Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Iron Petticoat (Hope Enterprises/Romulus/Remus, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Iron Petticoat, a pretty dreary title (especially since we never see a petticoat in the film, iron or otherwise) with one of those convoluted release histories that became relatively common in the 1950’s when stars started to produce their own films and the distributors had to cut deals not only with the producing studios but the stars’ own companies as well. The stars of this one are Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn, and it was a co-production between Hope Enterprises and Romulus, the British studio (actually there appeared to be two intertwined production companies involved and the other one, almost inevitably, was called Remus). Why Hepburn would want to work for Romulus again was pretty obvious — her last film for them, The African Queen, had had Humphrey Bogart as co-star (his first film in color) and John Huston as director and had been an international blockbuster hit — but why she wanted to work with Bob Hope is a mystery: they were polar opposites politically (which might not have been relevant except that this is a particularly politically charged story) and they have virtually no charisma or mutual appeal on screen. What’s more, instead of making the Hope-Hepburn vehicle the sort of character comedy she’d proven she could do well in her films with Cary Grant and the comedies with Spencer Tracy (oddly, I find the Hepburn-Tracy comedies immensely entertaining and their serious films together almost totally unwatchable), producer Harry Saltzman went for political satire and ripped off his “original” story from the 1939 classic Ninotchka: Russian Air Force Captain Vinka Kovolenko (Katharine Hepburn) flies her plane out of East Germany and lands it at the U.S. air base in Grünewald (“green wood”). When she’s debriefed, she insists that she still believes in Communism but she hit what would today be called the “glass ceiling” in the Soviet air corps when a male pilot who served under her, who was an alcoholic and a lousy flyer, got promoted to major over her.

U.S. Air Force Major Charles “Chuck” Lockwood (Bob Hope) is assigned to be in charge of her case, which poses complications for him because he was scheduled for leave in London to visit his upper-class fiancée Lady Connie Warburton-Watts (Noelle Middleton) and her family, and finally tie the knot with her. Predictably, Chuck and Vinka (who, like a lot of movie Russian women, uses the masculine form of the last name) fall for each other and eventually relocate to the U.S. (to Indianapolis, Indiana, which in its entire career as a movie location has been the setting for exactly one great film, The Magnificent Ambersons), but in the meantime there’s a lot of by-play involving the Americans, the Russians (including a group of NKVD agents who want to kidnap Vinka and bring her back to Russia to execute her for treason — by this time the Russian secret police’s name had already been changed from the NKVD to the KGB but the writers hadn’t caught up with the changes) and the Brits, which ends with Chuck hijacking the plane that’s supposed to fly Vinka to Moscow for her execution, Vinka hijacking it back, and the two finding out when they arrive that the line has been changed and the new Russian party line is to celebrate their marriage as an example of peaceful coexistence between East and West. The Iron Petticoat is one of those frustrating films that really doesn’t come off, but it’s hard to say why it doesn’t come off. It certainly didn’t help that the basic situation — hard-core Soviet Communist gets seduced (figuratively and literally) by an American to renounce her politics and embrace capitalism — had been done so much better in Ninotchka (with Melvyn Douglas instead of Bob Hope, Ernst Lubitsch as director instead of Ralph Thomas, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as writers instead of Ben Hecht — who complained that his script based on Saltzman’s “original” story was gagged up by Hope’s radio writers, none of whom receive film credit, but that wouldn’t have been so bad if Hope’s radio writers had at least given him lines as good as the ones they gave him on radio, which for the most part they didn’t — and most important, Greta Garbo, using her real Swedish accent to suggest “Russianness” whereas Hepburn used a phony “Russian” voice that treaded on the thin edge of risibility) — but it’s hard to say why this film doesn’t really work.

The comedy attempts to be funny but most of it is chuckle-inducing at best, and Hope’s character doesn’t really fit what he could do best — at the beginning of the movie he’s one of the two U.S. pilots forcing Hepburn’s plane down and he’s shown as a perfectly competent flyer, but at the end when he’s trying to fly the Soviet airliner he’s comically incompetent. Neither does Hepburn’s: a ferociously feminist Russian woman would seem at first glance to be right up her alley, but her accent is wrong, her costumes are wrong (she goes from a unisex flight suit to full evening gowns with only hints of what engendered the transformation — in these films it was de rigueur for the heroine’s ideological change to be triggered by some frilly article of clothing in a department-store window, and it’s done so here), her attitude is wrong and she’s unusually unconvincing in a part that on the surface should have been close enough to the real Hepburn to suit her. The Iron Petticoat was released under an unusual arrangement that gave Romulus control over the film in the eastern hemisphere and allowed Hope’s company to sell it in the West — which he did, to MGM (the company that had made the original Ninotchka in 1939 and would do an “official” musical remake, Silk Stockings, in 1957, the year after The Iron Petticoat). Only Hope only leased it to MGM for 10 years, and when the lease expired Hope pulled the film from U.S. distribution and never allowed it to be shown, either theatrically or on television, in the U.S. for the rest of his lifetime. Now that he’s dead and therefore can’t stop it, his heirs are allowing it to be shown and released as a DVD and Blu-Ray disc on TCM’s own label. One wonders if Hope sat on this film so long because he realized it was a mediocre movie that did neither his nor Hepburn’s reputations any good! One quirky aspect was the appearance of Eugene Deckers, an interesting Belgian character actor who was in a lot of the Sherlock Holmes series episodes made in France in 1954-55 (with Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard’s son, as Holmes), as a bartender in a Russian-themed café in London around which much of the second half of the film takes place.