“OPERATION PETTICOAT” (1959) Review

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“OPERATION PETTICOAT” (1959) Review

Many would find this hard to believe, but I first came aware of the 1959 comedy, “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, when its television spinoff aired during the late 1970s. Mind you, the television series was no where as good as the 1959 movie, it was enough to attract my attention.

Over a decade had past before I first saw the movie. And I became an even bigger fan of the film than the TV series. Directed by Blake Edwards, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” is basically a flashback tale in which U.S. Navy Admiral Matthew Sherman visits the U.S.S. Sea Tiger, an old and obsolete submarine scheduled to be sent to the scrapyard. Because Sherman was the Sea Tiger’s first commanding officer, he begins reading his old log book, which recounted the submarine’s time during its first difficult month following the Japanese Navy’s attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On December 10, 1941, the Sea Tiger is sunk by a Japanese air raid, while it is docked at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. Sherman, then a Lieutenant-Commander, and his crew begin repairs, hoping to sail the Sea Tiger to Darwin, Australia. The submarine squadron’s commodore believes there is no chance of saving the Sea Tiger and begins to transfer some of Sherman’s crew to other boats. Sherman convinces the commodore otherwise and the latter begins to replace Sherman’s crew, beginning with an admiral aide with no submarine experience named Lieutenant (junior grade) Nick Holden. Unfortunately for Sherman, Holden had become a naval officer to escape poverty and find a wealthy spouse. Fortunately for the submarine commander, Holden proves to be a very effective supply officer, due to his skills as a scavenger and con artist. Thanks to Holden, the Sea Tiger acquires enough parts for repair and their departure from the Philippines. Once restored to seaworthy condition – barely – with only two of her four diesels operational, the Sea Tiger reaches Marinduque, where Sherman reluctantly agrees to evacuate five stranded Army nurses. Between dealing with Holden’s reluctance to reveal officer material, a partially operating submarine and five nurses with no where to go and causing mayhem on board, Sherman’s first month at war proves to be very difficult.

When I first saw “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, I wondered if I would like it as much as I did the television series. Needless to say . . . I did. I enjoyed this movie very much. It had a lot going for it. One, it had Blake Edwards as director. Before he directed “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, Edwards had worked as an actor, screenwriter and the occasional producer/director or writer of a series of television shows. The 1959 World War II comedy proved to be his first feature movie as a director . . . and he scored big. The movie featured every aspect of first-rate Blake Edwards comedy – the director’s unique humor; a cast of some very interesting and offbeat characters; and most importantly a well-written story.

Because of his past as a screenwriter, I had assumed that Edwards had written the movie’s script. I was wrong. Credit went to four writers – Paul King, Joseph B. Stone, Stanley J. Shapiro, Maurice Richlin. And I must that they had written one hell of a story. I liked how they and Edwards managed to recapture those desperate, early days of the war’s Pacific Theater, when the Japanese seemed to be grabbing a great deal of territory in the Pacific. I liked the fact that despite the presence of Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and five attractive actresses portraying nurses, neither Edwards or the four screenwriters did not glamorize the movie’s setting . . . aside from the spotless uniform worn by Nick Holden upon his arrival at the Sea Tiger or the characters. The Sea Tiger remained in a questionable condition throughout most of the film. And believe it or not, a good deal of the events featured in this film actually happened during those early months of the war in the Pacific . . . including the evacuation of military nurses from the Philippines, a submarine being forced to paint its surface pink, due to the lack of enough red or white lead undercoat paint. The movie nearly ended on an ironic note, when it faced great danger of being sunk . . . but not by the Japanese Navy.

