It’s funny because, these days, I am constantly reminded of my 2018’s trip to England for various reasons. One of them is that I recently re-watched the comedy The Iron Petticoat (Ralph Thomas, 1956), which I saw for the first time when I was in Liverpool. So yeah, that journey was a mix of Katharine Hepburn and The Beatles. I watched it on May 12, which, as you may know, marks Katharine Hepburn’s birthday. Hepburn and comedian Bob Hope are the stars of The Iron Petticoat. My reason for re-watching this little-known film is The Third Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Michaela from Love Letters to Old Hollywood.
I was looking forward to watching The Iron Petticoat again. First because, when I was in Liverpool, I watched it on my small iPod touch screen (which is the only device I had with me). Second, English director Ralph Thomas directed that film. He was the brother of Gerald Thomas, who directed the Carry On franchise, which I reviewed in a blog series last fall! 🙂 Ralph Thomas is also best remembered for the Doctor series.
I have to admit, however, that on my second viewing, I noticed a lot of flaws and maybe didn’t appreciate it as much as the first time.
Without being directly a remake, The Iron Petticoat resembles Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). The story begins in West Germany when Russian Captain Vinka Kovelenko (Katharine Hepburn) lands in the territory and is taken prisoner by the American army. She happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time without any military motive (more personal ones). Colonel Newt Tarbell (Alan Gifford) gives the missions to Captain Chuck Lockwood (Bob Hope) to sell the merits of America to this communist aviator. So, Chuck goes to London (the trip is initially meant for him to see his girlfriend Connie (Noelle Middleton)) accompanied by Vinka.
In London, Vinka tries to promote the Soviet Union to Chuck (she doesn’t know his real intentions behind that trip and thinks he will go back to Russia with her). Meanwhile, Connie is jealous. Plus, Russian comrades (among them, Carry On actor Sid James) try to kidnap Vinka. They use a former lover of hers, Ivan Kropotkin (Robert Helpmann), as bait.
If we explore Katharine Hepburn’s performance, it has its quality, but as much as I love Kate, its flaws as well. I love the self-insurance she shows as soon as she makes her first entrance. Her character is honest, straightforward, and her lines are delivered quickly in screwball-comedy fashion. In conclusion, she is never at her loss for words. Her spirit of honesty also resides in how she sometimes looks at Bob Hope, not afraid to defy his gaze and never intimidated by it. It’s probably more the opposite. Vinka doesn’t let people walk on her feet and doesn’t hesitate to protest if necessary. For example, as part of the plan to kidnap her, Russian comrade Paul (Sid James) invites Vinka to dance. She accepts the invitation, and they dance, but when he doesn’t let her go, she unmercifully pushes him back. Serves him right! That adds a lot to the ridicule of this kidnapping plan that doesn’t seem to work well.
There’s also something quite mysterious and appealing about her entrance. She appears in aviator clothes, hiding her identity until she removes the aviator hat and the glasses. Being quite interested in aviation, I liked seeing a woman playing a role that usually seemed reserved to men (at least, in those years). Katharine Hepburn also played a pilot in Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933).
The Iron Petticoat has some absurd humour, and Katharine Hepburn’s character is part of it. For example, Vinka wears her medals on her very short nightgown. Always in clothing humour, I love the scene where she decides to buy a black lace petticoat that has caught her eye in a boutique. The seller brilliantly played by Richard Wattis gives her other suggestions, but she’s stubborn to buy the black petticoat. She’s then wearing her uniform and only contents herself to try the petticoat by placing it on her uniform in front of a mirror and is instantly charmed by it. The scene is quite funny because the two pieces of clothing are in total contrast, and Vinka doesn’t need much to be convinced.
The purchase of the petticoat is a crucial moment for the development of Kate’s character.In the following scene, she joins Chuck, Colonel Tarbell, Connie and other people at a Russian restaurant, The Russian Bear. She has now put her uniform aside and is wearing a beautiful gown which creates a significant contrast in style. Her character might seem to have “soften a little” (for example, she doesn’t do brusk Russian dance movements when she’s dancing with Chuck anymore). Perhaps she begins to “Americanize” herself. However, she remains a strong character. Her new way of dressing doesn’t seem to make her completely comfortable, but luckily, Chuck is here to convince her that she looks fine:
“I am too skinny of the top!” she declares to Chuck. To what he tactfully answers: “That’s the style this season”. At least he’s trying.
She’s then more “aware” of her appearance and perhaps begins to fit better with the standards of the western woman (for better or for worst).
In my opinion, the main flaw in Katharine Hepburn’s performance was her chosen Russian accent. Now, I am not an expert in Russian accents but, to me, this one seems exaggerated and too stereotypical for its own good. Katharine Hepburn was no Russian, and it shows. At times also, this results in her being difficult to understand. There’s also a bit of unnecessary exaggeration in her acting. We know Kate could be a subtle actress, so I’m not sure where she came from with it. Of course, this might accentuate the self-confidence of her character, but, once again, Kate has shown great confidence in many characters before in more discreet ways.
