The Iron Petticoat
|The Iron Petticoat|
theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Ralph Thomas|
|Produced by||Betty E. Box
|Written by||Harry Saltzman (story)
Ben Hecht (screenplay)
|Music by||Benjamin Frankel|
|Edited by||Frederick Wilson|
|Distributed by||London Films|
|Running time||94 minutes|
The Iron Petticoat is a 1956 British Cold War comedy film starring Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn and directed by Ralph Thomas. The screenplay by Ben Hecht became the focus of a contentious history behind the production and led to the film's eventual suppression by Hope.[N 1]
Hepburn plays a Soviet military pilot who lands in West Germany and, after sampling life in the West in the company of Major Chuck Lockwood (Hope), is converted to capitalism. Subplots involve Lockwood trying to marry a member of the British upper class and Communist agents trying to get Hepburn's character to return to the Soviet Union.
The main story borrows heavily from Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939), starring Greta Garbo, and very closely resembles Josef Von Sternberg's Jet Pilot with Janet Leigh as the Russian pilot and John Wayne as the US Air Force officer, which completed principal photography in 1950 but was not released until 1957, after The Iron Petticoat. The latter was also inspired by real life incidents of Cold War pilot defections.
Captain Vinka Kovelenko (Katharine Hepburn) lands a Russian jet in West German territory, to the surprise of US armed forces, who take her prisoner. She is neither on a mission nor defecting, however, just upset about a personal matter back home.
Capt. Chuck Lockwood (Bob Hope) is eager to leave for London and visit his wealthy fiancée Connie (Noelle Middleton). A superior officer named Tarbell (Alan Gifford) cancels his furlough, ordering Chuck to sell the Soviet aviatrix on everything that is good about America and convince her to permanently come over to their side. The colonel even dangles a $100,000 bonus if Lockwood succeeds.
Vinka is pursued by her former lover, Ivan (Robert Helpmann), an engineer. She shows no interest in Chuck and is just as determined to sell him on Russian virtues as he is on influencing her. He describes her as cold and unappealing, but when Connie makes a surprise visit, Vinka strolls into Chuck's room wearing little else but a pajama top and her military medals. Connie becomes increasingly angry, more so when she finds out that Chuck is not as well-off financially as he has pretended to be.
Vinka begins to dress more and more in an enticing manner. One night at a Russian restaurant, comrades come to kidnap her. A sleeping potion meant for Chuck ends up in Tarbell's drink instead. Connie is also mistaken for Vinka in a cloak room and taken captive.
The Russians misunderstand Vinka's intentions and charge her with treason. Chuck leads a daring aerial escape and they end up falling in love. Money does not matter as much to Vinka as it does to Connie. As she and Lockwood are leaving for America, a Russian agent runs up, offering her the $100,000 bonus. She declines, but Lockwood grabs the money.
The original screenplay "Not for Money" was written by Ben Hecht, from a story by producer Harry Saltzman, with Hepburn in mind to play the female lead, and Cary Grant playing opposite her.[N 2] When Grant was unavailable, Hope stepped in, seeing the opportunity to get away from the US at a time when a scandal was tarnishing his reputation as a family man.[N 3] The film project marked the first time that he had worked outside the United States, and in the country of his birth.
There were concerns, however, that Hecht's script was unfinished, with Hope turning the script over to his own gag writers to tailor it to his style, as was his usual practice. Many of Hepburn's best scenes were cut, and the title was changed from "Not For Money". Hope had intended to change his role from a debonair leading man to that of his usual wise-cracking comic. Hepburn considered her pairing with a co-star steeped in comedy routines as a "challenge."
Hope and Hepburn had a wary relationship during the production as she was aware that the film was being remade into a typical Hope comedy, leaving her aspirations to do a Garbo-like role nearly untenable.[N 4]
Donald Sinden, then a contract star for the Rank Organisation at Pinewood Studios, had a permanent dressing room in the same block as Hepburn's. He said, "Katharine Hepburn was delightful and most professional, but what was deemed by some to be 'professional' can also be called 'temperamental' by others. I happened to be on the set of The Iron Petticoat while Miss Hepburn was blowing off steam about something in a professional/temperamental manner. Bob Hope came to the rescue and with his superb sense of humour said to her, "If you don't behave yourself. I'll tell everyone that you are Audrey Hepburn's father!"
A difficult time in the UK was compounded by a worrisome eye infection, but Hepburn, who had made a commitment to the film due to the entreaties by good friend Robert Helpmann, played the "good trooper" and completed her obligations, although for years she would not talk about the film. Her later recollections of The Iron Petticoat were of an unlikely pairing of lead actors, trapped in the wrong roles. She recalled that Hope thought her sense of humour was basically "zilch."
The Iron Petticoat was released through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the American market. Hope, whose company controlled US rights as one of the film's producers, cut 12 minutes from the version released in the UK. Hope's cutting prompted Hecht to take a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter accusing Hope of "blowtorching" Hepburn's role. Hecht's open letter in the trade journals disclaimed the picture and offered Hepburn and her fans an apology. As Hecht told journalist Mike Wallace in a 1958 interview, "The movie was written for a lady, Miss Katharine Hepburn, and ended up instead as a role for the hero, Mr. Bob Hope. Miss Hepburn was removed from it by fifty percent. I got irritated and took my name off it -– it had nothing to do with the movie I wrote." Hope replied with an open letter apologising that Hecht had a hit on his hands and hoped they would keep up corresponding in public; his ad was signed "Bob 'Blowtorch' Hope."