I did have a few problems with “OPERATION PETTICOAT”. Although most of the movie was set between December 1941-January 1942, the hairstyles and makeup for the actresses portraying the nurses clearly reflected the late 1950s. Hollywood tend to be rather sloppy about women’s hairstyles and fashion in movies set in the near past. And“OPERATION PETTICOAT” was mainly set seventeen to eighteen years before its release. The nurses proved to be another problem in the film. The moment the nurses boarded the Sea Tiger, a hint of sexism seemed to permeate the movie. Nearly every scene that featured the nurses, the score written by David Rose and an uncredited Henry Mancini would shift into a cheesy tune fit for a soft core porn film . . . 1950s style. The biggest problem proved to be two characters – the commanding officer of the nurses, Major Edna Heywood; and the Sea Tiger’s Chief Machinist’s Mate Sam Tostin. The latter proved to be something of a misogynist, who could not stand the idea of women aboard the submarine. I could have tolerated that. I could have tolerated his dismay over Major Heywood’s interest in the Sea Tiger’s engines, due to her father being an engineer. What I could not tolerate was Tostin’s lack of respect toward Major Heywood’s status as an officer . . . and the fact that the screenwriters allowed him to get away with such lack of respect due to her being a woman. And the fact that the screenwriters wrote a romantic subplot for the pair struck me as ridiculous. The moment Tostin said these words to Major Heywood:

Chief Mechanic’s Mate Sam Tostin: [speaking to Maj.Heywood in the engine room] You know, I spent alot of years disliking women. But I don’t dislike you.

Maj. Edna Heywood, RN: Oh?

Chief Mechanic’s Mate Sam Tostin: You’re not a woman. You’re more than a woman. You’re a *mechanic*

I hope the screenwriters and Edwards did not expect audiences to take this relationship seriously. A deep-seated misogynist like Tostin had no business being given a romantic interest in this film . . . especially with an upright woman like Major Heywood.

In my opinion, the two best aspects of any movie are usually the screenplay and the performances. I have already expressed my views of the movie’s plot. As the performances, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” was blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to see that a few cast members went on to become television stars – Gavin MacLeod (“THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW” and “THE LOVE BOAT”), Dick Sargeant (“BEWITCHED”), and Marion Ross (“HAPPY DAYS”). Ross did not get much of a chance to strut her stuff in this film. But MacLeod gave a hilarious performance as the high-strung and nervous Yeoman Ernest Hunckle, who worked closely with supply officer Nick Holden. Sargeant gave a very endearing, yet funny performance as the young Ensign Stovall, who seemed to be Holden’s number one fan aboard the Sea Tiger and possessed a penchant for putting his foot into his mouth. Gene Evans was equally funny as the gruff Chief of the Boat (COB) Chief Torpedoman “Mo” Molumphry. Joan O’Brien seemed to display a talent for physical humor as the well-meaning, yet clumsy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall. And Clarence Lung made a great straight man for Tony Curtis as Holden’s “partner-in-crime” U.S.M.C. Sergeant Ramon Gallardo. Other fine supporting performances came from Ross, Madlyn Rhue, Robert F. Simon, Robert Gist and George Dunn.

Despite my dislike of the Major Heywood/Chief Tostin relationship, I must admit that both Virginia Gregg and Arthur O’Connell did great jobs in capturing the essence of their characters. Especially O’Connell, who still managed to be funny, despite portraying one of the most misogynist characters I have ever seen on screen. Dina Merrill gave a solid performance as Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, the lovely nurse who managed to captured the attention of the very engaged Nick Holden. Before he did “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, Tony Curtis worked on Billy Wilder’s famous Roaring Twenties comedy, “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. In that film, he did an impersonation of Cary Grant that caught a great deal of attention at the time. Ironically, the two ended up co-starring in this film in less than a year. And they clicked very well on screen, despite the clash between their characters. Curtis was smooth as ever as the morally gray Nick Holden, who hid a larcenous and opportunist nature behind a charming and affable façade. Looking back, it occurred to me that if Curtis had been older than Grant, he could have easily portrayed the Matt Sherman character . . . and that Grant could have portrayed Holden. I realize that many people might disagree with me, but the acting styles of both actors seemed strongly similar to me. And although Grant could have easily portrayed a character like Nick Holden, I cannot deny that he did a superb job as the harried, yet strong-willed Matt Sherman. Watching Grant convey Sherman’s confusion, resolve, and quick thinking over a series of personal and military crisis was a joy to behold. In a way, Grant marvelously managed to keep the story together, thanks to his performance.

