Epic Fail: Operation IRON PETTICOAT (1956)


IP v“I believe, I hope, audiences have forgotten I ever made that film. I try not to say bad things about pictures I chose to make and took money for making them, but this one doesn’t count.” (Katharine Hepburn, Chandler 216)

When THE IRON PETTICOAT was released in the middle of America’s McCarthy Era of the 1950s, it failed as a political statement, as a comedy, and as a romance. It failed financially. Scholars have more or less dismissed it as an epic fail in every regard, labelling it one of Hepburn’s major flops. However, the film contains an intriguing feminist angle that is not ridiculed and tamed, though the structure of the story is presumed to be headed in that general direction.

If you haven’t seen this rare gem on Turner Classic Movies, you may not have seen it at all (someone has posted it here on YouTube, but goodness knows how long it will be up). Since it was unable to earn anything at the box office it quickly disappeared, only recently resurfacing on DVD. The basic premise is this: female communist Captain Vinka Kovelenko has defected from the Soviet Union, not because she harbours any capitalist sympathies, but because she is fed up with the sexist attitudes of the Soviet air force. Major John Lockwood (Bob Hope) is hauled in to spend time with Vinka in Paris in order to “convert” Captain Kovolenko to capitalism.

Vinka: “I have lost my temper.” Colonel: “At the Comunists?” Vinka: “No! At the male sex!”

IP ivIt would appear that the story arch is feministically debilitating, that Hepburn’s character’s feminist inclinations are ridiculed and tamed. Hepburn/Vinka’s overt feminist tendencies are posed as equivalent to her communist beliefs, and both must be corrected and reversed.

“Russians and feminists must be punished, first of all for not wanting what they ought to want, and then, since they really want it after all, punished further by being unable to have it.” (Britton 219)

“Just as feminists are really love-starved old maids, so Russian commissars are really desperate for the joys of capitalism.” (Britton 218)

The question is whether or not the film succeeds in converting the feminist communist into a feminine capitalist. One of the epic fails of the film is that it is unable to complete the task it presents itself. While this turns the film into a success for feminist Hepburners like me, it makes the film as a whole a bit superfluous because its conclusion does not match its thesis. If the film is going to argue that feminist communists should become feminine capitalists, the film’s conclusion should not be that masculine capitalists should fall in love with feminist communists.

Major Lockwood: “I’m a Red, 100%, and she did it!”

Petticoat brainspetticoat soldier kiss

One of the biggest problems with THE IRON PETTICOAT was the incongruous pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope. The two were not exactly simpatico, so whoever thought their screen romance would come across must have been smoking something.

“My character was supposed to change because of love, my falling in love with Bob Hope. I wasn’t that good an actress, and he was supposed to be a man women fell in love with, and of all these women, he chooses me. Oh, come on now. No one could have been that good an actor.” (Chandler 216)

IP

Hepburn and Hope kidding around on set… or are they?

Hepburn and Hope tried to make the most of the situation, and while neither ever really warmed to the other, they tried to get along as professionals. Though Hope accused Hepburn of having “zilch sense of humor” (Chandler 216) and Hepburn called Hope “the biggest egomaniac with whom I have worked in my entire life” (Berg 232), they both got through the picture without killing each other. In after years, Hope even remembered Hepburn fondly as “the Jewish mother on the set, fussing over everyone who happened to sneeze” (Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy 256).

In his Bob Hope biography (Bob Hope: The Road Well-Travelled), Lawrence Quirk is one of the few to give the Hepburn/Hope pairing the benefit of the doubt. He allows that the two did not get along, but that they were both committed to the project and maintained a polite, if wary, working relationship during filming.

Writer Ben Hecht, on the other hand, was so furious with what his film had become that he attempted having his name removed from the project. He wrote this open letter in The Hollywood Reporter:

 “My dear partner Bob Hope,

This is to notify you that I have removed my name as author from our mutilated venture The Iron Petticoat. Unfortunately, your other partner, Katharine Hepburn, can’t shy out of the fractured picture with me. Although her magnificent comic performance has been blow-torched out of the film, there is enough left of the Hepburn footage to identify her for the sharpshooters. I am assured by my hopeful predators The Iron Petticoat will go over big with people “who can’t get enough of Bob Hope.” Let us hope this swooning contingent is not confined to yourself and your euphoric agent, Louis Shurr.”

IP iiDespite its shortcomings, I can’t help but enjoy THE IRON PETTICOAT. Hepburn’s Captain Vinka Kovolenko is a pretty kick-butt woman. She presents a pretty viable view of womanhood, its possibilities rather than its limitations. She also has some pretty funny scenes. In one scene (0:54:45) she is dancing with a man who is trying to kidnap her by forcing her into a closet (unbeknownst to her). When she sees Major Lockwood go by, she tells her partner to stop dancing. When he doesn’t, she tosses him into the closet and shouts, “Next time stop when I say stop!” I laughed my head off at that part!

So maybe it’s not the best movie Hepburn ever made. I still laughed my head off. Sometimes I laughed because it was so awful, but sometimes I laughed because it was really funny. Maybe you will too. If you’ve seen THE IRON PETTICOAT, I’d love to hear your thoughts below, so do leave a comment!


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