Operation Petticoat (1959)
July 17, 2020 | by Shannon
1959’s Operation Petticoat was a dream come true film for Tony Curtis: it paired him onscreen with his childhood idol, Cary Grant. If ever there was a sign that Bernie Schwartz, the impoverished kid who survived growing up on the streets of New York, had officially made it, this was it! Working alongside Cary Grant would always count among Tony’s personal list of his greatest achievements.
Operation Petticoat would prove to be a hallmark film for all involved: it was the highest grossing movie in the 50 year history of Universal Studios, it turned Blake Edwards into a director of esteem, and it made Cary Grant the highest paid actor ever—up to the time—for a single film. The publicity surrounding Operation Petticoat would also alert fans to Cary Grant’s LSD use.
That’s right, Cary Grant did LSD.
The habit was completely incongruous with Grant’s suave and sophisticated persona, and the world was shocked to discover that such a mainstream figure would laud the virtues of such a counterculture drug.
If you haven’t seen this fun and frothy wartime comedy, you can purchase or rent Operation Petticoat here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, then delve into all the fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff. Like Cary Grant tripping on acid.
It’s 1959, and Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) decides to pay one last visit to the submarine he commanded during WWII, the USS Sea Tiger, before she’s officially retired and made to scrap. While looking through his wartime journal, Sherman begins to reminisce about his time on the Sea Tiger.
Sherman’s flashback begins with a Japanese attack that sinks the Sea Tiger while she’s docked in the Philippines. Convinced he can bring her back to fighting order, Sherman gets the OK to fix Sea Tiger enough to sail her to Darwin, Australia for full repairs. But he’ll have to do it with a skeleton crew and very few provisions.
Nick Holden (Sound Familiar?)
Lieutenant Nicolas Holden (Tony Curtis), an admiral’s aide, is reassigned to the Sea Tiger, despite the fact that he has no submarine experience…
A quick side note: the name of Tony’s character, Nick Holden, may sound familiar to you if you’re a fan of the television show, White Collar (2009-2014). The creators of White Collar gave Matt Bomer’s character in the show, Neal Caffrey, the alias “Nick Holden” as a nod to to great physical resemblance they saw between Tony Curtis and Bomer. Personally, other than the blue eyes and great hair, I don’t see a physical resemblance between the two actors, but there is a decidedly boyish charm and mischief that Curtis and Bomer each bring to their respective “Nick Holden” characters.
Actually, Nick is more of a self-proclaimed “idea man” than anything else. His Navy service thus far includes coordinating a Navy Day Parade, being a liaison officer to Hollywood, and winning the annual rumba contest with the admiral’s wife two years running. (Perhaps a subtle reference to Tony Curtis’ own rumba-dancing entree into Hollywood??!)
Nick is teased by Sherman and most of the crew for the completely impractical, starch white, made-to-order uniforms he wears from Saks Fifth Avenue. But, after Sherman names Nick his supply officer, and Nick magically procures anything and everything needed to repair the sub–stealing if he has to from other units or civilians–he quickly grows in the esteem of Sherman and the rest of the crew.
Some Interesting Additions...!
Through Nick’s fancy work, the USS Sea Tiger gets what’s needed to sail, and after Nick’s witch doctor friend gives a good luck chant, the Sea Tiger begins her voyage to Darwin.
Along the way, they rescue five army nurses stranded on an island the Japanese have bombed.
Do you see where this is headed?
Yes, sparks fly as the Sea Tiger’s male crew and new female passengers try to figure out how to appropriately work in such close proximity to one another in the tiny halls and living quarters of the submarine.
And naturally there’s some forbidden romance along the way.
Nick falls for Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran (Post Cereals heiress, Dina Merrill), while Matt tries to deny his attraction to Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall (Joan O’Brien).
After Dolores accidentally sets off a torpedo that “sinks” a Japanese truck, Matt realizes the Sea Tiger’s position may not remain a secret for much longer, and allows Nick to set up a casino at Cebu to gain the supplies they need for the sub, including priming paint so they can finally paint Sea Tiger Navy regulation gray. The crew can’t get enough primer in one color however, so Matt gives the go-ahead for the crew to mix together the white and red primer they do have.
