Operation Petticoat (1959), Tony Curtis, Cary Grant, & LSD!

July 17, 2020     Updated April 15, 2022

operation petticoat

Tony Curtis Fulfills a Childhood Dream, Inspires Matt Bomber, & Fights a Pig While Cary Grant Trips on LSD! It's Operation Petticoat (1959).

Listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood , available everywhere you listen to podcasts! Episode 18 is all about Operation Petticoat.

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1959’s Operation Petticoat paired Tony Curtis 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.  Tony would always view working alongside Cary Grant as one of his greatest achievements.

Cary Grant and LSD

Operation Petticoat proved 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 also alerted 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.  Fans were shocked to discover such a mainstream figure lauding the virtues of a counterculture drug.

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Let’s go through the plot of Operation Petticoat [aff. link], then delve into all the fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff. 

Like Cary Grant tripping on acid.

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Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) re-visits his old submarine, the USS Sea Tiger.

Operation Petticoat: The Plot

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.

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Lieutenant Nick Holden (Tony Curtis) is assigned to Sherman's submarine, even though he has no sub experience...

Some White Collar Inspiration

Lieutenant Nick 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 if you’re a fan of the television show, White Collar (2009-2014).  Reportedly, the creators of White Collar gave Matt Bomer’s character in the show, Neal Caffrey, the alias “Nick Halden” as a nod to the great physical resemblance they saw between Tony Curtis and Bomer. 

(Other than the blue eyes and great hair, I don’t really 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 characters.)

operation petticoat
NIck Holden arrives in a made-to-order suit from Saks Fifth Avenue.

An "Idea Man"

Nick is more of a self-proclaimed “idea man” than anything else.  His Navy service thus far includes coordinating a Navy Day Parade, working as 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.

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Nick and Ernie Hunkle (Gavin MacLeod) steal the necessary provisions for the Sea Tiger's repair.

Additions to the Crew

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, Sherman and his crew rescue five army nurses stranded on an island the Japanese have bombed.

Of course, 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 (Dina Merrill).

A Little Romance, A Little Primer

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…

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The USS Sea Tiger, painted pink.

…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.

Matt unwillingly begins to fall for Dolores Crandall (Joan O'Brien).

Operation Petticoat

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 brassiere, proclaim that “the Japanese have nothing like this,” and recognize the Sea Tiger as an American sub.

"The Japanese have nothing like this..."

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 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.

And that’s the end of the film.

Young Bernie Schwartz during his Navy career.

Tony Curtis Joins the Navy

At 16 years old, Bernie Schwartz joined the Navy.  For the young man who would grow up to be Tony Curtis, the Navy was an escape from his often abusive home life, and offered a positive, confidence building experience:

“[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.”

Inspiration from Cary Grant

When the time came for Bernie to choose what to focus on during his Navy career, he made a unique choice, and opted to attend submarine school.  Bernie felt further validated in his decision when the Navy played Destination Tokyo (1943), a submarine war film, on base.  The film starred Bernie’s childhood idol, Cary Grant.  Tony Curtis later recounted what an impact this particular film, and Cary Grant in general, had on his life:

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“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.”  

Signalman Third Class Bernie Schwartz couldn’t have envisioned that just about fifteen years later, he’d not only meet Cary Grant, but star alongside him in a major Hollywood film.

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Tony Curtis Gets Operation Petticoat

1959 was a good year for Tony Curtis.  Some Like It Hot (1959)—in which Tony played a character whose voice he modeled off of Cary Grant’s—was released that spring, and proved 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 Robert Taylor or Jeff Chandler as co-star.  Robert Taylor wanted the part so badly, he offered Tony five of the the ten percent gross Taylor himself was promised if he starred in the film.  But Tony would have none of it.  It was Cary Grant or bust:

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“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.”

Operation Petticoat: A Good Deal for Cary Grant

Operation Petticoat was a fantastic deal for Cary 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.)

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Tony Curtis with childhood idol Cary Grant behind the scenes of Operation Petticoat (1959).

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.

operation petticoat

Operation Petticoat: A Comedy Moment Missed

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. 

But Blake Edwards had a decidedly less jovial relationship with Cary Grant during filming.  The young director had never worked with a superstar of Grant’s caliber, and had trouble convincing him to do a few things in the film that Cary perceived as dissonant to the “Cary Grant” screen image.

