I first thought of featuring this film in the Foreign Region Report a couple months back, when my friends Fahran Nehme Smith, largely known as The Self-Styled Siren, and Lou Lumenick, a film critic for The New York Post, announced that they would be co-programming a January 2010 series on TCM entitled "Shadows of Russia." The series is devoted to well-known and not-so-well-known pictures, made in Hollywood, about Russia. In many eras. There’s von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, about Catherine the Great, on the one hand, and the multi-Barrymore-starring Rasputin and the Empress, on the other. And then there’s 1943’s Mission to Moscow, starring Walter Huston, which will play on TCM on January 20th but will be screened at BAM’s Rose Cinema this very evening, January 12, at 7 p.m., followed by a panel discussion featuring Lou, The Siren, myself, and film historian Ed Hulse. Come around, if you are around.
In any event, this film was one of the films that Lou and Farran were not able to program for the series, but which was accessible on foreign-region DVD (albeit in an out-of-print, but not egregiously expensive, edition). There were rights or accessibility issues, I gathered. What I got was an odd picture, for sure. As odd a picture as one might expect of a picture in which Bob Hope is paired as a romantic lead against…Katharine Hepburn. And an even odder one at that.
The understandably uninformed semi-cinephile, on first encountering The Iron Petticoat, would raise his or her eyebrows at the plotline, in which a female pilot for the U.S.S.R. “defects” by flying into West Germany, and falls for a U.S. Army man and the whole U.S./capitalist system. Wait a minute, doesn’t this anticipate…von Sternberg’s 1957-released….RKO picture Jet Pilot, in which a female pilot for the U.S.S.R., portrayed by the somewhat more immediately nubile Janet Leigh (she was all of 20 at the time), is forced to land in Alaska, where she is seduced into belief in the U.S./capitalist system (and enormous thick-cut steaks) by the anti-Hope, John Wayne? Well, yes, it does, except “anticipate,” believe it or not, is not quite the right word, as Jet Pilot started shooting in 1951, finished in 1953, and was tinkered with by RKO head Howard Hughes until 1957 or so. So did Iron Petticoat screenwriter, the eminent Ben Hecht, actually rip off his The Outlaw collaborator Jules Furthman, who’s credited with the Jet Pilot script?
Such mysteries are too old and, some might believe too obscure (not to mention too..."what the hell?") to necessarily address here, and in any event the plot is going to thicken. What one is left to grapple with is a sub-Ninotchka storyline in which, we cannot emphasize enough, Bob Hope is paired as a romantic lead against Katharine Hepburn. Both stars were at odd points in their careers at the time. One might say they had peaked. They were both flying without their customary partners; Bing Crosby in Hope’s case, Spencer Tracy in Hepburn’s. They were both getting older. (Hepburn looks particularly drawn in this picture, and her hair is often...nest-ish.) Hepburn got to pick the director for this Britain-made production, bankrolled by Harry Saltzman. She went for Ralph Thomas, whose Doctor comedies she found amiable. (Ralph, incidentally, is the father of maverick producer Jeremy Thomas.) Hope, for his part, brought his staff of gag writers with him. Hence, when the Army brass hand Hepburn’s character a check for $100,000 because she’s the first Russian defector to actually land a plane peacefully on Western soil, Hope quips “Texas confetti.” There’s a joke about Republicans in there, too.
Not that what’s in Hecht’s script, or whoever’s (many sources say he took his name off of the film after brooking the interference of Hope’s gag writers, but as the screen cap at the bottom of the page demonstrates, his credit remained strong and relatively proud on at least some prints), is all that brilliant. Much is made of the fact that Hepbuern’s character cannot comprehend what the above-mentioned check actually is, which perhaps makes her a more perfect product of a Soviet economic system than anyone ever was in reality. There's also a less-than-beguiling exchange in a department store concerning a bikini top (see above screen cap). The scenario plods along from heavy-handed set-piece to heavy-handed set piece, each one of them the stuff not of farce but of parody of farce: an attempted hotel-suite seduction relentlessly interrupted by the putative girlfriend of the Hope character; a dinner party wherein an attempted drugging goes wrong; a deportation-by-plane in which the would-be kidnappers (Soviet apparatchiks) fall victim to their would-be victims (aspiring defectors Hope and Hepburn). Along the way, the normally distinguished James Robertson Justice has to impersonate an ass-grabbing espionage master, Robert Helpmann comes off his masterful, sinister turns in Powell/Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann to play a very silly sissy (see third screen cap), and various characters utter lines such as “This would not have happened if Stalin were still alive…he was not afraid of women!” and “Even McCarthy wouldn’t believe this!” All this and Katherine Hepburn laying down her dignity and taking up a very bad Russian accent. A very bizarre Cold War relic, that’s no lie.
The out-of-print DVD I acquired was a decent transfer of a scratchy but vivid print, issued in a Region 2 U.K. DVD by Carlton in 2003.