…and the Sea Tiger ends up pink!
Of course, the Japanese approach before Sherman can get the submarine painted gray, so the Sea Tiger remains pink as they set sail yet again.
Confusion on the Seas
Tokyo Rose makes mention of the pink submarine over the airwaves, and the US Navy believes the pink sub must be a Japanese vessel.
When an American destroyer begins firing on the Sea Tiger, Sherman must think fast, and figure out a way to convince the American destroyer that Sea Tiger is one of their own! After several failed ideas, Sherman hits upon a genius plan: release the…undergarments of the five army nurses. Once some of the more sensual pieces float to the top and are discovered by the destroyer’s crew, they’ll cease fire.
A brassiere of the well-endowed Dolores is spotted by a few of the sailors on the destroyer—one of whom is director Blake Edwards in a cameo role! The sailors fish out the…item, proclaim that “the Japanese have nothing like this,” and the Sea Tiger is recognized as an American sub!
Shortly after, the Sea Tiger arrives at Darwin, and that’s where Matt Sherman’s flashback ends.
Back to present day, Matt is greeted by Nick Holden as he de-boards the Sea Tiger. We learn that it’s a happily-ever-after-ending, for Nick married Barbara, and Matt married Dolores. Both wives and their respective children wait ashore with Matt as Nick takes the USS Sea Tiger out to sea one last time.
Tony Curtis Joins the Navy
If you remember from my intro post on Tony Curtis, he joined the Navy at sixteen years old. For young Bernie Schwartz, the Navy offered an escape from his depressing and often abusive home life. The Navy was life-changing for the young man who would grow up to be Tony Curtis:
“[The Navy] felt very different from the days in New York when I had hated school. I had hated school because I had hated my life. But I liked my life in the Navy. They treated me well, and for the first time ever I felt like I had a purpose.”
When the time came for Bernie to choose what to focus on during his Navy career, he made a rather unique choice, and opted to go to submarine school. Bernie would feel even more validated in his decision to train for a submarine crew when the Navy played Destination Tokyo (1943) on base. The film starred Bernie’s childhood idol, Cary Grant. Tony Curtis would later recount what an impact this particular film, and Cary Grant in general, had on his life:
“Cary Grant was my idol. There was nobody in the movies like him. He was the personification of everything a man should be…
I must have gone to see every movie Cary Grant ever made. It was clear that when I was in that movie theater, Cary Grant was talking to me. He was saying, All right, Bernie, when you’re on a date and you get out of a cab, give the driver a five-dollar bill on a two-dollar ride and then get out and open the door on the other side and hold it while the lady gets out. This was priceless information I learned from him: how to behave when it mattered most. Cary Grant was talking to me, and I was doing my very best to take it all in.”
Never in his wildest dreams could Signalman Third Class Bernie Schwartz have envisioned that one day, just about fifteen years later, not only would he have a chance to meet the idol of his youth, Bernie would be starring alongside him in a Hollywood feature film.
A Star with Leverage
1959 was a good year for Tony Curtis. Some Like It Hot (1959)—in which Tony played a character who’s voice he modeled off of Cary Grant’s—was released that spring, and proved to be an enormous hit. When Tony’s studio, Universal, asked him what type of film he’d like to do next, Tony had a very specific request:
“By this point in my career I had some leverage, so I said, ‘I want to make a submarine picture with Cary Grant.’ After all, Cary Grant’s role as a submarine captain in Destination Tokyo had inspired me while I was in the submarine service.”
Universal came up with a submarine plot line for Tony, but then tried to sell him on putting Robert Taylor or Jeff Chandler in the role opposite him. Robert Taylor wanted the part so badly, he even offered Tony five of the the ten percent gross Taylor himself would get if he starred in the film. But Tony would have none of it: it was Cary Grant or bust!
