The movie begins with Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Grant) making a sentimental visit to his first command, which is due to be scrapped. He goes down to the empty Captain's cabin, opens the old log book and begins to read. Cue flashback to December 10th, 1941. Sea Tiger, part of the Asiatic Fleet stationed at Cavite, is sunk at the dock by Japanese bombers. With the Japanese rapidly advancing across the island and the only alternative being to scuttle what's left of the boat and join the holdouts at Bataan, Lt. Commander Matt Sherman and his crew work frantically to jury-rig sufficient repairs to make the run from the Philippines to Darwin, Australia where the Asiatic Fleet is regrouping with Allied forces. LTJG Nick Holden (Curtis) is a reassigned Admiral's Aide with no sea experience (well, he was on a destroyer for a couple of days before they got it worked out) who proves unexpectedly useful as the new 'Supply Officer' getting Sherman the parts he needs by humorously unscrupulous means.
Repairs are finally complete and they are ready to get underway, but the No. 1 diesel engine keeps backfiring and sending out black smoke. As the Engineering Division try to fix it, a local witch doctor comes up and starts doing some kind of ritual dance to ward off evil spirits. An annoyed Sherman tries to get him to leave when suddenly the engine starts and they are finally able to shove off. As the sub heads out to sea, the engine backfires and the witch doctor stops dancing and shakes his head, remarking, "They'll never make it."
The battered Sea Tiger sails under strict orders to avoid engaging any enemy craft - including lifeboats. Forced to drop anchor at Marinduque for still more repairs Mr. Holden goes ashore and discovers five stranded Army Nurses. A submarine isn't intended to be co-educational but obviously, the women cannot be left where they are. Cue sexual tension between the predatory—and engaged—Lt. Holden and Lt. Barbara Duran (Dina Merrill); Captain Sherman and the buxom—and clumsy—Lt. Delores Crandall (Joan O'Brien); and the misogynistic Chief Machinist's Mate Sam Tostin (Arthur O'Connell) and the mechanically-inclined Major Edna Heywood (Virginia Gregg), the nurses' Commanding Officer.
Sherman intends to unload the nurses at Cebu but the Army officer in Command refuses to take responsibility for them as he is expecting to be overrun and engage in guerilla operations, possibly for years. Nor can he help Sherman obtain the parts he needs as everything has been taken up into the hills. Lt. Holden comes up with a solution; he establishes a 'casino' up in the hills which accepts machine parts in exchange for chips, leading Sherman to write that Mr. Holden is the only man he knows who will be probably be awarded the Navy Cross at his court-martial.
As the submarine was sunk for several weeks and refloated, she desperately needs a new coat of paint to stave off rust. So one of the more important items Holden obtains is lead primer paint for the submarine's undercoat. Unfortunately, they come up slightly short of the total amount needed and have to mix red and white lead, slightly watered down, resulting in a bright pink submarine. The nurses find this amusing, while the submariners pray to God that nobody sees them on it. They have regulation haze-gray paint to go over it but predictably are forced to make a quick departure under fire before this can be done. They also have a dozen or so more passengers, the wives and children of the dealers at Mr. Holden's casino and a goat to provide milk for the children. Even better two of the women are in the last stages of pregnancy.
Sherman naturally assumes that things can't possibly get worse - then they do. Tokyo Rose mocks the bright pink submarine cruising the Celebes Sea and U.S. Naval Intelligence assumes it's deliberate disinformation leading to orders to fire on the Sea Tiger when she attempts to make contact with a destroyer group. Sherman is forced to resort to most unconventional means to prove that he is 'friend' not 'foe'.
The flashback ends with a color photo of the pink Sea Tiger steaming into Darwin Harbor. Smiling Admiral Sherman closes the log book and goes on deck to encounter Commander Nick Holden, now captain of the Sea Tiger who has just said good-bye to his wife, the former Lt. Duran, and their two sons. A few moments later the Admiral's wife, the former Lt. Crandall, arrives with their four lovely daughters rear-ending his staff car and sending it into a bus which then pulls out dragging the Admiral's car behind it by the locked fenders.
