Operation Petticoat (1959)

When it’s on: Friday, 12 June (4.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Here’s the first of a Cary Grant double bill, celebrating one of the most famous and best loved Hollywood movie stars of all time by looking at two quite difference pictures. Today’s is Operation Petticoat, a 1959 comedy made when Archibald Alexander Leach’s attachment to a project pretty much guaranteed box office and audiences knew just what they were getting from him.

Operation Petticoat is classic Saturday afternoon matinee fare; it’s likely that viewers of my generation caught it on a BBC2 weekend slot. The film’s good natured, amiable and never outstays its welcome. Despite being longer than two hours, it doesn’t feel like it; I could have handled more. Perhaps the comic potential of a premise that pairs Grant with Tony Curtis was just too good; add into the mix an early directorial outing for Blake Edwards, to whom I’ll always be grateful for the Pink Panther films, but whose work took on a definite ‘coasting’ quality in later years. There’s little of that here. It isn’t that Operation Petticoat is in any way brilliant, profound or has much to say about the human condition, more that there’s nothing wrong with whiling away a pleasant two hours in good company and that’s what this film amounts to. It was a big hit with the public, third only to Ben-Hur and Psycho at that year’s box office, which isn’t bad company to keep.

Grant plays Lieutenant Commander Sherman, captain of the US submarine, the Sea Tiger. It’s December 1941; a Japanese air raid damages the Sea Tiger, leaving it ready for scrapping and the Commodore transferring Sherman’s crew elsewhere. Feeling sorry for the already discarded submarine, Sherman asks to make an effort to repair it with the help of any available crew he can find, and is also assigned Lieutenant Nick Holden (Curtis). Whereas Grant’s character is more or less a straightforward navy man, Holden is a grifter. Given the wide-encompassing title of Supply Officer, Holden scrounges, borrows and steals items in order to patch the submarine together (and keep himself in a certain style), and then they’re off, making for the nearest dockyard with an interesting array of smoke belches and noises accompanying every knot achieved. At a nearby island, Holden picks up a bevvy of female military nurses to catch a lift with the crew, causing mayhem among the all-male complement and consternation to Sherman, who finds his ordered world beginning to crash around his ears. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Attempting to give the Sea Tiger a fresh coat of paint, the crew are forced to improvise with the undercoat and turn it pink, and then a fresh Japanese attack forces it to flee before the regulation grey can be applied. At one point, Sherman spies an enemy tanker he can torpedo, a first sinking for his sub, only one of the ladies accidentally knocks the trigger as it’s being positioned and all they hit is a truck on the shore.

There’s a certain ‘old world’ mentality to the film, especially when it comes to the objectification of women. Their presence on the Sea Tiger is seen by most of the crew as giving them something to ogle, whilst Sherman is compelled to make a new rule about how they carry themselves when walking down the submarine’s narrow corridors in case they find themselves in close proximity to Dolores Crandall’s (Joan O’Brien) generous assets.

But mostly, it’s just good fun, the slight sense of peril that comes with being a lonely (pink) submarine traversing mainly enemy waters watered down in place of comic moments, which Edwards mines to frequently delightful effect. Grant plays down his usual leading role to portray the largely straight man to Curtis’s loveable rogue, all crumpled dignity and world weariness, whilst the younger actor plunders the impish repertoire of Grant’s own early performances in producing his own. Operation Petticoat was a big earner for the leading man. Its budget was escalated and colour film preferred once he came on board, and his decision to take a share of the profits landed him something around the $3 million mark once it became a success.

Though some of the action scenes made good use of models, real US Navy submarines were used in the filming, including the USS Balao, which bore the Sea Tiger’s pink paint job. The plot took in a number of real life incidents; the torpedoing of the truck was based on an actual attack on Minami Daito in which a bus was swept into a harbour when the dock it stood on was hit.

Operation Petticoat gets by on a good deal of charm, a couple of great performances and some genuinely funny moments. It also bypasses any sense of reality by finishing with the now Admiral Sherman offering Holden the command of a brand new atomic submarine, presumably a reward for his quick thinking and ingenuity. Honestly though, would you trust your nuclear missiles with this man?