“That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got. Suddenly I was making Operation Petticoat with Cary Grant. It was a fabulous experience. What a period of time. Everything just rolled and became a reality. I said I wouldn’t take second billing to anybody except Cary Grant, because I didn’t have to. Cary Grant ended up getting half a million, and I only got sixty or sixty-five grand for that movie, but I didn’t care. I wanted that relationship with him.”
A Good Deal
Operation Petticoat was a fantastic deal for Grant. As soon as he signed on, the film’s budget went from a respectable $1 million to a very respectable $3 million. Such was the star power of Cary Grant.
For agreeing to do Operation Petticoat, Universal let Cary’s independent production company, Granart, produce the picture. Cary would also receive 75 percent of the film’s net profits, or 10 percent of the gross, whichever was greater. And if that wasn’t enough, Universal also offered Grant sole ownership of the film. (According to Tony Curtis, this sole ownership provision didn’t kick in until 7 years after the film’s release.)
Cary Grant ultimately made $3 million from his work on Operation Petticoat, making him the highest paid actor for any single film to date. Operation Petticoat would be the highest earning film of Grant’s 67 film career.
Tony and Cary got along famously during production, and the two stayed close even after the completion of filming, with Tony frequently going over to Cary’s house for breakfast and advice on life and his career.
Can you imagine having such a relationship with an idol from your childhood?!
I think I’d die.
A Great Comedy Moment Missed
Blake Edwards would have a decidedly less jovial relationship with Cary Grant during filming. The young director had never worked with a superstar like Cary Grant before (how many directors ever work with a superstar like Cary Grant??) and had some trouble convincing him to do a few things in the film that Grant perceived as dissonant to the “Cary Grant” screen image.
If you’re familiar with Operation Petticoat, there’s a scene where Tony’s Nick Holden and another buddy steal a pig from the home of a Cebu local. Edwards originally intended to have Cary Grant steal the pig. As Blake Edwards saw it, it was precisely because pig stealing was so out of line with the elegant Cary Grant persona that having Cary in the scene would have been so perfect:
“I nearly got into a fight with him…there was one thing that I tried to get him to do [the pig scene]—the writers and I got down on our knees and said, ‘Look Cary, do it anyway. You own the film; you can get rid of the scene if you don’t think it’s any good, but let us show you what we’re talking about!’ No good. Missed one of the great comedy moments. To this day I’m sorry about it. It’s one of the few things I regret in my career.”
Tony, Cary, Janet, and Fidel Castro!
An interesting side note to the production, in her fabulous autobiography, Janet Leigh, who was married to Tony at the time and present for the Operation Petticoat location filming on Key West, mentions that the publicity department almost set up a photo op for Tony, Cary, herself, and Cuba’s new leader, the man who had just successfully ousted the Batista government, Fidel Castro. As Janet so wittily recalls in her book,
“It would be the biggest publicity coup—make every newspaper headline and magazine cover worldwide. Preparations were actually under way, and excitement mounted. Thank our lucky stars there was ONE thinking prophet in the vicinity. This small voice quietly posed a question, ‘But what if he isn’t quite what we think he is? What if it turns out he isn’t one of us? And there are the documented pictures linking Cary and Tony and Janet to Castro?’ Mouths gaped, heads scratched, and the wheels in motion came to a screeching halt.”
Now those would have been some priceless pictures…
Cary Grant Goes for a Trip. On LSD.
In 1943, Cary Grant starred in Destination Tokyo, Tony Curits, still young Signalman Third Class Bernie Schwartz, was inspired by Grant’s performance, and Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann re-synthesized LSD.
It’s a fact some Classic Hollywood fans are familiar with, but many are not: Cary Grant did LSD. Over a ten year period, Grant estimated that he used LSD 100 times, before the drug became illegal in 1968.
So what was Grant’s attraction to LSD?
