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Monday, September 05, 2022

Disney at Crowd-Pleasingest


Does The Parent Trap's Public Still Remember?

One must by now have reached late-sixties to recall The Parent Trap first-run. Hayley Mills meanwhile is seventy-six and released her memoirs last year. Three or four decades before would have timed better, but guess she wasn’t ready then, and besides the book might benefit for waiting, just that much more wisdom to impart. I regard The Parent Trap as the best live-action film Disney made, accolade gotten out of ways now for parse to follow beyond what most would see as sensible. I’ll assume everyone knew The Parent Trap from some point or other. It is familiar for Disney profaning the brand with remakes plus sequels to the remakes. They really eat their young there, the old as well, especially the old. There was a DVD of PT ’61 with lush extras, while a recent Blu-Ray has none. Everyone but H. Mills is gone now, Joanna Barnes last of adult principals out. The Parent Trap ran a startling 129 minutes, but few of us in 1961 were bored, possibly a first occasion where a film had my undivided attention, more so at least than Konga. The theatre rocked with laughter as one assumes they do not anymore. We went home and rigged an older cousin’s room with string and mucky stuff that fell when he opened the door, so maybe movies were a bad influence after all. The Parent Trap does not weary as is case with much of other Disney, it being surprisingly adult for comedy starring a kid, rather “two” kids with one playing both. People smoke and drink here, condition of life among those who could afford vices but depicted little enough on today screens for The Parent Trap to seem almost radical.

The concept would date, mostly for domestic arrangement where couples split and a child or children never see a parent again as part of divorce terms, unaware a sibling even exists. The notion sold in 1961, though The Parent Trap being more serious than farce obliges us to look closer at what seems a cruel arrangement as entered into by parents Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith. Did Sharon and Susan take out separation issues on Mom-Dad after the glow of latter’s remarriage wore off? Today’s Facebook or apps more sinister would bring lost twins to earth soon enough, but ’61 was a time when pen-palling was still best/only means of staying current re anyone’s status or condition. I suspect The Parent Trap’s would be a narrative difficult for youngsters now to make sense of. Idea of being packed off to camp was associated more with those who had means to manage it. We’re given to understand that Sharon and Susan come of privileged background, parents blessed with old (Mom) and new (Dad) money, though not told how “Mitch Evers” came by his wealth. Estranged wife “Margaret Mckendrick” thinks enough of her Boston family name to see that daughter Sharon adopts it, differing surnames enabling plot device of the girls meeting at “Camp Inch” but not realizing they are sisters. There was enough complexity at play here for me to wonder how clear the set-up was for my seven-year-old self, though I don’t recall confusion at the time.

How much did children enjoy summer camp in those days? I attended one for summer 1967, don’t recall if it was for week’s duration, or more. The whole experience is more-less a blank, though not an ordeal. Expectation going in saw “Camp Susan Barber Jones” (gone now) as much like Camp Inch, which it would be in essential ways. We got hot dogs, baked beans, and ice cream in little cups. There were activities, some of which I ducked for quiet reading with all three issues of Monster Mania packed along. Camp Inch seems the more idyllic in hindsight. They had mischief and conflict, if no boys on site. When did camps go co-ed, or did they ever? Marjorie Morningstar in 1958 made it clear that sneaking across the lake to visit male campers would lead to despoilage. Camp Inch arranges a dance with boy guests, Annette on shellac singing Let’s Get Together for accompany. Off-track but brief inquiry: Would Disney have entrusted The Parent Trap to Annette? I think not. Part reason The Parent Trap got made was Hayley Mills being actress enough, at fourteen, to manage it. She was the realest deal of talent discoveries Disney made.

We were startled when Sharon and confederates scissored the back of Susan’s dress to reveal underpants beneath, getting the view along with stunned partiers. Imagine if they had done that with Annette. PCA authority would surely have closed Walt’s shop down, then taken a harder look at Moon Pilot and all else of what he was up to. Daring still with near-as-dishy Hayley, who I’m informed was intense crush-bait for age group somewhat past my own in 1961. Slapstick reigns at Camp Inch, “Miss Inch” presumed owner of the acreage getting three-layer face-full of cake with icing, a moment writer-director David Swift wanted to excise till Disney saw it and demurred, “It will be the biggest laugh in the picture,” and so it was. Mills separates the personalities with aplomb, Sharon knowing who Gilbert and Sullivan were while Susan does not, opposite being case where reference is to Rick Nelson. We are given to understand that Sharon was spared dubious benefits of the popular culture by her high-born Boston family (would that include Walt Disney movies?). I’ve been enriched these sixty years by knowing Gilbert and Sullivan did not get along, if little else about them. Also learned from The Parent Trap what “Coventry” meant. Who says films were a waste of time? Sharon and Susan snack on Fig Newtons. Does anybody still? I haven’t had one since The Parent Trap came out. Proof you’re seeing a good picture is when it inspires you to go out and get food the cast is eating. Best of recreation at Camp Inch is spotting the double for Hayley Mills, which Blu-Ray makes easier. I found at least two instances where she is full-face visible, and likely there are more so far eluding me.

