There are numerous reasons as to why Operation Petticoat is such a misfire as a military farce but by far the biggest reason for its failure to amuse and provide laughter is easily its central comedic premise: a submarine crew during World War II is forced to house a group of evacuated female nurses, and oh my, you wouldn’t believe all the hijinks that this little arrangement entails when the two opposite sexes inevitably clash under water.
I’m not saying that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the basic idea. It’s war time, tensions are high and men of this time period aren’t used to sharing the limited space of the vessel with the fairer sex, I can see how with some clever writing you could get some nice mileage out of this. Unfortunately all that the combined creative minds working on this picture seemed to come up with were mostly just very lame and horribly outdated (by today’s standards at least) jokes about women and their undergarments, with some gags so painfully unfunny that it makes the entire watching experience an excruciating ordeal. There’s simply no wit involved and almost no charming interaction with the cast (despite Cary Grant as the leading man!). Instead you have a parade of halfhearted attempts to be funny because tee-hee, girls. It’s hard to believe Blake Edwards was involved in making this movie. I don’t know, maybe if I was a Sgt. Bilko (the original show, not the 90s Steve Martin remake movie) fan or something this might be more my alley. Now it’s just a bitter disappointment.
To give some examples of the type of the clash of the sexes jokes that you encounter in this movie, there’s one scene that involves one of the male crew members explaining to the female nurses how the John works inside the submarine and it being super awkward for him. That’s literally suppose to be the joke. A man is uncomfortably trying to explain how to pee in the lavatory to a group of ladies. Hilarious, right? There’s also a rather cringeworthy visual gag involving a broken valve in the engine room where the problem is ultimately fixed by one of the nurses attaching a girdle to the valve, much to the dismay of a slightly chauvinistic mechanic who can’t bear the idea of women coming and making a mess of a place that ought to be reserved only for men. That’s the level of lowbrow comedy you can expect from this movie. It’s pretty banal. Even Cary Grant’s comedic talents aren’t able to salvage picture from itself, despite how much he tries to lighten things up with his banter with Tony Curtis’ character. It just isn’t enough. Most of the time you finish a scene and find yourself wondering “where do you suppose I was meant to laugh?”
Now to be fair, it’s not like the movie is completely terrible. It’s mostly just kinda boring to watch since a lot of the jokes don’t hit their mark. The movie is actually even pretty okay early on, when the submarine and its crew are still docked at the Navy shipyard and going through repairs. The initial glaring contrast between Curtis and Grant’s characters has some promise to it, and the few comedy bits involving the ship’s repairs are fairly smirk worthy. But once the evacuated female nurses enter the picture, the quality takes a noticeable dip and the movie never really recovers from it. The primary reason for it is that there’s barely a story, so you’re left with plenty of not that funny jokes trying to carry the movie. The picture is largely just a collection of unfunny comedic antics set inside a submarine, and a result you grow rather tiresome with it quite quickly, because you’re not laughing and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. There is of course a small romance subplot trying to add some stakes to the story, but it’s awfully contrived all the way through and the romantic pair has no chemistry, so the less said about that the better. Suffice to say, you never care one bit whether or not Curtis and Grant end up marrying anyone by the end of the movie. Small spoiler: they both do, and it adds nothing to the enjoyment of the movie.
Actually, before I finish this, I want to address one of the bigger gags in the movie involving Tony Curtis roguishly requisitioning (polite way to say stealing) parts and supplies for the submarine so that they can sail off and join the war effort. When Curtis and the crew were just stealing stuff in comedic fashion from all parts of the base, such as removing piping from all the bathroom sinks or relieving the commanding officer’s entire office of its furniture (as well as parts of the surrounding metal plate walls) it was one thing, more or less harmless fun thanks to already having established earlier that trying to get supplies through the normal military channels was impossible, even when applying for standard resupply of items like toilet paper. But this cavalier form of comedic theft is only funny for so long. Near the end, when we’re shown Curtis stealing a pig from a local farmer at the dead of night, one can’t help but to feel that a line has been crossed. After all, pilfering and scamming items from the navy warehouse is one thing, since it’s technically just taking stuff that you are entitled to anyway. Robbing a farmer during war time when rationing is a big concern and the pig could provide much needed meat to the family if it ever came to that, it makes the entire affair far more morally dubious and not that funny. Fortunately they do actually address this and manage to give it a humorous conclusion when the farmer appears on the boat, with military police in tow demanding his pig back, and Curtis is basically forced to bribe the farmer to go away by giving away most of his luxury items that he had brought with him to the boat, such as his golf club bag, tennis rackets, etc. Thus restoring the Karmic balance and allowing the crew to enjoy their roasted pig party with peaceful minds.
That’s about it for this movie. Not that great or interesting. Even as a Cary Grant fan this was a bit of a chore to get through.