joined the Navy during World War II with the intent of entering the submarine service in part because his hero, Cary Grant, had appeared in Destination Tokyo (1943). After he became a star, Curtis suggested making a film in which Grant would stare into a periscope as he did in Destination Tokyo. Curtis very much enjoyed working with Grant.[2]

Former Universal-International contract star Jeff Chandler was originally set to have played Matt Sherman, but pulled out to film The Jayhawkers (1959) instead.[3] Tina Louise turned down the role of one of the nurses as she felt the film had too many sex jokes.[4]

Operation Petticoat was produced with extensive support of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy. Most of the filming was done in and around Naval Station Key West, now the Truman Annex of Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, which substituted for the Philippines and Australia. Filming for the period suggesting postwar 1959 was done at Naval Station San Diego, California.

USS Sea Tiger was portrayed by three different American World War II-era submarines:

  • USS Queenfish, in the opening and closing scenes (circa 1959), in which the "393" on the conning tower is visible;
  • USS Archerfish, for all the World War II scenes where the boat was painted the standard gray and black;
  • USS Balao, for all the scenes in which Sea Tiger was painted pink.

Historical accuracy[edit]

Some of the plot points of Operation Petticoat were based on real-life incidents,[citation needed] such as:

  • The evacuation of one Navy nurse and several Army nurses from Corregidor to Australia by the submarine USS Spearfish;
  • The sinking of the submarine USS Sealion at the pier at Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines;
  • The torpedoing of a bus by the USS Bowfin;
  • Commander 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 Lieutenant Commander James Wiggins "Red" Coe of the submarine USS Skipjack);
  • The need to paint a submarine pink due to the lack of enough red or white lead undercoat paint. The heat from the burning Sealion also scorched off the black paint of the nearby USS Seadragon and for a time this submarine fought with only her red lead undercoat visible. This led Tokyo Rose to disparage American "red pirate submarines."[5]


Operation Petticoat was a hit with audiences and critics. The review in Variety was typical. "Operation Petticoat has no more weight than a sackful of feathers, but it has a lot of laughs. Cary Grant and Tony Curtis are excellent, and the film is directed by Blake Edwards with a slam-bang pace."[6] A much more restrained commentary came from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, who noted in his December 8, 1959 review that the plot device of women aboard a wartime submarine was strained. "And that is the obvious complication upon which are pointedly based at least 60 per cent of the witticisms and sight gags in the film. How to berth the nurses in the exceedingly limited space, how to explain to them the functioning of the bathroom facilities, how to compel the sailors to keep their well-diverted minds on their work - these are the endless petty problems that vex Commander Grant."[7]

Box office performance[edit]

Operation Petticoat was a huge box office hit, making it the #3 moneymaker of 1960, earning $6,800,000.[Note 3] Operation Petticoat followed Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho ($8,500,000) while the #1 film of 1960 was Ben-Hur ($17,300,000).[9] For Grant, through his contract, his residuals topped $3 million, making Operation Petticoat his most profitable film to date.[10]

1977 television series[edit]

The television cast: back, from left: Doreen Thomson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Melinda Naud, Bond Gibson. Front, from left: Richard Gilliand, John Astin.

Operation Petticoat was adapted as an ABC-TV series which ran from September 17, 1977 to August 10, 1979.[11] Initially starring John Astin in Grant's role of Lieutenant Commander Sherman, the TV series was probably most notable for the casting of Tony Curtis' daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis as Lieutenant Duran. Most of the cast was replaced for the show's second season, a decision that led to low ratings and cancellation.[12] Only 32 episodes of the series (22 in season 1, 10 in season 2) were produced in total.[13]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Please note this figure is rentals accruing to film distributors, not total money earned at the box office.
  2. ^ Rear Admiral Sherman begins to read his logbook, starting a flashback.
  3. ^ When a film is released late in a calendar year (October to December), its income is reported in the following year's compendium, unless the film made a particularly fast impact .[8]


  1. ^ "All-time top film grossers". Variety, January 8, 1964, p, 37.
  2. ^ "Private Screenings: Tony Curtis". Turner Classic Movies, January 19, 1999.
  3. ^ "Notes: Operation Petticoat (1959)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  4. ^ "Tina Louise Interview." Gilligan's Island Fan Club. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  5. ^ Roscoe 1949, p. 71.
  6. ^ "Review: Operation Petticoat." Variety, December 31, 1958.
  7. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "New York Times Film review." carygrant.net, 2013. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  8. ^ Steinberg 1980, p. 17.
  9. ^ Steinberg 1980, p. 23.
  10. ^ Reilly, Celia. "Articles: Operation Petticoat (1959)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  11. ^ Brooks and Marsh 1995, p. 780.
  12. ^ "Operation Petticoat TV Show." the70sproject.com. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  13. ^ "Operation Petticoat (1977–1979)." IMDb. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.


  • Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present (Sixth ed.). New York: Ballantine Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 1995, first edition 1979. ISBN 0-345-39736-3.
  • Roscoe, Theodore. United States Submarine Operations in World War II. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute Press, 1949. ISBN 978-0-87021-731-9.
  • Steinberg, Cobbett. Film Facts. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1980. ISBN 0-87196-313-2.

External links[edit]