Annette and Tommy Sands Perform the Title Song for a Disneyland Episode

Maureen O’Hara was promised star billing. Her agent memorialized the deal with Walt Disney. She held out for $75K against WD effort to pull her down, got the desired figure. Shock and surprise came when credits/publicity read “Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap … starring Maureen O’Hara.” Lawsuits were threatened, Guild action pursued, the case, remembered O’Hara, being open/shut. Disney sent word for the actress and counsel “to go screw ourselves.” Days before battle, the threat was made explicit, “Sue me and I’ll destroy you.” O’Hara knew that he could, and so left Disney alone and took the bitter pill. She told all this in her book, published in 2004. A postscript was O’Hara’s agent meeting Disney during latter’s final illness in 1966, one of treating physicians the agent’s brother. When told the woman represented Maureen O’Hara, Walt “mustered enough strength to sit up in his bed and force out his reply: “That bitch.” Don’t know about others, but I adore “Dark Prince” tales on Disney, him human after all, intent on having his way and using all of muscle, considerable by 1961, to get it. Besides all that, billing Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills above the title was just too natural and irresistible a scheme to let pass, risk of being sued more than worth taking. What is that expression? … better to apologize after than ask permission before? I wonder what Maureen would have said had Walt offered her, say, a $10K sweetener pre-release to waive objections. Did such an idea even occur to him?

Heavies Cunning Enough To Win Give Edge to The Parent Trap

1961 was still a time when good parents social-drank at home while their children meekly had ginger ale. The first photo Sharon sees of her father has him posed with a cigarette. “Reverend Mosley” (Leo G. Carroll), offered refreshment, opts for “bourbon … a double … on the rocks.” Fortune hunting Vicki Robinson (Joanna Barnes) has smokes and a lighter always handy. The Parent Trap unknowingly sent signals that would resonate by 1968 when the feature was reissued, youth by then calling elders out for banning recreational drugs while they abused alcohol and nicotine. Hypocrisy, that’s what it was!, but who thought of using The Parent Trap as a weapon against the guilty generation? Besides, Susan and Sharon don’t object, or seem to notice. Susan likes that her grandfather (Charles Ruggles) smells of “tobacco and peppermint,” while Sharon all but acts as bartender for Dad. The girls serve wine for a dinner they prepare which will hopefully reunite their divorced parents. David Swift wrote and directed The Parent Trap, my impression that he took a more grown-up slant than was Disney policy before. Did Walt note this after the fact, or did they discuss and agree in advance? Swift said in later interviews that the boss left him pretty much to his own devices during filming. Sex gets piquant reference, Susan asking her mother how serious she should be about a boy met at camp, to which Mom cancels appointments for the day so that she and daughter can have a “talk.” Rugged Mitch is thrown by what appears to be Sharon inquiring about facts of life, till reassured that “I’ve known all about that for simply years.” Such talk among Disney characters was bold lift from safe marionettes they formerly were, The Parent Trap seeming to promise fresh avenues that alas would not be explored further.

She's At It Again ... Maureen More Scary Than Stimulating

Of reality to lend tang, there is the would-be marriage partner for Mitch who is less comical prop than a determined opponent who, in league with her mother, plans to trim a future husband (“Think of California and that wonderful community property law”), then ship Sharon to a “Swiss boarding school.” This is combat engaged by two who are experienced and formidable, kept but barely in check by a pair of thirteen-year-old girls. Only assurance we have of the twins’ ultimate victory is knowing audience expectation must and will be served. Consolation for would-be wife "Vicki" comes of a hard slap she’ll give one of the Hayleys upon finality of defeat. The Parent Trap resolves several conflicts with violence. As if to remind us of The Quiet Man, O’Hara punches Brian Keith in the eye and leaves a wound too realistic to enjoy for comedy, a disturbing visual Disney relied upon for both the trailer and key poster art. The Parent Trap’s concept was complex enough to need explaining in some depth by previews plus a long segment on an episode of Disneyland that pretty much gave the game away. Disney product had to sell itself by ultra-shorthand, like “Wilby turns into a sheepdog” for The Shaggy Dog, or “The Goo That Flew” for The Absent-Minded Professor. The Parent Trap taking an estimated $9.3 million in domestic rentals must have come as pleasing surprise for Buena Vista merchandisers uncertain that the story’s appeal could be communicated to would-be customers.