Operation Petticoat: ***

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

When it’s on: Friday, 26 December (5.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

A Shot in the Dark is the second Inspector Clouseau film, and the best. It marks the point that Peter Sellers’s bumbling French detective becomes centre stage, perfecting his incredible accent and slapstick comic moments, before the show becomes too much a series of set-piece pratfalls as would happen later in the series. Sellers was always funny as Clouseau, but never more so than here.

In the previous year’s The Pink Panther, Sellers was on hand as a supporting player to David Niven, yet stole the show and both he and director-producer Blake Edwards realised they had struck comedy gold. A sequel was quickly demanded, and for it the pair mined a project that the actor was already attached to, inserted Clouseau and made him the focus.

A Broadway hit, A Shot in the Dark was adapted from the French play L’Idiote, and starred Walter Matthau and William Shatner. Excising pretty much everything from the story apart from the central plot about a maid being accused of killing her lover, it was transformed into Clouseau’s efforts to crack the case whilst similarly falling in love with the main suspect and doing all he can to exonerate her.

The resulting film is owned so completely by Sellers that everything depends on how funny you find his hapless Inspector to be. Fortunately, he’s completely hilarious, tapping comedy from as simple a situation as placing a billiard cue into its rack or agreeing on a time to switch off the power with his perpetually fed up assistant, Hercule (Graham Stark). Utterly incompetent, and yet pompous and filled with implacable self-belief, the fun derives from his ability to conjure slapstick genius from virtually anything whilst those around him grow increasingly irritated.

No one does this better than Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus, making his first appearance in the franchise as the boss driven literally insane by Clouseau. Further down the line, Dreyfus would become a villain, but it’s here that the descent into madness starts, Lom’s famous eye tic developing over the course of the film along with the introduction of his lunatic giggle. What drives him over the edge is his insistence that Clouseau be removed from the murder case, whilst someone ‘higher up’ demands that he stays on it, leaving him to clean up after every mess.

The film’s opening scenes focuses on a mansion in Paris, the home of millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders). Everyone in the house seems to be having an affair with someone else, occupants sneaking around into each other’s bedrooms, before eventually the Spanish driver, Miguel, is shot dead. His lover, Marie the maid (Elke Sommer) is the prime suspect as she’s found holding the smoking gun, but once Clouseau arrives and gets a whiff of her scent, he’s intoxicated and determines to prove that someone else is the murderer. What follows is a series of episodes that feature Marie being put in jail as the killings continue and she’s always on the scene, then getting released so that Clouseau can trail her, only each time he does he’s arrested for not having a license for whatever disguise he happens to be wearing.

A brilliant scene that has Sellers at his best takes place in a nudist camp to which Marie has retreated. Clouseau follows but has to do so naked, and wanders around covering his dignity with a strategically placed guitar, clearly very awkward and shamefaced. The moment can only end one way, with a naked Clouseau and Marie fleeing the camp in a car, before being caught in the middle of a Paris traffic jam and once again arrested, this time for indecent exposure.

Any element of sleuthing is removed from the story as we never find out conclusively who the killer is and, besides, that’s never really the point. The murders are little more than a hook for more Sellers comedy, and this is always worth the film’s ultimate lack of interest in identifying the culprit. We also get the introduction of Clouseau’s manservant, Cato (Bert Kwuok), who the Inspector employs to help hone his martial arts skills by demanding he attack him at any time, leading to more hilarity. The confection is topped off with another winning score from Henry Mancini, who doesn’t reprise the Pink Panther theme (for which he was Oscar nominated) but produces a tune that’s every bit as fine, accompanied with some fantastic animation for the opening credits.

By all accounts, the making of A Shot in the Dark was strained as the working relationship between Edwards and Sellers – both men thought they were the driving force – was tense, bad tempered and frequently broke down. They needn’t have bothered. It was a big success, critically and commercially, and drove the pair back together for three sequels before Sellers’s untimely death in 1980. Even after his passing, Edwards used cutting room floor footage of the actor as the foundation for further Panthers.

A Shot in the Dark: ****