Jeff Chandler was originally offered the role that went to Cary Grant. Grant himself was at first reluctant to take it, knowing he was much too old to play a wartime captain.
The nurses wonder why the toilet is called "the head." It's because on earlier sailing ships, the toilet for enlisted sailors was a series of holes, like an outhouse, that was perched out over the bow--the "head of the ship." This location was for practical reasons, as the wind was always blowing from the aft; therefore, any "offensive odors" were blown away from ship. Officers' toilets were near the stern, or back, of the ship within the "quarter gallery", the part of the stern that hung over the water on either side.
The "sinking" of a truck was inspired by areal incident that happened in 1944. On August 9, USS Bowfin (SS-287) followed four Japanese ships into Minami Daito Harbor. She fired her six bow torpedoes at the moored ships, hitting three and sinking two of them, but one torpedo went astray and hit a pier. A bus parked on it was blown up and thrown into the water by the explosion.
Some of the plot points of the movie were based on real-life incidents. Most notable were scenes set at the opening of WW II, based on the actual sinking of the submarine USS Sealion (SS-195), sunk at the pier at Cavite Navy Yard, the Philippines; Cmdr. Sherman's letter to the supply department on the inexplicable lack of toilet paper, based on an actual letter to the supply department of Mare Island Naval Shipyard by Lt. Cmdr. James Wiggin Coe of the submarine Skipjack (SS-184); and the need to paint a submarine pink, due to the lack of enough red lead or white lead undercoat paint.
A submarine based at Cavite, the USS Seadragon, did go on patrol with a red paint job. Her original black paint was damaged by fire in the air raid, and ended up peeling off while she was on patrol. She ended up sinking three Japanese ships during the time her paint was peeling, leading Tokyo Rose to make broadcasts about "Red pirate submarines."
According to the memoir "Mislaid in Hollywood' by Joe Hyams, referred to in the biography "Cary Grant--A Class Apart" by Graham McCann, " . . . Grant found his burgeoning enthusiasm for his therapeutic use of LSD increasingly hard to contain, and, eventually, while he was shooting the movie 'Operation Petticoat', he could hold back no longer. Two reporters - Joe Hyams (I) and Lionel Crane-both prepared for the usual amusing but scrupulously bland Grant interview, were stunned to find him unusually relaxed, open and keen to share with them the extraordinary experiences he had undergone . . . He talked about his desperate desire to change his character so that he could be reunited with Betsy Drake."
The USS Balao SS-285 was painted pink and used for exterior shots in and around Key West, FL. The USS Archerfish SS-311 (originally USS Archer-Fish, renamed at its 1952 recommission) wore the standard colors of gray and black, and was used for interior and exterior shots in and around Key West. The USS Queenfish SS-393 was used in opening and closing scenes, and was used for the "at-sea" shots filmed in and around San Diego, CA.
Nurse Barbara (Dina Merrill), the love interest for Tony Curtis' character, was played in the 1977 remake by Curtis' daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis.
Tina Louise was offered but turned down the role of Nurse Crandall that then went to Joan O'Brien because Louise didn't like the abundant boob jokes directed at the character.
Of the three boats to portray the "Sea Tiger", one--the USS Archer-Fish, SS-311--was present at the Japanese surrender which ended WWII in the Pacific Theater. The USS Wren, DD-568, which was shown as the destroyer attacking Sea Tiger, was also present.
In the film the submarine is on a constant quest to reach a submarine repair ship to restore her operational status again. In real life Tony Curtis served on the submarine repair ship USS Proteus during WW2. It was alleged his enlistment in the Pacific Submarine Force was inspired by the film Destination Tokyo (1943), starring Cary Grant.
This is the second time Cary Grant played a submarine commander. The first was Destination Tokyo (1943).
Three members of the cast would later reunite with Gavin MacLeod on his show, The Love Boat (1977). Dick Sargent and Dina Merrill each appeared once while Marion Ross guest-starred as five different characters then became a regular cast member as a sixth. Three members of the regular cast of Operation Petticoat (1977), the ABC series based on this movie, also guest-starred on "The Love Boat (1977)". John Astin and Richard Gilliland had been cut after the first season and Melinda Naud appeared after the show's Season 2 cancellation.
Included among the American Film Institute's 2000 list of the 500 movies nominated for the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.
The comment, "Mason, I think we've been victims of Sherman's March to the Sea", is a reference linking Lt. Cmdr. Sherman's actions to the Savannah Campaign waged by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War. General Sherman was notorious for stealing or destroying everything of value.
The truck "sinking scene" was also used in episode 13 of "McHale's Navy: The Captain's Mission (1963)". Capt. Binghamton takes command of PT73 so he can have his own war story to share at the Officers Club. Gavin MacLeod played a member of the crew of both the Sea Tiger and PT-73.
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