Cary Grant was an introspective man looking for answers. His was a complicated childhood that had permanent ramifications. Wife Betsy Drake suggested Cary try using LSD to sort through his inner turmoil: acid trips had proved effective for Drake when she experienced extreme trauma and shock after surviving the shipwreck of the SS Andrea Doria in 1956. If it worked for Betsy, why not Cary Grant? He decided to give LSD a try.
Grant’s first trip occurred in late 1958, not long before Operation Petticoat began filming. By the time the film went into production, Cary Grant believed LSD had enlightened his mind, clarifying his relationships with the women in his life, and convincing Grant he was finally ready to have children.
Cary decided to share his miraculous LSD experiences with the world, and shocked reporter Joe Hyams when, in what Hyams expected to be a routine interview, Grant instead began lauding the virtues of LSD.
The Scoop of A Lifetime
Hyams, always a classy reporter, double checked with Cary to make sure all this LSD stuff wasn’t meant to be off the record. Grant assured, even encouraged him, to print every word. A confused, but very excited Hyams, left the interview with tapes of their conversation, and set out to write the scoop of a lifetime.
Well, before Hyams published his story, Universal found out about Cary’s extremely honest interview…
And how do you think they felt about it???!
The answer is NOT GOOD.
Grant vs. Hyams
So Cary called Hyams up, and asked that he just not print the story after all. But Hyams’ paper, The New York Herald Tribune, had been going all out advertising the interview, so Hyams told Grant he couldn’t pull the story. Cary told Hyams that if the LSD interview was printed, he’d deny having ever said any of it:
“It’s your word against mine, and you know who they’ll believe.”
The interview was printed in three installments, beginning April 20, 1959. Hyams would say in his autobiography that he believed Grant changed his tune about publishing the interview mostly for financial reasons: apparently Grant had sold exclusive rights to his thoughts on LSD to Look magazine, and realized that his interview with Hyams would breach that contract. So when the Hyams interview was published, Grant, true to his word, lied, and said he hadn’t even met with Hyams for over two years.
Then Cary sued Joe Hyams.
Well, then Hyams produced a picture of himself interviewing Cary, and sued him right back.
Hyams’ made history, becoming the first columnist to sue a movie star. His countersuit called Grant’s bluff, and their respective attorneys worked out a deal: Hyams would settle out of court for exclusive rights to work with Cary, and author his official autobiography with the byline “by Cary Grant as told to Joe Hyams.” The settlement also specified Hyams could then sell the autobiography to the publication of his choosing and keep all the profits.
To Hyams’ utter surprise, despite the bad blood between the two men,
“I soon discovered I had misjudged my man…Cary greeted me as he would an old friend…the interviews proceeded smoothly from that day on. Although he had been literally forced to work with me on his story, he never mentioned that fact, nor did I…”
When Hyams sold the story to Ladies Home Journal for $125,000 however, Cary’s attorney became a little less friendly, and suggested that Hyams at least buy Cary a new Rolls Royce for his work and cooperation on the project.
And you know what? Hyams did it. He bought Cary the Rolls.
The End of Grant's Trips
Cary Grant would later say that
“Taking LSD was an utterly foolish thing to do but I was a self-opinionated boor, hiding all kinds of layers and defenses, hypocrisy and vanity.”
But for the decade between 1958-1968, Cary would continue to use and extol the miracle healing powers of LSD, inspiring other stars searching for answers, such as Esther Williams, to see if acid trips would have the same clarifying effects for them that Cary Grant claimed to experience.
Who would have thought that behind the scenes of Operation Petticoat, Cary Grant, the mainstream, suave superstar of his generation, was tripping on acid?
Well, the public didn’t seem to mind, for despite the LSD revelations that Universal so feared would negatively effect the film, Operation Petticoat earned $9 million at the box office after its December 1959 release, bringing in a net profit of $6.8 million. It was a great film to end the decade with for all involved.
More Tony Curtis Next Week!
And that’s it for Operation Petticoat!
Join me next week as I review one of my favorite Tony Curtis films, with an all-star cast including the lovely Natalie Wood, 1965’s The Great Race.