The television series, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” did not last beyond its second season. The ABC network made too many changes to the show. Besides, the idea of five Army nurses aboard a Navy submarine for such a long period of time seemed a bit too ludicrous to accept. I did enjoy its first season. However, I enjoyed even more its predecessor, the 1959 film. During his first stint as a movie director, Blake Edwards took a gritty and realistic setting – namely the early weeks of World War II for the United States forces in the Pacific – a sly sense of humor, a crazy premise of nurses aboard a pink-coated submarine and a superb cast led by Cary Grant and Tony Curtis; and created a comedic piece of cinematic gold. I could watch this movie over and over again.

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“THE SACKETTS” (1979) Review

Below is my review of the 1979 miniseries called “THE SACKETTS”:

“THE SACKETTS” (1979) Review

Thirty years ago, CBS aired a two-part miniseries (or television movie) based upon two novels written by the late Louis L’Amour. Directed by Robert Totten, “THE SACKETTS” starred Sam Elliott, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage as the three Sackett brothers.

”THE SACKETTS” told the story of Tell (Elliott), Orrin (Selleck) and Tyrel (Osterhage) Sackett and their efforts to make new lives for themselves in the post-Civil War West. Screenwriter Jim Byrnes took two novels about the Sackett brothers – “The Daybreakers” (1960) and “Sackett” (1961) – and weaved them into one story. “The Daybreakers” mainly focused upon Tyrel and Orrin’s efforts to settle out West following the tragic circumstances of a family feud in East Tennessee. The two brothers eventually become involved in a between an elderly New Mexican rancher (Gilbert Roland) and a bigoted American businessman (John Vernon) in Santa Fe. At the same time, Tyrel struggles to keep the peace between a former New Orleans attorney named Tom Sunday (Glenn Ford), whom the two brothers had befriended during a cattle drive and Orrin. “Sackett”, on the other hand, focused upon the oldest Sackett brother and former Civil War veteran, Tell. Tell’s story centered around his search for gold in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and his problems with a family of outlaws who want revenge for Tell’s killing of their brother, a crooked gambler.

To Totten and Byrnes’ credit, they did an admirable job of fusing the two novels by adding two reunions between the brothers near the ends of Parts 1 and 2. They also allowed the supporting character of Cap Roundtree (Ben Johnson), a grizzled former mountain man whom Tyrel and Orrin also meet on the cattle drive; to break away from the two younger brothers and join Tell’s hunt for gold following the three brothers’ reunion at the end of Part 1. “THE SACKETTS” is also an entertaining and solid Western with two interesting tales that involve land feuds, romance, brotherly love, political change, vengeance and plenty of action.

One of the best aspects of the miniseries focused upon the developing hostility between the middle Sackett brother Orrin, and the brothers’ friend, Tom Sunday in Part 2. It was an interesting tale on how a solid friendship could easily sour over a difference of opinion regarding moral compass. After Cap had hooked up with Tell; Tyrel, Orrin and Sunday encountered the smoking remains of an emigrant family that had been killed by Ute warriors. Sunday wanted to split the money between the three of them. Orrin, upon discovering a letter written to the family by a relative, wanted to send the money back to said relative. Orrin got his way. And Tom’s resentment toward Orrin ignited. That same resentment exacerbated when he lost the election of Santa Fe’s new sheriff to the middle Sackett.

Politics also played a major role in the miniseries. The topic focused upon a feud between an aging New Mexican rancher Don Luis Alvarado (Gilbert Roland) and American businessman Jonathan Pritts (John Vernon). The feud was mainly the old Anglos vs. Mexican conflict that still dominates the Southwest to this day. The Sacketts became dragged into it, due to Orrin’s courtship of Pritts’ daughter (Marcy Hanson) and Tyrel’s romance with Don Luis’ granddaughter, Drusilla (Ana Alicia). In the end, the Sacketts and even Sunday sided with the New Mexicans. One has to applaud L’Amour for introducing this topic into the story, and for screenwriter Byrnes for maintaining it. But if I must be honest, I thought the execution of Don Luis’ feud with Pritts came off as heavy-handed and preachy.