He assures her it won't go far, then turn to watch as Sea Tiger shoves off for the last time, punctuated by an explosion from the No. 1 engine. Sherman shakes his head, remarking, "I guess we never did get that fixed."
Tropes featured :
- The Alleged Submarine: USS Sea Tiger is brand-new (commissioned in 1940, according to Sherman), but is badly damaged (sunk, if you want to be specific) by the air raid on Cavite. For the rest of the movie, she is literally held together with duct tape, using scavenged drain pipes, car parts, and women's underwear to jury-rig temporary repairs until such time as they can get her back to a shipyard.
- Armed Farces: Albeit a somewhat unusual take on this trope. Sherman and most of his crew (minus Holden and Ramone) are competent professionals who are thrust into a very unusual situation and keep getting increasingly-absurd complications piled on.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: Used by Holden during one of his "supply runs". While two others from the Sea Tiger are finding the parts they need in a military warehouse, Holden is outside. As Holden (who is wearing black clothes and dark face paint) is keeping watch, a Marine from the local garrison approaches him and asks what he's doing there. Immediately, Holden berates him for breaking blackout regulations by not having proper camouflage and goes on to explain that new orders from Admiral Nimitz require all personnel to wear black face paint at nighttime or else enemy planes will use the reflection of moonlight on their white faces to aim bombs at the base. He even offers his own face paint to the Marine, who returns to his jeep and shares it with his buddy.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Most notably between Tostin and Heywood.
- Blatant Lies: When Sherman is trying to convince Captain Henderson that the Sea Tiger is ready to ship out, none of his crew put up a good show of lying to the captain. Henderson is hardly impressed.Henderson: "I'd say take your scavengers and these liars here and get out."
- Brick Joke:
- As they are trying to get under way, one of the diesel engines keeps backfiring, making sounds like explosions accompanied by thick, black smoke. The problem does not occur again while they are at sea (or at least, the smoke doesn't. The engine can be frequently heard gurgling throughout the movie while running on the surface). At the end, as Sea Tiger is getting under way, there is a sudden sound like an explosion and black smoke, causing Sherman to remark that they never did get that engine fixed.
- A subtle one shows up early in the movie. While having his own damage report recited to him by Captain Henderson, Sherman plays with the captain's fancy lighter. After the ship is repaired and sets out from Cavite, Sherman discovers Holden lounging about in his quarters and exchanges words with him. As Sherman moves to light Holden's cigarette, he visibly pauses as he realizes that the lighter he picked up is the same one he was playing with in Henderson's office. Much later, while giving some of Holden's possessions away to the farmer in compensation for the pig, Sherman throws the stolen lighter into the lot.
- Buxom Is Better: Nurse Crandall is notably well-endowed, and it becomes something of a Running Gag when crewmen passing through the sub's narrow compartments "have to" (and probably intentionally) squeeze past her. It gets to the point that Sherman orders that Crandall is to be given right of way. Later, when they're forced to send out the women's undergarments as "wreckage" to convince the destroyer depth-charging them that they're an American sub, Crandall's is of course the one the crew haul aboard first.
- The Captain: The bemused and put upon Matt Sherman.
- Captain's Log: With lots of entries that... well, make sense in the context."Sighted tanker; sank truck."
- The Casanova: Lt. Holden.
- Cute Clumsy Girl: Lt. Crandall.
- Deal with the Devil: Sherman describes it this way when he orders Holden to get the parts he needs to get Sea Tiger moving before the Japanese overrun the port.
- The Determinator: Sherman will stop at nothing to get Sea Tiger back out to sea, including allowing Holden to clean out the office of Captain Henderson, the commander of Sea Tiger's submarine squadron.
- Double Meaning: When Sherman is trying to convince Captain Henderson that his sub is seaworthy so they can leave harbor.Sherman: Molumphry, will this boat go down?
