Ill-Fated Bob Hope-Katharine Hepburn Comedy, Gone for Four Decades, Returns

From right: Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope and Noelle Middleton in 1956's The Iron Petticoat.

'The Iron Petticoat,' which featured a feud that played out in The Hollywood Reporter, will air on Turner Classic Movies next month.

A Cold War romantic comedy starring Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn that hasn’t been seen in the West in more than four decades -- and was notable for a bitter feud that spilled over onto the pages of The Hollywood Reporter -- has resurfaced.

The Iron Petticoat (1956), which stars Hepburn as a Soviet jet pilot and Hope as an Air Force officer charged with turning the diehard communist into a patriotic capitalist, will premiere on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, Nov. 29, thanks to an arrangement with Hope Enterprises, which controls the rights to the film.

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The movie also will be available starting Nov. 19 through TCM as a limited-edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

As detailed by writer Roger Fristoe on the TCM website, Iron Petticoat had a rocky production history, with the broadly comic Hope bringing in his own gag writers to rework the screenplay by sophisticated Oscar winner Ben Hecht (The Front Page, His Girl Friday).

The original script borrowed heavily from MGM’s 1939 classic Ninotchka (1939); in that film, written by Billy WilderCharles Brackett and Walter Reisch and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, a humorless Soviet agent (Greta Garbo) is seduced by Western values and a Parisian playboy (Melvyn Douglas).

Cary Grant originally was sought to play the leading man in Iron Petticoat, but when he proved unavailable, Hope was cast, and the elegant Hepburn -- a four-time best actress Oscar winner -- was said to initially welcome the challenge of working with a professional comic.

According to biographer Scott Berg, Hepburn said she “had been told that this was not going to be a typical Bob Hope movie, that he wanted to appear in a contemporary comedy.” She felt Hecht’s script was “witty enough,” and she was intrigued by the opportunity to develop a variation on Garbo’s character in Ninotchka.

But when the principals gathered in England for filming, Hope told Hecht he had “minor suggestions” for improving his screenplay. In truth, that amounted to a complete rewrite, with a generous number of typical Hope jokes added. MGM would later grant Hecht’s request to have his name removed from the credits on the U.S. release.

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At a reported cost of $275, Hecht took out a full-page advertisement in THR to address “My dear partner Bob Hope: 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.” He added that Hepburn’s “magnificent comic performance has been blowtorched out of the film.”

Hope responded with his own full-page ad in THR, which he signed “Bob (BlowTorch) Hope.”

“My dear Ex-Partner Ben: 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.”

After The Iron Petticoat premiered in Europe in December 1956, its running time was trimmed for MGM’s U.S. release a month later. (TCM’s version has been remastered and restores it to the original British running time.) The movie, shot in VistaVision, remained with MGM until 1966, when it was last shown in the West and all the negatives and copies were turned over to Hope.

The comedy, the only collaboration between Hope and Hepburn, proved a critical and commercial failure. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that “Miss Hepburn’s Russian affectations and accent are simply horrible, and Mr. Hope’s wistful efforts with feeble gags to hold his franchise as a funny man are downright sad. The notion of these two characters falling rapturously, romantically in love is virtually revolting. If this was meant to be a travesty, it is.”

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