One would think that Tell Sackett’s hunt for gold would dominate his storyline. Amazingly, it did not. Well, Tell did meet and fall in love with a woman named Ange Kerry (Wendy Rastattar), who had been stranded in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for several years. But his story mainly focused upon his problems with the brothers (Jack Elam, Slim Pickens and Gene Evans) of crooked gambler named Bigelow (James Gammon), whom he had killed early in Part 1. This reminded me of a line from the 1984 adventure-comedy, “ROMANCING THE STONE”“But if there was one law of the West, bastards had brothers . . . who seemed to ride forever.” And both Tell and Cap eventually discovered that the Bigelows had brothers and allies everywhere. One ally turned out to be an insecure gunfighter named Kid Newton (Paul Kelso), who had an unfortunate and humiliating encounter with Tell and Cap at a local saloon. Tell’s problems with the Bigelows culminated in a tense situation in the Sangre de Cristo foothills and a violent showdown in a nearby town.

Most of the performances featured in “THE SACKETTS” struck me as pretty solid. To the cast’s credit, they managed to use mid-to-late 19th century dialogue without being sloppy or indulging in what I considered the cliché ‘Frontier’ speech pattern that seemed popular in the Westerns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, I found at least four performances that really impressed me. One of them belonged to Sam Elliott, who portrayed the oldest brother, Tell. I might as well be frank. He has always been a favorite actor of mine for a long time. With his grizzled, deep voice and demeanor, the man looked as if he had stepped out of a 19th century daguerreotype. He also did an effective job of conveying Tell Sackett’s loner personality, making it easy for viewers to accept the idea that this is a man who would wait years before contacting any members of his family.

Another performance that impressed me belonged to Jeff Osterhage as the tense, yet pragmatic youngest Sackett, Tyrel. To this day, I am amazed that Osterhage never became a big star in television or movies. He seemed to have possessed both the looks and screen presence to become one. And I was certainly impressed by his ability to portray Tyrel’s pragmatic, yet intimidating nature. Traits that led him to be the best shot in the family.

I also enjoyed Wendy Rastattar’s performance as Ange Kerry, the young woman that Tell and Cap had discovered in the mountains. Rastattar did a first-rate job in portraying a tough, yet passionate young woman, who ended up falling in love with Tell. But the best performance came from Hollywood icon, Glenn Ford as the enigmatic friend of the Sacketts, Tom Sunday. In Ford’s hands, Sunday became one of a gallery of complex characters he had portrayed during his career. For me, it was sad to watch Sunday regress from Orrin and Tyrel’s wise mentor to Orrin’s drunken and embittered foe. And Ford did an excellent job in exploring Sunday’s many nuances, including those flaws that led to his downfall.

One might noticed that I had failed to include Tom Selleck’s performance as one of the more impressive ones, considering that both Elliott and Osterhage made the list. I found nothing wrong with Selleck’s performance. Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to portray Orrin, the least interesting member of the Sackett family. Orrin was an affable, yet solid character that lacked any nuances, which could have made him as interesting as his brothers. A great deal happened to Orrin in this story. He lost his bride in a family feud, fell briefly in love with the villains’ daughter and pissed off Tom Sunday. Yet, he was not very interesting character. Which left the talented Selleck with very little to work with.

The movie’s production values struck me as very impressive. Production designer Johannes Larson, costume designers Carole Brown-James and Barton Kent James, and cinematographer Jack Whitman did an excellent job in capturing the ambiance of the Old West circa 1869-1870. Along with the director Totten, they managed to create a West during a period before it truly threatened to become settled. They managed to capture the ruggedness and beauty of the West without overcompensating themselves, like many other Westerns released after the 1960s tend to do.

Many years have passed since I have read “The Daybreakers” and “Sackett”. Which is my way of saying that I cannot tell whether the miniseries was a completely faithful adaptation of the two novels. If I must be honest, I really do not care whether it is faithful or not. The television version of the two novels – namely “THE SACKETTS” – is a first-rate and entertaining saga. I am certain that many fans of Louis L’Amour will continue to enjoy it.