Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Iron Petticoat

The Iron Petticoat (Ralph Thomas, 1956) There are many reasons a film can be withdrawn from circulation.  In some cases, like Frank Sinatra's withdrawal of Suddenly and The Manchurian Candidate, it is the fear that the influence of the film might have had on current events, in much the same way as Stanley Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange for many years in England, due to what seemed to be several copycat crimes related to it.

Bob "I probably should have done this with Phyllis Diller" Hope and his estate kept The Iron Petticoat out of America after its initial release until...November, 2012...when TCM showed it for the first time in this country since its release, (with the exceptions of a couple of private screenings).  It's been available in Europe and throughout the rest of the world, but not in the States, owing to a disagreement between Hope and the film's original author, the esteemed Ben Hecht, who wrote the thing for Katherine Hepburn, with an eye toward re-teaming her with Cary Grant.  But, Grant was still on his on-again-off-again retirement at the time and passed, Hope sashayed in, and proceeded to hand it to his gag-writers who refashioned the script more to Hope's style than Hepburn's...or Hecht's.  To be fair, stars do this all the time, re-writing scripts to their liking and their strengths, but Hecht took the issue public in the Hollywood press, leading to a Hope-ful response.  For whatever reasons, Hope, who had the distribution rights in the U.S., kept it out of circulation after its initial run, making it a curiosity. 

Would that the unearthing of this film, with the unlikely match-up of Hope and Hepburn, the first movie producing credit of Bond producer Harry Saltzman, be anything more than that.   But, like Schr√∂dinger's cat, once seen, there is certainty, and in this timeline, it ain't good.  The story of a Russian aviatrix (Hepburn) who defects to Europe and is squired by an American Air Force Major (Hope) under orders to keep her on our side is a few notches shy of Ninotchka, and is almost entirely charmless.  No one's at the top of their game here, with the exception of some of the character actors (Robert Helpmann, James Robertson Justice).  Hope seems to have that hapless "I'm bombing here" look on his face without the curl to his lip that inspired confidence.  And Hepburn?  There's a distinctive overabundance of iron, as if she were trying to be her own Berlin Wall to hold her own in the project.  And where Garbo played Ninotchka with a stiff world-wary calm ("like a Vulcan" I compared it to), Hepburn is loud and forceful, projecting her words to the top of "the house" (more like a Klingon).  And if Melvin Douglas' ardent suitor in the earlier Lubitsch film softens his Moscovite's demeanor, Hope's stand-offishness—keeping her at golf-club's length—does nothing towards making this one either romantic or comedic.

No film should be locked away in a vault, but for this one, the only joy in it is  its seeing the light of day again. It is only when it sees the light of the projector that the disappointment starts.

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