Operation Petticoat

Operation Petticoat

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 American color World War II comedy film from Universal-International, produced by Robert Arthur, directed by Blake Edwards, that stars Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.

The film tells in flashback the misadventures of the fictional U. S. Navy submarine, USS Sea Tiger, during the opening days of the United States involvement in World War II. Some elements of the screenplay were taken from actual incidents that happened with some of the Pacific Fleet's submarines during the war. 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 for their work on Operation Petticoat. The film was the basis for a television series in 1977 starring John Astin in Grant's role.


In 1959 U. S. Navy Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant), ComSubPac, boards the obsolete submarine USS Sea Tiger, prior to her departure for the scrapyard. Sherman, once her first commanding officer, begins reading his wartime personal logbook, recalling earlier events.

On 10 December 1941, a Japanese air raid sinks Sea Tiger while 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 submarine, the squadron commodore transfers most of Sherman's crew to other boats, but promises Sherman that he will have first call on any available 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 demonstrates great skill as a scrounger after Sherman makes him the supply officer. He teams up with Marine Sergeant Ramon Gallardo, an escaped prisoner (he was caught misappropriating Navy property to run his own restaurant in Manila), to obtain materials desperately needed for repairs, persuading the captain to sign on Ramon as the ship's cook. What Holden and his men cannot acquire from base warehouses, they "midnight requisition" from various military and civilian sources.

Restored to barely seaworthy condition, with only two of her four diesel engines operable, Sea Tiger puts to sea. She reaches Marinduque, where Sherman reluctantly agrees to evacuate five stranded female Army nurses. Holden is attracted to Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran (Dina Merrill), while Sherman has a series of embarrassing encounters with the well-endowed and clumsy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall (Joan O'Brien). Later, when Sherman prepares to attack an enemy oiler moored to a pier, Crandall accidentally hits the "fire" button. The torpedo misses its target and instead "sinks" a truck ashore.

USS Balao standing in for Operation Petticoat's fictional USS Sea Tiger. A (scripted) belch of smoke from the troublesome No. 1 engine can be seen off the starboard quarter.

Sherman tries to put the nurses ashore at Cebu, but the Army refuses to accept them, as the Japanese are closing in. Unable to obtain needed supplies from official sources, Sherman allows Holden to set up a casino in order to acquire them from the soldiers who have taken everything useful into the hills for resistance use. Chief Torpedoman Molumphry has been asking for paint. Holden manages to get some red and white lead primer paint, but does not have enough of either to prime the entire hull. The two are mixed together, resulting in a pale pink primer that the chief reluctantly has applied. A Japanese air raid forces a hasty departure before the crew can apply the top coat of navy gray.

Tokyo Rose mocks the mysterious pink submarine, while the U. S. Navy believes it to be a Japanese deception, ordering that it be sunk on sight. An American destroyer spots Sea Tiger and opens fire, then launches depth charges when the submarine crash dives. Sherman tries an oil slick and then launches blankets, pillows, and life jackets, but the deception fails. At Holden's suggestion, Sherman ejects the nurses' lingerie. Crandall's bra convinces the destroyer's captain that "the Japanese have nothing like this", and he ceases fire. Sea Tiger, still pink, arrives at Darwin, battered but under her own power.

Sherman's reminiscence ends with the arrival of Commander Nick Holden, his wife (the former Lieutenant Duran), and their sons. Sherman promises Holden command of a new nuclear-powered submarine, named 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 Navy bus. When it drives away, dragging his car with it, Sherman reassures his wife that it will be stopped at the main gate. Captain Holden takes out Sea Tiger, and her final departure is punctuated by a backfire and belch of smoke from the No. 1 diesel engine, still troublesome after all these years.


  • Cary Grant as Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Matthew T. "Matt" Sherman, USN, captain of the USS Sea Tiger
  • Tony Curtis as Lieutenant, Junior Grade (later Commander USN) 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 Motor 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, the tattooed ship's yeoman
  • 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 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 US 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:

Historical accuracy

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


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."[8] 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."[9]

Box office performance

Operation Petticoat was a huge box office hit, making it the #3 moneymaker of 1960, earning $6,800,000.[Note 4] Operation Petticoat followed Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho ($8,500,000) while the #1 film of 1960 was Ben-Hur ($17,300,000).[11] For Grant, through his contract, his residuals topped $3 million, making Operation Petticoat his most profitable film to date.[12]

1977 television series

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.[13] 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.[14] Only 32 episodes of the series (22 in season 1, 10 in season 2) were produced in total.[15]

See also



  1. Please note this figure is rentals accruing to film distributors, not total money earned at the box office.
  2. USS Spearfish (SS-190) evacuation took place on the night of May 3, 1942.
  3. The bus "sinking" took place during an attack at Minami Daito on July 16, 1944 when one of Bowfin's torpedoes hit a dock and blew the bus into the harbor.
  4. 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 .[10]


  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. Blair 1975
  6. Lockwood, Charles A. Sink 'Em All (New York: Bantam Books),1987, page 13.
  7. Roscoe 1949, p. 71.
  8. "Review: Operation Petticoat." Variety, December 31, 1958.
  9. Crowther, Bosley. "New York Times Film review." carygrant.net, 2013. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  10. Steinberg 1980, p. 17.
  11. Steinberg 1980, p. 23.
  12. Reilly, Celia. "Articles: Operation Petticoat (1959)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  13. Brooks and Marsh 1995, p. 780.
  14. "Operation Petticoat TV Show." the70sproject.com. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.
  15. "Operation Petticoat (1977–1979)." IMDb. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.


  • Blair, Clay Jr. Silent Victory: The US Submarine War Against Japan.. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1975. ISBN 978-1-5575-0217-9.
  • 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.
  • Grider, George and Lydel Sims. War Fish. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1958. ISBN 978-0-3450-3217-1.
  • Lockwood, Charles A. Sink 'Em All: Submarine Warfare in the Pacific. New York: Bantam Books, 1987. ISBN 978-1-4960-2690-3.
  • 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.
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