By 1959, the year Blake Edwards’s Operation Petticoat was released by Universal, the Hays Code — the production code that Hollywood filmmakers were forced to operate within — was on the decline. Directors and studios always found ways of burying illicit images, themes, and subject matters into the linings of their films; critical and academic circles made specialisms out of detecting the currents beneath a film’s supposedly code-compliant surface.
For 45 minutes, Operation Petticoat dances on the invisible line between a film which contains homoerotic subtext and being plainly, unmistakably a queer text. It begins in 1959, as Admiral Sherman (Cary Grant) comes aboard the USS Sea Tiger (“a periscope sitting on top of a couple thousand tonnes of scrap metal,” to quote Sherman’s superior), the submarine he commanded during the war, hours before it’s decommissioned. He reads his captain’s log, and the film flashes back to late 1941, back to the moment the vessel was bombed out by a Japanese air raid.
Sherman is desperate to repair the Sea Tiger and get her into action, but supplies are being caught up in bureaucratic misunderstandings and inefficiencies. Luckily, this is exactly when a young admiral’s aid, Nick Holden (Tony Curtis), arrives in the harbour. While the sailors around him are dirty and oil-soaked from reconstruction work, Holden is a vision in white uniform, sun-tanned from his lackadaisical post in Hawaii, a social-sort with no experience of being on the sea. But he’s thrifty and knows where and how to get supplies, by dubious means, so comes to Sherman’s aid even when the older officer knows he’s up to no good. Holden’s escapades play like a benign version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, if such a thing were possible.
Edwards frames centre-piece conversations between Sherman and Curtis in a way that makes an important connection between the two characters and the two actors playing them. The film’s portraiture has each character framed from the shoulders up, whole heads (and headgear) neatly within the frame; these look like ceremonial photographs, the kind that adorn military offices as remembrances of officers past. Sherman is always at least mildly peeved, and this creeps up in distinction as events become ever more hectic; Holden is totally at ease, with a calm speaking voice and manner, proficient at finding Sherman’s annoyance pressure points. But more than that, the eye-line between the two creates reflexivity, and the film begins to comment upon the ways the characters are similar to the actors playing them: Grant, the older gentleman with gravitas and world-weariness, has to contend with Curtis, the beautiful young man, puckish and preening.
Things aren’t simplified by the arrival of a quintet of army nurses aboard the Sea Tiger. This hides the burgeoning attraction between the two men, and the film becomes a slightly standard-grade, politely suggestive comedy. Operation Petticoat is diverting fare, with telegraphed gaps and choppy editing, but there is one scene which points towards the kind of tonal balance Edwards would achieve in later films. On New Year’s Day, the crew sit out in the sunshine, on top of the sub, laughing, celebrating. One of the crew begins to sing Auld Lang Syne. Others join him. The mood changes: a conspicuous tracking shot scans the faces of those singing, and the scene reminds an audience that these characters had real-life counterparts, and maybe they didn’t see the year after that. It’s this dancing between tones that characterises Edwards’s great Victor/Victoria.
Operation Petticoat makes for a useful study in the way that hidden subjects rise to the surface as the Hays Code was on the wane, although it positions itself, like submarine movies tend to, as a film about repression. The submarine here is later painted pink: make of this what you will.
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