Molumphry: Like a rock, sir!
- Dull Surprise: Lt. Reid is so unable to process the pig stashed in the head she just walks away with a completely blank expression on her face.Lt. Cmdr. Sherman (friendly): Yeah, they're drafting anyone these days.
- The Eeyore: Seaman Broom; 'You can't win, my friend...'
- Embarrassing Tattoo: Poor Seaman Hunkle once got blackout drunk, and now he's got a naked woman tattooed on his chest and feels he can never go home and marry his fiancee. His crew mates actually salute his tattoo whenever he reveals it, and Lt. Reid is so shocked by the sight she reflexively slaps him, much to her own embarrassment.
- Epic Fail: The Sea Tiger sights a Japanese tanker in a harbor and is trying to lay in a torpedo strike against the easiest target imaginable. One of the nurses (Lt. Crandall, of course) missteps, accidentally hitting the launch button before the torpedo's guidance system can be programmed with its firing solution, and the torpedo not only misses the tanker but somehow manages to cruise straight up the beach to blow up a truck, in 1942 dollars that Japanese truck cost less than $1,000 new, while Mark 14 torpedoes cost over $20,000 each.
- Eureka Moment: Seaman Hunkle's comment about covering up his obscene tattoo by tattooing a bra and panties over the naked lady is what gives Holden the idea to fire the nurse's lingerie out the torpedo tubes as "debris" to prove that they are not a Japanese submarine.
- Exact Words: See above under Double Meaning.
- Friend or Foe: They are mistaken for a Japanese sub by an American destroyer, which attempts to depth charge them. They end up proving that they are not Japanese by launching the nurses' undergarments from the torpedo tubes.
- Genre Shift: It initially looks like a fairly straightforward, serious war movie, with the air raid on Cavite Naval Station being fairly violent (though no casualties are seen), and the crew's frantic makeshift repairs being a race against the clock before the Japanese arrive. Then Holden shows up in his dress whites and Hilarity Ensues.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Hollywood censorship of 1959 forbade the depiction or discussion of any kind of toilet, which the movie circumvented by using naval jargon (the "head") and not showing the actual toilet itself, despite a couple of rather obvious discussions.
- "Good Luck" Gesture: After diving again for the first time since repairs at the start of the movie, the XO has his fingers crossed behind his back the whole time. Once they are at dive depth the Captain reaches out and grabs his hand and forcibly uncrosses his fingers.
- Hello, Nurse!: Lt. Crandall, very much so.
- Indy Ploy: Holden's specialty. When Captain Sherman asks what he did on the admiral's staff, he describes his job as "Idea Man."
- Irony: After the Sea Tiger is forced to flee Cebu, the crew hears Tokyo Rose's broadcast. Sherman comments that, while their being painted pink is no longer secret, the U.S. Navy now knows about it and will probably be out looking for them. That's precisely what a group of Navy officers decide to do in the following scene, but not with the intention of aiding the Sea Tiger like Sherman's tone suggests; they instead resolve to sink it. This nearly gets them killed when they try to contact a friendly destroyer.
- About midway through the movie, Sherman is forced to lift Lieutenant Holden's restriction to send him back out to scrounge. He gives a speech in which he refuses to explain the burdens of command to Holden because he doubts that Holden will ever take on that kind of responsibility. Jumping back to present day, it is revealed that the Sea Tiger's final commanding officer is none other than Commander Nick Holden.
- It Makes Sense in Context: Petticoat is pretty much It Makes Sense in Context: The Movie. The situations Sea Tiger and her crew end up in are so insane they defy easy description, from Sea Tiger managing to sink a truck, to the pig hidden in the head.
- The Klutz: Lieutenant Crandall may be a capable nurse but should be kept far away from anything not directly involving injured people at all times. Doesn't stop Sherman from marrying her after the film's events, though.