On the US release, the film's credits ended up calling it "Based on an Original Story by Harry Saltzman." Saltzman often joked that his first motion picture production was the only Bob Hope film that failed at the box office. The latest release by TCM, however, features a large screen credit: "Screenplay by Ben Hecht."
Production took place primarily at the Pinewood Studios but also utilised unique background locations such as Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus, as well as air bases in the UK. Although the plot involved a defecting military pilot, only a minimum of aircraft appeared in the production, with the use of a Republic F-84F Thunderstreak as a stand-in for the ubiquitous MiG-15 jet fighter, the staple of 1950s Iron Curtain air forces, including that of the Soviet Union.[N 5] When Kovelenko's MiG is escorted into West German airspace, two USAF North American F-86D Sabres intercept it. A Douglas C-47 Skytrain (as its counterpart, the Soviet Lisunov Li-2) is used for the return to Russia, while a Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Avro Anson also appear, albeit mainly as backdrops.
The Iron Petticoat was a critical and box-office failure when it was released beginning in December 1956 in the United States. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, noting Hecht had disavowed his work on the film, summed up many of the critical appraisals: "'The Iron Petticoat,' which encloses Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope, is about as inflexible and ponderous as the garment its title describes. And everybody connected with it might be forgiven for trying to claim an out." He also wrote: "Miss Hepburn's Russian affectations and accent are simply horrible, and Mr. Hope's wistful efforts with feeble gags to hold his franchise as a funny man are downright sad. The notion of these two characters falling rapturously, romantically in love is virtually revolting. If this was meant to be a travesty, it is."
According to MGM records the film earned $1,260,000 in the US and Canada and $125,000 elsewhere, but because of its low production cost resulted in a profit of $109,000.
The film's distribution rights were divided between Hope's company, which controlled the Western Hemisphere, and the UK company Romulus Films, which held the Eastern Hemisphere, including the UK. MGM received a 10 year license for the Western Hemisphere in 1955. After its initial theatrical release, The Iron Petticoat had only two public screenings in the US, at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Film Institute, both sanctioned by Hope Enterprises after MGM's rights expired in 1970. Apparently withheld because of Hope's unhappiness over the public controversy with Hecht, it had never been shown on US television, and has never been released on home video there, though it is readily available in the UK, where rights are current controlled by ITV. Turner Classic Movies indicated in April 2012 that it has entered into an agreement with Hope Enterprises for a 10-year license for US and Canadian TV rights and negotiated to release "The Iron Petticoat" on Blu-ray and DVD in North America as part of its TCM Vault Collection video line. TCM aired the film on 29 November 2012.
- Hecht had been part of the screenwriting team on a similar themed Comrade X (1940).
- Hepburn was pleased by the original script, and personally selected Ralph Thomas as the director, because she liked his Doctor series.
- Hope had been embarrassed by the publication of a "tell-all by former lover, Barbara Payton, and advised by close confidantes to leave the US until the bad press had subsided.
- Privately, Hepburn characterised Hope as "the biggest egomaniac with whom I have ever worked in my entire life." She also considered the film as "a cheap vaudeville act " with her appearing as the "stooge."
- The spurious "red star" markings appear on both the F-84F and C-47 to convert them to their Soviet look-alikes.
- The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
- Domestic take see "Top Grosses of 1957". Variety, 8 January 1958, p. 30.
- "Notes: Jet Pilot." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: 16 December 2012.
- Fristoe, Roger. "The Iron Petticoat" on TCM.com
- Quirk 1998, p. 238.
- Higham 2004, p. 167.
- Quirk 1998, p. 239.
- Faith 2003, p. 255.
- Faith 2003, p. 256.
- Berg 2004, p. 232.
- A Touch Of The Memoirs Donald Sinden. Hodder & Stoughton 1982. page 238
- Leaming 2004, p. 470.
- Quirk 1998, pp. 237–238.
- Chandler 2011, p. 216.
- Ben Hecht: The Mike Wallace Interview, February 15, 1958. Archived at Harry Ransom Center, University of Tennessee, Austin.
- Quirk 1998, p. 240.
- Fristoe, Roger. "Articles: The Iron Petticoat." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: 16 December 2012.
- Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: 'Iron Petticoat'; Bob Hope, Katharine Hepburn are stars." New York Times (2 February 1957). Retrieved: 16 December 2012.
- Berg, A. Scott. Kate Remembered: Katharine Hepburn, a Personal Biography. London: Pocket, 2004, First edition 2003. ISBN 0-7434-1563-9.
- Chandler, Charlotte. I Know Where I'm Going: Katharine Hepburn, a Personal Biography. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Applause, 2011 edition, First edition 2010. ISBN 1-907532-01-3.
- Faith, William Robert. Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-30681-207-1.
- Higham, Charles. Kate: The Life of Katharine Hepburn. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004, First edition 1975. ISBN 978-0-39332-598-0.
- Leaming, Barbara. Katharine Hepburn. New York: Limelight Editions, 2004. ISBN 978-0-87910-293-7.
- Quirk, Lawrence J. Bob Hope: The Road Well-Traveled. New York: Applause, 1998. ISBN 978-1-55783-353-2.
- The Iron Petticoat at the TCM Movie Database
- The Iron Petticoat at AllMovie
- The Iron Petticoat at the Internet Movie Database