The scene in the film where Nick Holden and another buddy steal a pig from the home of a Cebu local was initially written for Cary.  But Cary Grant didn’t feel that Cary Grant would ever chase a pig around.  And he refused to film the scene.

But to Blake Edwards, it was precisely because pig stealing was so out of line with the elegant Cary Grant persona that he wanted Cary to do the scene:

Cary Grant refused to do the pig scene, so Tony did it instead.

“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.”

Cary, Janet, and Tony almost took photos with Fidel Castro as a publicity stunt for Operation Petticoat (1959).

Tony, Cary, Janet, and Fidel Castro

An interesting side note to the production, in her autobiography, Janet Leigh, 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 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.”

operation petticoat

Cary Grant's LSD Trip

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.

And just before Operation Petticoat began filming in 1958, Cary Grant used LSD for the first time.

Over the next ten years, before the drug became illegal in 1968, Grant estimated that he used LSD 100 times.

operation petticoat

Cary Grant Tries LSD

Cary Grant was an introspective man.  His complicated childhood left him looking for answers throughout adulthood.  Wife Betsy Drake suggested Cary use LSD to sort through his inner turmoil: Drake believed her own acid trips had helped her come to terms with the trauma and shock she experienced after surviving the shipwreck of the SS Andrea Doria in 1956.

So, on his wife’s recommendation, Cary 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.  He credited the drug with clarifying his relationships with the women in his life, and for showing him that he was finally ready to have children.

Cary decided to share his miraculous LSD experiences with the world.  He shocked reporter Joe Hyams when, in what Hyams expected to be a routine interview, Grant instead began lauding the virtues of LSD.

SURPRISE!

Columnist Joe Hyams got the scoop on Cary Grant's LSD trips, straight from Grant himself.

The Scoop of A Lifetime

Hyams was a classy reporter, so he double checked with Cary to make sure this LSD stuff wasn’t meant to be off the record.  Grant assured him it was all good, and encouraged Hyams to print every word.  A confused, but very excited Joe Hyams left the interview with tapes of their conversation, and set out to write the scoop of a lifetime.

But before Hyams published his story, Universal found out about Cary’s extremely honest interview.

And they didn’t like it. 

Cary Grant and Joan O'Brien behind the scenes of Operation Petticoat (1959).

Grant vs. Hyams

So Cary called Hyams up, and asked that he not print the story after all.  But Hyams’ paper, The New York Herald Tribune, had already gone all out advertising the interview.  Hyams told Cary he couldn’t pull the story. 

So 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 still printed, in three installments, beginning April 20, 1959.  In his autobiography, Hyams says Cary probably changed his mind about publishing the interview for financial reasons: apparently, Grant had sold exclusive rights to his thoughts on LSD to Look magazine, and realized that his interview with Hyams breached that contract. 

So when the Hyams interview was published, Grant, true to his word, lied, and said he hadn’t even met with Joe Hyams in over two years.  

Not Joe Hyams article, but several pieces were written about Cary Grant's LSD use after the publication of Hyams' article in 1959.

Then Cary sued Joe Hyams.

Then Hyams produced a picture of himself interviewing Cary, and sued him right back.

Joe 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 that Hyams could sell the autobiography to the publication of his choosing and keep all the profits.

operation petticoat

A Class Act

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 Joe 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 Cary Grant's LSD Trips

For the decade of 1958-1968, Cary Grant continued 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 give them similar clarifying effects.

But ultimately, Cary decided that LSD did more harm than good, and he stopped using:

“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.”

Operation Petticoat & LSD

The public didn’t seem to mind if Cary Grant was tripping on acid or not, 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.

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That's it for Operation Petticoat!

And that’s it for Operation Petticoat (1959).

Join me next week for all about Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and The Great Race (1965).

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Janet Cooper

    Matt Bomer’s character Neal Caffrey’s alias in “White Collar” is Nick HALDEN, not Holden!! But it still might be a reference to the Tony Curtis character…BTW, have you seen the photos of Matt wearing tight white slacks and a sleeveless white tank top (he wears a white tank in several episodes)?? A reference to Tony Curtis in the film “Trapeze,” perhaps??

    1. Shannon

      Ohh my goodness you are so right Janet! Typo corrected, thanks for catching that! 😃👍. I totally know the outfit you are talking about, but never made the connection with “Trapeze,” that’s an awesome observation! It’s SO Tony-esque, I wonder if it is a reference to “Trapeze”? Thanks so much for reading Janet, hope you have a lovely day!

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