UPDATE: 9/6/2022 --- Donald Benson inquired as to whether Donald and the Wheel went out generally with The Parent Trap as an added featurette. Below is evidence from the 1961 pressbook suggesting it did. 


Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Despite being an extremely high profile release and remembered well thanks to seemingly incessant re-release, not to mention TV airing and, later, VHS/DVD/BLURAY accessibility, I had completely forgotten Leo G Carroll being in this....whereas I remember his turn in TARANTULA very well...

7:49 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

The best live-action film Disney ever made? A bold assertion, sir! Knowing your readership, I can imagine fingers flying over keyboards at any moment, challenging you with a host of alternative candidates (and am guessing more than a few might suggest the other Swift/Mills collaboration POLLYANNA.)

Yes, I too saw PARENT TRAP on first release and, yes, I reached Social Security age quite a few years ago. Didn't see it in a raucous theater, but a raucous car full of six siblings and two parents - drive-ins were just about the only way that brood could see the same movie at the same time. When the pandemic first kicked in, my wife and I actually went on a bit of a Hayley Mills marathon, by the way, catching up with a bunch of items we hadn't revisited in decades. A lot of it, like PT held up, and those that didn't still had Mills who, I think we all agree, certainly had the goods.

PARENT TRAP, like so many Disney animated features, is a high octane fairy tale full of slapstick, crazy impossibilities, sentiment and, every so often little stabs of recognizable reality. Yeah, that slap is one. We kinda cheer the gold digger for a few seconds... whatever her foibles, she's one adult on site has the kids' number.

Always wonder how many kids with divorced parents fantasized after seeing this one. PT is also a fairly rare example of a Disney remake (the 1998 one) turning out pretty good on its own terms.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

And of course, later, after UNCLE, saw most of his Hitchcock work and finally caught up with TOPPER in the early 70s on a local UHF channel.... an extremely varied career, to say the least....

10:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"The Best" should perhaps be amended to read "My Personal Favorite." Sentiment and seeing THE PARENT TRAP first-run of course enters into that equation.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I am several months older than the goddess Haley Mills, and saw the film as many times as I could while it was in town (TWO movie theaters in a town of 6,000!). I had belatedly just discovered girls and sex. While she still remains in my pantheon, Ms. Mills did not age well as an adult and I (somewhat) switched my yearnings toward her older sister Juliet.
My other fantasy love was Debra Paget (snakes, anyone?).

11:39 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Mills and Swift are teamed for entertaining commentaries on "The Parent Trap" and "Pollyanna" for the sadly short-lived Vault Disney line.

Maybe a semi-adult comedy was Walt's way of rewarding Swift for the epically wholesome "Pollyanna", and trusting him to handle new star Hayley as well as he did there. Biggest theater laugh I can recall on a re-release was Keith, unaware O'Hara is in the house, finding her substantial bra. He goes to ask his daughter about it and changes his mind. Not sure I saw in a theater on first release, but I do remember "Let's Get Together" was inescapable for a summer or so.

For all the nominally naughty touches the underlying message is pure 50s, frankly anti-divorce and anti-remarriage. But then, most Hollywood sex farces were equally bullish on the old social rules. Interesting to note that a later Disney franchise, "The Santa Clause", not only featured a divorced hero, but made his ex and her new family good, helpful characters.

There are classics, and there are films we watch far more often. Of Mills's Disney pics, the ones I pull out for casual viewing are "In Search of the Castaways" and "Summer Magic". You covered the latter here:

I know that "Summer Magic", "Johnny Tremain", and "In Search of the Castaways" have each graced my home screen more often than "Mary Poppins", "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" or "Swiss Family Robinson". The latter films I rank higher as favorites, but you have to be in the right mood and appetite to appreciate a thick steak. Most nights cravings are fulfilled by an honest sandwich with familiar condiments.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

I have a niece who loves the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap," but I have, so far, failed completely at trying to interest her in watching the original. When there's a hip, shiny, contemporary "Parent Trap" available, why sit through one that's so old you can probably glimpse pterodactyls flying overhead in the outdoor scenes.

