The Iron Petticoat (1956)

Country: United Kingdom
Directed by Ralph Thomas
Bob Hope, Katherine Hepburn, Noelle Middleton, James Robertson Justice, Robert Helpmann, Sidney James
Music by Benjamin Frankel

Here’s a film from a gentler time (well in terms of movie making, at least). What we have in The Iron Petticoat is a delightful comedy farce that features two of cinemas biggest stars, Bob Hope and Katherine Hepburn. The film lets you know it’s a light piece of fluff from the very get go, when the words ‘Once upon a time…’ flash upon the screen. So the story is a fairy tale.

The film opens at the US Air Force Headquarters in Germany. On the radar a Soviet MIG flies into US airspace. Two planes, Foxtrot Red and Blue are sent out to intercept the hostile craft. It turns out that the MIG isn’t so hostile, and the American pilots sheppard it to the airfield where it is forced to land. The Russian pilot is taken prisoner and marched off to be interrogated. When we first see the pilot, Catpain Kovelenko, he is wearing a leather flying helmet, goggles and a large overcoat. The interrogator asks that the Captain removes his flight paraphernalia, which he does. It is only then that we realise that he, is in fact a she. The Russian pilot is played by Katherine Hepburn, and once again the film-making team of producer Betty E. Box and director Ralph Thomas are presenting us with a story that features strong female characters breaking out from the traditional stereotypes. Box and Thomas’ films always have strong female characters which is often overlooked in criticism of their films. In Deadlier Than The Male, two girls, Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina are the most physically aggressive and deadly characters in the film. Prior to that, Kocina also appeared in Hot Enough for June where she played a Russian Intelligence officer who refused to kowtow to the male officers around her. Before the Women’s Liberation movement changed public perception of a woman’s role in society, Box and Thomas were making films that highlighted the equality of the sexes, but wrapped it up in genre films that had hitherto been solely the domain of rough misogynist men. The Iron Petticoat was made in 1956 and right from the beginning they are letting us know, that flying ace, Captain Vinka Kovelenko is every bit as strong and capable as any of the men in the movie. Those of you who are more perceptive than I, may have gleaned that little bit of information from the film’s title, The Iron Petticoat – it just screams ‘strong woman’.

It appears that Captain Kovelenko has defected because she was overlooked for a promotion – the position went to a bloke – those dirty sexist commies! The powers that be decide that she will be a great propaganda tool and decide to convert her to the wicked ways of Western capitalism. To do this they need a man to sweep her off her feet. Someone she can relate to. They choose one of the American pilots that brought the Captain in, Major Charles ‘Chuck’ Lockwood (Bob Hope). But Chuck has other things on his mind. He is all set to go on leave to London where his fiancee is waiting. And this will come as no surprise to fans of Bob Hope, once again he plays a conniving little character who is looking to marry into the easy life. That is to say his character is penniless, and the girl he intends to marry is filthy rich.

Lockwood’s leave is cancelled, and he is forced to chaperon Captain Kovelenko – I keep referring to her as Captain Kovelenko rather than just Vinka or Kovelenko because she is always in uniform, and as Bob quips ‘Women in uniform bother me. I don’t know whether to kiss them or salute them.’ Lockwood goes to work on Captain Kovelenko, trying to convince her of the superiority of the Western way of life. In turn, she starts to work on Lockwood and convince him the Communism is the better way of life – she wants him to defect with her back to Moscow. Lockwood, on the other hand, simply wants to get to London and will do anything to do it. He tells Captain Kovelenko that he’ll defect if she’ll go to London with him. I know that seems weird on paper, but Captain Kovelenko, as an honoured guest, who they are trying to convert, can demand to go anywhere – and the Americans will agree. If she demands to go to London, then Lockwood would have to go to. So they do.

In London the Russians, headed by Colonel Sklarnoff (James Robertson Justice) get involved and try to kidnap Captain Kovelenko back. All the time, Lockwood is sneaking around behind Captain Kovelenko trying to seal his marriage deal. And as you would have no doubt guessed, eventually Captain Kovelenko and Major Lockwood fall in love. The Iron Petticoat is a very entertaining romantic comedy, slapstick farce. It’s not quite Bringing Up Baby, but it does the job. Hope gets to fire off a few of his trademark one-liners. One of my favourites is after Captain Kovelenko suggests that American women are all nail polish and fake bosoms – Bob quips ‘Yeah, they’re inclined to make mountains out of molehills’. Don’t groan. That’s comedy gold!

The films biggest conceit is that you have to accept that Bob Hope is a top-gun Air Force pilot. Once you get past that, and it takes a bit of doing because Bob plays the buffoon so well it’s hard to believe he could handle any piece of hi-tech equipment, then the film is good fun. It’s an old fashioned film, and if you can relate to films of this vintage, and farcical comedy, then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in The Iron Petticoat. Younger viewers, who are used to more aggressive forms of comedy may find that this doesn’t hold their attention.

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