- Ladykiller in Love: Lt. Holden becomes this after meeting Lt. Duran, genuinely falling in love with her. Unfortunately, he's engaged to a woman that he seduced just for her financial standing. It is implied that his fiancee is not the first rich woman he has bedded just to get his hands on her financials.
- Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: Sherman gets chased through his boat this way by his crew on a regular basis, but especially once the women start adding to the chaos.
- Not So Above It All: When Holden decides to steal a pig. Sherman has been pretty harsh with Holden up to this point, even though he has been letting his creative scrounging slide for a good part of the movie. So when the guys snag a pig from a local farmer on Cebu, you would expect Sherman to give it back, right? Wrong. One look at the pig (which Holden had hidden in the ship's head) changes Sherman from irate commanding officer to top negotiator, "volunteering" a number of Holden's most valuable possessions (much to Holden's dismay) in compensation for the farmer's lost pig while not really admitting that the pig is on the Sea Tiger.
- Oh, Crap!: The crew of the Sea Tiger whenever their damaged submarine comes under attack. Perhaps Sherman's biggest expression of this is when the Sea Tiger comes under attack from a U.S. destroyer that thinks the Japanese are trying to pull a fast one.
- Poor Communication Kills: Sea Tiger is nearly sunk by their own navy because they think the bright pink sub couldn't possibly be one of their own.
- Running Gag:
- In exterior shots of the Sea Tiger, the engine is almost always heard belching.
- Holden calling for Ramone whenever he needs something.
- Nurse Crandall unintentionally screwing up something important.
- Nurse Crandall squeezing past the male crew, and Sherman in particular, in the sub's cramped corridors.
- Major Heywood annoying the grease monkeys with ideas on how to improve/repair the sub's engines or other machinery. Even more so because said ideas usually work. By the end of the movie, it appears that the Major and her initial antagonist MMC Sam Tostin are about to really fall for each other. (This will present a problem since officer-enlisted romances are contrary to Army and Navy Regulations; perhaps Captain Sherman will put Tostin up for a field commission?)
- The Scrounger: Lt. Holden, with help from Ramone, both of whom run various scams and deals to get the boat everything it needs.
- Sexophone: A bit of sultry saxophone jazz plays when Sea Tiger fires the nurse's undergarments from her torpedo tubes to convince the American destroyer depth-charging them that they are an American boat (It Makes Sense in Context).
- Shown Their Work: The level of detail and accuracy depicted in the operation of a WWII fleet submarine is pretty impressive, especially for a comedy.
- Stock Footage: The finale makes use of some period stock footage of depth-charging US Navy destroyers.
- Sub Story: The movie is about the adventures and misadventures of a submarine in the early stages of WW2's pacific theatre. We get all the usual tropes of running silent, setting torpedoes, listening to the hull creak while diving, but these are all given a comic twist as the situation becomes more and more absurd.
- Suddenly SHOUTING!: Sherman resorts to this a couple of times. The first time is with Holden while he's lounging around in his cabin, going from casual snarking to fire-breathing commander so fast that Holden has to take a moment to realize he's not playing around. Later, when Dooley, the pharmacist's mate, is playing sick to get attention from the nurses, Sherman acts sympathetic towards him before snapping at him to get back to work, startling Dooley into clocking his head on the pipes hanging from the ceiling.
- Tokyo Rose: A propagandist broadcasting on the radio declares that while the Japanese can't figure out why the Americans would paint a submarine pink, they will not hesitate to sink it on sight.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: It was red rather than pinknote , it was a bus, not a trucknote and it didn't happen all to the same submarine in a single voyage, but surprising number of gags from the film had some basis in real history.
- Witch Doctor: Lt. Holden hires one of these to see the Sea Tiger off, on the theory they need all the help they can get. Though even he comments afterward "They'll never make it."
- World of Snark: Most of the male characters' conversation consists of nothing but purest snark, with everybody keeping completely straight faces at all times no matter how ridiculous the situation might be. Sherman and Holden, in particular, communicate almost exclusively through Snark-to-Snark Combat.