There is probably some review I did where I talked about my love of obscure Disney films. If you grew up on the early years of the Disney Channel as I did, then perhaps the original version of The Parent Trap (1961) is not unfamiliar to you. If it is, that is because for whatever reason it is one of those movies that the Mouse does not often mention. Actually, if you have seen it, your modern sensibilities will probably recognize some antiquated parts. This is not something their corporation likes to admit to, but people thought differently than they do today. I noticed this apprehension recently while re-watching The Three Caballeros (1944), noting the politically correct disclaimer they inserted before it begins. While The Parent Trap does not come close to the stereotypical representations in its Disney forebear, there are still moments that stand out today as wrong footed. What is interesting, though, is also how it presages the increase in divorce rates that unfortunately now plagues society.
The Parent Trap has one of the strangest beginnings in my cinematic experience. It is not the stylized, animated opening credits. Though recent movies tend to save credit creativity for the end, they essentially accomplish the same thing. Rather, it is the fact that it mentions that their film is based on a book with a scary sounding German title, Das dopette Lottchen (1949), by Eric Kästner. There is also the caterwauling of Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands to the title tune. Anyway, we dive right in to Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick (both played by Hayley Mills) arriving at Camp Inch, their summer sleepaway. They do not know each other, and though Susan has short hair while Sharon’s is long, they look identical. This fact pleases neither of them, and they play a series of progressively more destructive tricks on one another until they are forced to bunk with each other in order to solve their differences. One day when a storm blows a strong wind through their bunkhouse, their shared struggle begins to soften the icy relations. As they start to talk, they realize that they are the same age and share a birthday. Susan does not know her mother, and Sharon claims to not have a father. However, they separately have pictures of their estranged parents, and when they show them to one another it clinches what is already painfully obvious: they are long-lost twins. Because each are eager to meet the parent they never knew, they devise a plan to swap places, going over in intricate detail their daily lives so they can play their roles, and cutting Sharon’s hair to match Susan’s. The real reason for this plot, though, is to get their divorced mother and father back together. They figure that once they realize the switch has occurred, they will be forced to return each to their respective parent. When they meet, that is when they will spring the trap. Hence, when camp ends, Susan leaves for the upscale environs of nearby Boston to finally see Maggie (Maureen O’Hara), their mom, and Sharon flies out to California to see Mitch (Brian Keith), their dad. When Sharon finally arrives at Mitch’s palatial ranch, she discovers a potential hitch in her and Susan’s plans: Mitch has met a new woman, Vicky Robinson (Joanna Barnes), and intends to marry her. Sharon relates this to Susan via secret late night phone calls, telling her twin that they need to speed up their trap. Susan initially balks at this idea because she wants to spend more time alone with Maggie since she had never been able to get to know her mom. However, when their grandfather, Charles McKendrick (Charles Ruggles), overhears one of their conversations, he figures out that Sharon is really Susan. With his support, Susan then reveals her true identity, triggering the planned trip to California in order to sort out the matter. When Susan and Maggie get to Mitch’s estate, it happens to be on a day when they are making arrangements for his and Vicky’s nuptials. They also arrive unannounced, much to Mitch’s surprise. Though he is initially pleased to have both his daughters, the next step of Sharon and Susan’s plan does not seem to work as they hoped, and Mitch and Maggie agree to once again go their separate ways. In response, the twins resort to desperate measures. On the day Sharon and Maggie are to return to Boston, the sisters come down dressed exactly the same, saying they will reveal who they are after they all go on a camping trip together. Though they want their mother to come along, Maggie instead insists Vicky go in her stead, citing the need to get to know the girls. Roughing it is not exactly Vicky’s style, though the final straw for her are the various pranks played on her by Sharon and Susan. When she wakes up one morning with bear cubs licking her toes, she leaves in a huff and calls of her engagement with Mitch. When they get back home, Mitch has apparently forgotten all about Vicky and decides to take up once more with her.
I have always thought that the end of The Parent Trap when Mitch decides Maggie is the one for him after all is rather abrupt. For instance, earlier in the film, as soon as they encounter each other they immediately launch into an argument that ends with Maggie punching Mitch in the eye. While she does feel instantly bad and helps nurse him, their next interaction is not without contentious words either. And then they decide to get remarried? I always expect quality story-telling from Disney, though they have made some truly awful films. Exhibit A: Smart House (1999). As I said in my review of that film, Disney is known for innovative filmmaking. The Parent Trap is part of that tradition. For all its antiquated shots of casual smoking and drinking, and the outdated notions of what it means to be a lady, they introduced the technique of one person playing two parts onscreen in the same shot. That alone makes it fun to watch, not just to see the first example of something that has been done many times since, but to also catch the glimpses in the wider shots where they had the stand-in for whoever Hayley Mills was not playing from scene to scene. For example, in the famous sequence where Sharon and Susan perform “Let’s Get Together” for their mom and dad, that is Hayley Mills next to Hayley Mills. You will understand better if you watch the movie. In other scenes, though, particularly when Sharon and Susan are face-to-face conversing, the back of the head of whoever is not speaking is that of Susan Henning. If you have nothing else to do with a couple hours, watch it and see if you can spot the times when we get to see Susan Henning’s face. There are a couple.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, The Parent Trap delves into the topic of divorce. Unfortunately, it is said how common parents splitting up has become, and that was 1961. Such occurrences have only increased since that time. Of course, the Catholic Church has traditionally had a dim view of husbands and wives separating. However, it should be said that it is not impossible for two people to divorce in the Church. It does allow that sometimes the differences that arise are too great to be overcome. Still, it does not rubber stamp marriage annulments. A couple that is having difficulty is expected to seek help in resolving what is troubling them, and to exhaust every avenue possible before splitting. This is because marriage is a sacred act between a man and a woman where God binds them together. We should not trifle with these vows, though they seem to be taken less and less seriously. In the film, marriage is met with the gravity it is owed, and I commend Sharon and Susan for wanting to see their parents mend the fences. I do feel that their reconciliation is a bit rushed and forced in the end, but at least they seem to get to the right place.
There was a time not too long ago that I got myself in a rhythm of watching The Parent Trap repeatedly. I am not sure why I had not bothered to write a review of it until now given my familiarity with it, but here you go. There is something appealing about the simple desire of two kids wanting to see their mom and dad happy, and believing so earnestly that this can best be achieved by them being together. Sure, some of the material is dated, but at least it does not have Lindsey Lohan in it? Either way, it is worth checking out.
3 thoughts on “The Parent Trap (1961), by Albert W. Vogt III”