BOOTLEG FILES 332: “The Iron Petticoat” (1956 comedy starring Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn).

LAST SEEN: A rare public screening as part of an October 2008 Bob Hope retrospective at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None, although it has been released on a few European labels.

U.S. labels don’t want this one, despite its star power.

It will turn up eventually.

Back in October 1956, the film industry was caught off-guard by a nasty public feud between noted writer Ben Hecht and comedy star Bob Hope.  Hecht paid $275 to place a back page advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter that vented his unhappiness with Hope’s actions on “The Iron Petticoat,” a project that Hecht authored.

“My dear Partner Bob Hope,” wrote Hecht in his public letter. “This is to notify you that I have removed my name as author from our mutilated venture, ‘The Iron Petticoat.’ Unfortunately your other partner, Katharine Hepburn, can’t shy out of the fractured picture with me. Although her magnificent comic performance has been blowtorched out of the film, there is enough left of the Hepburn footage to identify her for her sharpshooters. I am assured by my hopeful predators that ‘The Iron Petticoat’ will go over big with people ‘who can’t get enough of Bob Hope.’ Let us hope this swooning contingent is not confined to yourself and your euphoric agent, Louis Shurr.”

Hope, in turn, replied with his own full-page advertisement in the same trade magazine. “My dear Ex-Partner Ben,” he wrote. “You once wrote ‘The Front Page,’ and now you’ve followed it up with the back page…I am most understanding. The way things are going you simply can’t afford to be associated with a hit. As for Kate Hepburn, I don’t think she was depressed with the preview audience rave about her performance. Let’s do all our correspondence this way in print. It lifts ‘The Iron Petticoat.’”  The comedian signed his letter as “Bob (BlowTorch) Hope.”

The sad thing, in retrospect, was realizing that the sarcastic exchange between Hecht and Hope was much more entertaining than anything that appeared in “The Iron Petticoat.” If that kind of edge found its way on screen, the film would’ve have been worth watching.

“The Iron Petticoat” was an independent British-based production about a female captain in the Soviet Air Force who flies her jet fighter to a U.S. base in Germany.  She announces that her defection is based on the anger of being overlooked for a promotion. However, she remains a full-blooded Communist and has nothing but disdain for the West.  A major in the U.S. Air Force is dispatched to help win her into the U.S. political camp.  But since he is trying to woo a British heiress, he conspires to take the Soviet defector to London.  However, the Soviet government is wise to these actions and they attempt to kidnap their pilot and return her to Moscow. By this time, however, the Soviet lady pilot and her U.S. major fall in love.

If all of this sounds familiar, that is because it is. Similar stories about Commie gals embracing Western ideals and guys were used by Greta Garbo in “Ninotchka” (1939) and Hedy Lamarr in “Comrade X” (1940).  Josef von Sternberg’s “Jet Pilot” had a very similar plot, with a defecting Soviet female pilot; that film had its highly publicized production in 1950, but producer Howard Hughes delayed that film’s release until 1957. On stage, Cole Porter created “Silk Stockings,” a Broadway musical of “Ninotchka,” which had its New York premiere in 1955.

As “The Iron Petticoat” was originally envisioned, Katharine Hepburn was cast as the defecting Soviet Air Force pilot and Cary Grant would be the U.S. Air Force officer. Grant, however, declined the role.  For reasons that still remain unclear, that role was given to Bob Hope, who immediately insisted upon top billing (Hepburn obliged without incident).

But the Hope-Hepburn combination never sparked. Director Ralph Thomas would later remark to writer Charles Higham: “Really, they were playing in two different pictures: she was a mistress of light, sophisticated romantic comedy, he was much broader, and eventually I didn’t so much direct the picture as watch them in action.”

What went wrong? For starters, Hope arrived at the London set with an entourage of gag writers.  He viewed Ben Hecht’s screenplay and decided that it needed to be funnier – with Hope’s character getting most of the laughs via his trademark snappy wisecracks. For example, when Hope is told by Hepburn that he has an odd face, he responds: “It came with the body – it’s a set.”  (And that is one of the film’s funnier lines!) Topical political humor and an obligatory in-joke reference to Bing Crosby were also part of the mix.

It is not certain if Hope’s gag writers also pushed for “The Iron Petticoat” as a title. The project was originally called “Not For Money.” One source claims that Hope wanted to quit the film before shooting began, out of a fear that he would be upstaged by Hepburn.  Hope’s actions were not lost on Hepburn, who later told biographer Charlotte Chandler that the funnyman’s surplus of jokes “overwhelmed my character. I didn’t care. I wished he would have overwhelmed me right out of the film.”

Still, Hepburn made no attempt to save the film. In fact, she was totally lost as the Soviet flier. Her version of a broad Russian accent was disastrous, and it didn’t help that she was yelling her lines in the film’s first half – though in the film’s second half, she seems to visibly lose interest in the contrived plot of counterespionage and mistaken identities, to the point of briefly dropping her Russian accent in a couple of dialogue exchanges. While Hope was playing his comfortable screen persona, Hepburn came across like a complete maniac.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picked up “The Iron Petticoat” for U.S. theatrical release, and the studio planned a major promotional campaign. But its opening in New York in December 1956 was a fiasco.  Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ film critic, dismissed the unlikely teaming of Hope and Hepburn as “something grotesque” and other critics equally hostile. “The Iron Petticoat” had a scant release and was quickly withdrawn from theaters; ironically, MGM would go back to the same formula in 1957 with its film version of Cole Porter’s “Silk Stockings.”

In an odd post-script, “The Iron Petticoat” was banned in Rangoon, the capital of Burma, in 1958, following a protest from the Soviet Embassy that film was a slur against Russian women. I don’t know if it is still banned in Burma.

To date, there has been no U.S. home entertainment release for “The Iron Petticoat,” although it has turned up on several European labels. Considering the separate star power for Hope and Hepburn, one might imagine some company would try to dig this out. (It doesn’t appear that MGM still owns it, otherwise it would have been in retail channels by now.)  Nonetheless, it should turn up in the near future – but if it does, please do not feel obligated to experience it.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Barney says:

    “The Iron Petticoat” is the film that Bob Hope promotes when he’s the guest start on I Love Lucy’s 6th season opener in the fall of 1956.

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