About Bob Hope, I have not seen many of his films, but I admire how the guy could be effortlessly funny. In opposition to Kate’s performance, his acting remains more modest, but he doesn’t fail to get noticed either. One of my favourite moments is when the Russian comrades look for Chuck and describe him as a woofer. He tries to hide and make himself discreet, but all he can do is shrink on his legs, hoping that nobody will notice the man with “a crooked nose”. Katharine Hepburn initially hoped to share the screen with Cary Grant, James Stewart or William Holden.1 Bob Hope ended having the role after reading the script and being interested in it.2 The other actors would have been good choices too, but that allowed a less expected acting duo. The pairing of Hepburn and Hope indeed seemed unlikely. Even tho their chemistry was maybe not as strong as the one Kate had with her four times on-screen partner Cary Grant, they ended up sharing some good moments of teamwork. Among these, I can think of the scene where they dance together at the restaurant, which is quite cute, and also the ending, which, of course, I won’t reveal.
Despite being imperfect, the film contains, as previously mentioned, its good share of somehow absurd humour. Perhaps the best gag is when Vinka and Ivan are about to dance together. However, Ivan is very uncomfortable with the idea. He declares he cannot dance and isn’t comfortable with any dance style. Vinka tries to show him how to, but it is a hopeless case. HOWEVER, the irony in that situation resides in the fact that Robert Helpmann played Ivan. In case you didn’t know, he was also a professional Australian ballet dancer and choreographer! You might remember him as Ivan Boleslawsky in The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948). Well, Helpmann proved well that he could efficiently play comedy, and he steals the show on more than one occasion.
Perhaps the biggest comic situation of the film is the previously mentioned kidnapping attempt. That one results in a moment that doesn’t fail to make me laugh. One of the kidnapping gang members plays the role of the bartender at The Russian Bear. His role is to give Chuck a drink containing some drug that will make him lose track and being just completely lost in his thoughts. Although Chuck eventually ends up taking the drink, the first attempt fails when Tarbell mistakenly drinks it. The reaction of the barman (Eugene Deckers) when he realizes the mistake is priceless. Then, the drug starts reacting on the colonel, who’s definitely “not there” anymore. When someone asks him a question, and he doesn’t answer, staring at the emptiness, Chuck declares: “First time he’s made sense in years”! Then, when they get out of the restaurant, he gets stuck in the revolving door at the discouragement of Chuck. Poor guy, but the sight is unique in the fun sense of the word.
Looking at the more technical qualities of The Iron Petticoat, I previously gave some thoughts on the costumes. I liked the gowns worn by Katharine Hepburn and Noelle Middleton and the aviator uniform from the beginning. British costume designer Yvonne Caffin created the costumes.
Another quality was the shooting in London, mainly in Pinewood Studios (hello, Carry On), but also in some real locations such as the easily recognizable Picadilly Circus, the fancy Buckingham Palace and UK airline bases.
I also enjoyed the lively music composed by British composer Benjamin Frankel. It fits well the atmosphere of the film and the tone of the story.
If we look at the things that didn’t work well with me, these are not necessarily numerous, but they have their importance and are hard to go unnoticed. Aside from Katharine Hepburn’s unperfect performance and some gags that might not have worked as efficiently as intended, one can’t help to notice the occasional sexist tone of the film. For example, when Chuck says to Vinka: “I don’t know a lot of bright women like you.” *Major eye-roll*. Or just the overall idea that Vinka has to “feminized” herself to become accepted in Western culture. Colonel Tarbell’s condescending reaction when he realizes the aviator they have captured is a woman isn’t very flattering either.
Then, of course, the film is anti-communism. The problem here is that it results in Russians being depicted in a very stereotypical way. As if dancing the polka and drinking vodka were the only things that matter for them.
The Iron Petticoat remains good entertainment but is far from perfect. During the shooting, things were tense between Bob Hope and Kate. On his side, Ralph Thomas declared not having a lot of directing control in the end. Ben Hetch wrote the screenplay.3 He was a great screenwriter, but that was not his best work. I wonder how different the film would have been if written by someone like Norman Hudis, for example. On its release, The Iron Petticoat was a little box office success (surprisingly) but wasn’t well-received by the critics.4 Greta Garbo, the star of Ninotchka, was very displeased with this parody of Lubitsch film and declared it was the worst film she had ever seen.5
Now, Garbo’s thoughts on the film are not flattering and might not convince you to see it. It’s indeed a film with many flaws. However, it remains an interesting vehicle that has to be seen with a critical eye. It’s not an empty film. As for myself, even though I didn’t like it as much on my second viewing as I did on the first, I still thought it was good (not great), and it is somehow underrated. I can only encourage you to see it to form your own opinion. But if you’re a newcomer to Katharine Hepburn’s world, this is maybe not the best place to start either.
Many thanks to Michaela and Crystal for hosting this blogathon! Please make sure to read the other entries here.
1 Betty E. Box, Lifting the Lid: The Autobiography of Film Producer Betty Box (Sussex, England: Book Guide Publishing Ltd, 2000), p. 109.
2 Ibid. p. 119.
3 “The Iron Petticoat,” Wikipedia, accessed Oct. 19, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Iron_Petticoat.
5 ” Small Garbo Stories & Anecdotes – Part 3,” Garbo Forever, accessed Oct. 19, 2020, http://www.garboforever.com/Garbo_Stories-Anecdotes-3.htm.