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The movie begins with Rear Admiral Matt Sherman (Cary Grant) making a sentimental visit to his first command, which is due to be scrapped. He goes down to the empty Captain's cabin, opens the old log book and begins to read. Cue flashback to December 10th 1941. The Sea Tiger is sunk at dock and the crew works frantically to jury-rig sufficient repairs to make the run from the Philippines to Darwin where American forces are regrouping. Lt. Nick Holden (Tony Curtis) is a reassigned Admiral's Aide with no sea experience who proves unexpectedly useful as the new 'Supply Officer' getting Sherman the parts he needs by humorously unscrupulous means.
Repairs are finally complete and they are ready to get under way, but the No. 1 engine keeps blowing up and sending out black smoke. As the engineers try to fix it, a local witch doctor comes up and starts doing some kind of ritual dance to ward off evil spirits. Sherman tries to get him to leave, when suddenly the engine starts and they are finally able to shove off. Once the sub is headed out to sea, the witch doctor stops dancing and shakes his head, remarking, "They'll never make it."
The Sea Tiger set sail under strict order to avoid engaging any enemy craft - including lifeboats. Forced to drop anchor at Marinduque for still more repairs Mr. Holden goes ashore and discovers five stranded Army Nurses. A submarine isn't intended to be co-educational but obviously the women cannot be left where they are. Cue sexual tension between a predatory (and engaged) Lt. Holden and Lt. Duran; Captain Sherman and the buxom - and clumsy - Lt. Crandall; and the misogynistic Chief Masters Mate Tostin and Major Heywood.
Sherman intends to unload the nurses at Cebu but the Army Officer in Command refuses to take responsibility for them as he is expecting to be overrun and engage in guerilla operations, possibly for years. Nor can he help Sherman obtain the parts he needs as everything has been taken up into the hills. Lt. Holden comes up with a solution; he establishes a 'casino' up in the hills which accepts machine parts in exchange for chips leading Sherman to write that Mr. Holden is the only man he knows who will be awarded the Navy Cross at his courtmartial.
One of the items Holden obtains is lead paint for the submarine's undercoat. Unfortunately they have to mix red and white lead resulting in a bright pink submarine. They have regulation gray paint to go over it but predictably are forced to make a quick departure under fire before this can be done. They also have a dozen or so more passengers, the wives and children of the dealers at Mr. Holden's casino and a goat to provide milk for the children. Even better two of the women are in the last stages of pregnancy.
Sherman naturally assumes that things can't possibly get worse - then they do. Tokyo Rose mocks the bright pink submarine cruising the Celebes Sea and U.S. Naval Intelligence assumes it's deliberate disinformation leading to orders to fire on the Sea Tiger when she attempts to make contact with a destroyer group. Sherman is forced to resort to most unconventional means to prove that he is 'friend' not 'foe'.
The flashback ends with a color photo of the pink Sea Tiger steaming into Darwin Harbor. Smiling Admiral Sherman closes the log book and goes on deck to encounter Commander Nick Holden, now captain of the Sea Tiger who has just said good-bye to his wife, the former Lt. Duran, and their two sons. A few moments later the Admiral's wife, the former Lt. Crandall, arrives with their four lovely daughters rear ending his staff car and sending it into a bus which then pulls out dragging the Admiral's car behind it by the locked fenders.
He assures her it won't go far, then turn to watch as Sea Tiger shoves off for the last time, punctuated by an explosion from the No. 1 engine. Sherman shakes his head, remarking, "I guess we never did get that fixed."
Tropes featured :
- Armed Farces
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Most notably between Tostin and Heywood.
- Brick Joke: As they are trying to get under way, the engine keeps making sounds like explosions accompanied by thick, black smoke. The problem does not occur again while they are at sea. At the end, as Sea Tiger is getting under way, there is a sudden sound like an explosion and black smoke, causing Sherman to remark that they never did get that engine fixed.
- The Captain: The bemused and put upon Matt Sherman.
- The Casanova: Lt. Holden.
- Deal with the Devil: Sherman describes it this way when he orders Holden to get the parts he needs to get Sea Tiger moving before the Japanese overrun the port.
- The Determinator: Sherman will stop at nothing to get Sea Tiger back out to sea, including allowing Holden to clean out the Admiral's office.
"I think we've been victims of Sherman's march to the sea."
- The Eeyore: Seaman Broom; 'You can't win, my friend...'
- Embarrassing Tattoo: Poor Seaman Hunkle, he's got a female nude tattoed on his chest and feels he can never go home and marry his fiancee.
- Hello, Nurse!: Lt. Crandall, very much so.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Murray Slaughter (Seaman Hunkle); the other Darrin (Lt. Stovall); Marion Cunningham (Lt. Colefax); and Madlyn Rhue (Lt. Reid) who Star Trek TOS fans will recognize (barely) as Marla McGivers.
- Ladykiller in Love: Lt. Holden becomes this after meeting Lt. Duran. Unfortunately he's engaged....
- Poor Communication Kills: Sea Tiger is nearly sunk by their own navy because they think the bright pink sub couldn't possibly be one of their own.
- Promoted Fanboy: A real-life example, in that the movie got made in part because Curtis had always wanted to work with Grant.
- Recycled: the Series: almost 20 years later, with Tony Curtis's daughter Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the nurses.
- Sub Story
- Witch Doctor: Lt. Holden hires one of these to see the Sea Tiger off, on the theory they need all the help they can get.
- World War II