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
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]

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. 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.

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.

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, starting a flashback.

A Japanese air raid sinks Sea Tiger while she is docked at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines on 10 December 1941. 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 replacements. Lieutenant (junior grade) Nick Holden (Tony Curtis), an admiral's aide, is reassigned to 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 Sgt. Ramon Gallardo, an escaped prisoner (he was caught misappropriating Navy property) to steal materiel for Sea Tiger's desperately needed repairs.

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). When Sherman sights and prepares to attack an enemy oiler moored to a pier, Crandall accidentally launches the torpedo prematurely. It misses the ship, instead obliterating a deuce and a half on the beach. "We sunk a truck!" Sherman says in disbelief.

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 only manages to obtain some red and white lead primer paint, so the two have to be mixed together, resulting in a bright pink. A Japanese air raid forces a hasty departure before they 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 releases depth charges when they crash-dive. Captain Sherman tries to trick the destroyer by sending up oil and launching blankets, pillows, and lifejackets, but the destroyer captain is not fooled. Finally, at Holden's suggestion, Sherman releases the nurses' lingerie. Lt. Crandall's bra convinces the captain that "the Japanese have nothing like this".

The Sea Tiger, still in her pink "camouflage", arrives at Darwin battered but under her own power.

Returning to the present, the arrival of Sea Tiger's current (and final) Commanding Officer, now- 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 Sea Tiger. Sherman's wife (the former Lieutenant Crandall) arrives late and rear-ends her husband's staff car, causing it to lock bumpers with a crew bus. When the bus drives away, it drags the car along. By now used to her clumsiness, Sherman reassures her that it will be caught at the gate. Captain Holden takes the Sea Tiger out on her final voyage.


  • Cary Grant as Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Matthew T. "Matt" Sherman, USN
  • Tony Curtis as Lieutenant JG (later Commander) Nicholas "Nick" Holden, USNR
  • Joan O'Brien as Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall, NC, USAR
  • Dina Merrill as Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, NC, USAR
  • Gene Evans as Chief Torpedoman "Mo" Molumphry, USN, the Chief of the Boat
  • Dick Sargent as Ensign Stovall, USN (listed as Richard Sargent)
  • Arthur O'Connell as Chief Machinist's Mate Sam Tostin, USN
  • Virginia Gregg as Major Edna Heywood, NC, USA, the commanding officer of the nurses
  • Robert F. Simon as Captain J.B. Henderson, USN, Sherman's submarine squadron commander
  • Robert Gist as Lieutenant Watson, USN, Sherman's Executive Officer (XO) of the Sea Tiger
  • Gavin MacLeod as Yeoman Ernest Hunkle, USN
  • George Dunn as The Prophet (of Doom)
  • Dick Crockett as Petty Officer Harmon, USN
  • Madlyn Rhue as Second Lieutenant Reid, NC, USAR
  • Marion Ross as Second Lieutenant Colfax, NC, USAR
  • Clarence Lung as Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, USMC (billed as Clarence E. Lung)
  • Frankie Darro as Pharmacists Mate 3rd Class Dooley, USN
  • Tony Pastor, Jr. as Fox
  • Robert F. Hoy as Reiner
  • Nicky Blair as Seaman Kraus
  • John W. Morley as Williams
  • Ray Austin as Seaman Austin


Curtis took credit for the film's inception. He had joined the Navy during World War II with the intent of entering the submarine service, in part because Grant, his hero, 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 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 instead.[3] Tina Louise turned down the role of one of the nurses as she felt the film had too many sex jokes.[4]

The film 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 basis[edit]

Some of the plot points of the movie were based on real-life incidents, such as:

  • The evacuation of one Navy nurse and [1] 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
  • 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 boat fought with only her red lead undercoat visible. This led Tokyo Rose to disparage American "red pirate submarines."[5]
  • The torpedoing of a bus by the USS Bowfin

Box office performance[edit]

This film was a huge box office hit, making it the #3 moneymaker of 1960, earning $6,800,000.[6]

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.

The movie was adapted as an ABC-TV series which ran from September 17, 1977 to August 10, 1979.[7] 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.[citation needed] Only 32 episodes of the series (22 in season 1, 10 in season 2) were produced in total.[2]


  1. ^ "All-time top film grossers", Variety 8 January 1964 p 37. Please note this figure is rentals accruing to film distributors not total money earned at the box office..
  2. ^ Private Screenings: Tony Curtis. Turner Classic Movies, 19 Jan 1999.
  3. ^ http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/24076/Operation-Petticoat/notes.html
  4. ^ Tina Louise Interview http://www.gilligansisle.com/intertina.html
  5. ^ United States Submarine Operations in World War II, p. 71
  6. ^ Steinberg, Cobbett (1980). Film Facts. New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 23. ISBN 0-87196-313-2.  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 (p. 17). The #1 film of 1960 was Ben-Hur ($17,300,000), and the #2 film was Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho ($8,500,000).
  7. ^ Brooks, Tim; Marsh, Earle (Oct 1995) [1979]. 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. p. 780. ISBN 0-345-39736-3. 

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