Director David Swift and Walt Disney clashed, I read somewhere, over the use of special effects in "Parent Trap." Swift wanted to minimize the trick photography that placed the two girls in the same frame, preferring over-the-shoulder shots with a double, but Walt liked the trick stuff and kept after Swift to go that route as much as possible.

You ask do people still snack on Fig Newtons. There's rarely a time when there isn't a package of them in my kitchen.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

This film is from before my time, and I've not seen it; but from the descriptions of its plot it seems to me Walt had a soft spot for people just a little bit on the "outside" of things.
I mean, divorce in the early 1970s ( never mind the early 1960s) I remember as being but rarely mentioned - at that time I was but a child, and that topic simply never came up in the society I was then keeping. But I have little doubt that, when this film was new, children of divorced parents were simply not considered the "norm" - but then again, "no-fault" divorce and spousal property rights arising outside of formal marriages were unknown under the law back then, too, so perhaps this past attitude to these topics ought not to be surprising.
My main point, though, is how Disney's live-action stuff always seems to involve protagonists who are somehow "outside" of society, but who nevertheless work to make things somehow better for those who are unquestionably on the "inside" of society, without those "insiders" being meanwhile aware of the "outsiders" efforts to do so.
Disney's best live-action film - 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea - depicts the "outsider" being literally destroyed in his attempts to do so, and so that film in its depiction of Captain Nemo's destruction became something a little more than a mere children's movie seeking to teach by demonstration the joys and benefits of working to better society despite of one's differences from the 'norm'.
I wonder how much of this - plots involving outsiders working to improve things for insiders but with the latter either ignorant of, or if aware hostile to, the outsiders' efforts to do so - had to do with Walt's own self-image of what he had been doing in the film business.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

If Parent Trap were re-released today, it would get a PG thanks to the drinking and smoking. Maybe the cigarettes and glasses would get digitally erased.

1:42 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Just noticed The Beautiful Vogue is also showing "Donald and the Wheel". a new two-reel special. It's approximately educational, very much a followup to "Donald in Mathmagic Land" but not achieving that film's schoolroom immortality.

Two spirits of invention (silhouettes of live actors) try to convince a caveman (Donald Duck, always in that character) to invent the wheel. They offer a musical history of its applications. It ends with a modern-day freeway pileup of what seem to be xeroxed cars, at which point Donald says phooey and returns to dragging his wheelless cart. The spirits shrug it off, since they know SOMEBODY will invent it. Like "Mathmagic Land" and the two "Adventures in Music" cartoons, it's less instruction than an excuse for light gags and design experiments. At one point a live-action dancer introduces our caveduck to various types of music, the rationale being that a jukebox turntable is a kind of wheel.

Was "Donald and the Wheel" officially packaged with "The Parent Trap"? In past you've written about Disney/RKO pushing all-Disney programs, usually including a cartoon and a True Life Adventure with the feature, to bring the show up to a length that precluded a double feature with another studio's product.

5:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Donald --- Check the post, as I've just added a pressbook section promoting DONALD AND THE WHEEL as part of a "Perfect Theatre Program" with THE PARENT TRAP.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

I think I saw The Parent Trap in a theater, most likely at a drive-in. I doubt it was 1961, I was four that year. Reissue? Kiddie matinee somewhere? I certainly remember the song being sung by the stereo Hayleys. "A gruesome twosome we will be" - this is the kind of terrible lyric that burns itself into your mind. How many of these Disney live action pictures, or pictures like them, were built on the remarriage premise? Seems to me to have been several.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Pretty sure this was the last film our ma took us kids to see one Saturday. (She simply stopped going to movies). Disney films were big events thru the mid-60s & PT was one of the biggest from what I remember.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I took a moment to look at a list of Walt's live-action films, the ones he himself worked on or oversaw - and it turns out that the only ones I've ever seen, and all on videotape, are "20,000 Leagues", "Swiss Family Robinson" and the "Love Bug".
I'm not sure where I formulated the thesis informing my previous comment, above, but it turns out that it wasn't from watching Walt's live-action films!

6:12 AM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

The RKO circuit in NYC split their 27 neighborhood theaters into a group of 14 showing "Parent Trap", "Donald at the Wheel" and another animated featurette "The Saga of Windwagon Smith" and the remaining theaters showing the first two with a Fox Korean War drama "Sniper's Ridge". I saw the latter bill which I find interesting since the Fox film is an atypical, anti-heroic, psychological, low budget war drama. Not the type of film Buena Vista usually paired their product with. I guess the 61 minute run time was attractive to them and it helped bring some of the dads (like mine) to the theatres.

10:44 AM  

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