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The Parent Trap

The Parent Trap(1961)

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One of the Baby Boomers' most fondly remembered Disney live-action films, The Parent Trap (1961) offers double the pleasure of British teen sensation Hayley Mills. She plays identical twins whose parents divorced when the girls were infants, each parent taking one of the twins. Sharon has been raised by her mother (Maureen O'Hara) in Boston, and Susan by her father (Brian Keith) in California. The girls are unaware of each other's existences until they meet at camp. They switch places to get to know the parents they've never met, then conspire to re-unite the estranged couple.

Mills had made an impressive movie debut in the British film Tiger Bay (1959) at the age of 13, playing alongside her father, British star John Mills. Walt Disney saw that film, and immediately put Hayley under contract, giving her the title role in Pollyanna (1960). The film made Mills a star, and earned her a special Oscar® for her performance. The Parent Trap was Mills' follow-up to Pollyanna, and was even more successful.

The scenes of the twins interacting were filmed in two ways. One was with over-the-shoulder and long shots using a double for Mills. The other was by using double exposure process shots when both twins were seen side-by-side facing the camera. The original plan had been to use mostly the latter process, which was complicated and difficult to do in those pre-computer days. Director David Swift and cinematographer Lucien Ballard preferred working with the double, Susan Henning, and although they shot the double exposure scenes, they initially used very few of them in the edited film. But in an interview in Leonard Maltin's The Disney Films, Ballard claimed that "Walt made me put some of the trick shots back because he...liked technical things." In truth, the trick shots were so well done, and Mills's performance was so good and so specific and different for each character, that those shots were very effective. Henning's "performance" was also very well done, and though her contract stipulated that she would not receive screen credit, at the wrap party for the film Walt Disney presented her with a statue of Donald Duck, called the "Duckster," for "best unseen performance." Henning did have a minor career as an actress, including a bit part in the Elvis Presley movie, Live a Little, Love a Little (1968).

Brian Keith had been playing cops, cowboys, and other tough guys for a decade when he played his first romantic comedy lead in The Parent Trap. It was the beginning of a new phase of Keith's career, which included leads in romantic and family comedies such as With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), opposite Doris Day. It also included a very successful comedy series, Family Affair (1966-71), in which Keith played the comically befuddled guardian of three young orphans.

The Parent Trap also came at a crucial time in Maureen O'Hara's career. She had been a top star in the 1940s and 50s. But in 1957, the scandal magazine Confidential published a scurrilous and false story that she'd been spotted having sex in the balcony of Grauman's Chinese theater. She sued the magazine and won, but the protracted legal battle and bad publicity had halted her career. She had recently made a comeback in the prestigious and well-received British film, Our Man in Havana (1959) when the offer came from Disney to star in The Parent Trap. Although O'Hara loved the script and needed the work, she was reluctant to accept the role because Disney was offering her only a third of her customary salary. O'Hara held firm, and Disney capitulated, giving her the salary she demanded but she did not win another battle, over billing. Her contract stipulated that no other actress would be billed above her, but Disney wanted to exploit Hayley Mills's popularity, so she was billed -- twice, as "Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills" -- above the title, with O'Hara and Keith given starring billing below the title. In her autobiography, O'Hara claims she wanted to sue, but "Mr. Disney had sent me a message through the grapevine, and it was startlingly clear: 'Sue me and I'll destroy you.'" She did not sue, but she never worked for Disney again. O'Hara also claimed that a few years later, she pitched Disney the idea of a film version of the book Mary Poppins with her in the lead, which was rejected. Soon after, Disney purchased the rights to the book, and made a very popular film with Julie Andrews in the title role.

In spite of those issues, O'Hara enjoyed working on The Parent Trap, and was impressed by Mills's talent and dedication. She observed how hard Mills worked on her American accent, and how well she developed the characters of the two girls. "It got quite confusing, and even Hayley only knew which girl she was playing by which wig she was wearing. She hated wearing those wigs and thought the short one made her look like Laurence Olivier in Hamlet," O'Hara wrote.

Mills also displayed another talent in The Parent Trap. The song that the twins sing in the film, "Let's Get Together," was actually performed by Mills, who had a pop hit with her recording of the song. The title song in the film was sung by Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, who were filming Babes in Toyland (1961) on the Disney lot at the time.

Critics agreed that Mills was something special. According to the New York Times, the film "should be most appealing to parents as well as to children, because of the cheerfully persuasive dual performances of Hayley Mills." Time magazine called it "delightful," and the Sunday London Times compared Mills to Mary Pickford. Over the next few years, Mills made several more films for Disney, none as successful as The Parent Trap, before leaving the studio in 1965 to pursue more varied roles. In the mid-1980s, she reprised her The Parent Trap characters as adults in a sequel for the Disney Channel, Parent Trap II (1986). Two more TV sequels followed, but none matched the charm of the original. Neither did a 1998 remake, starring Lindsay Lohan as the twins.

Director: David Swift
Screenplay: David Swift; Erich Kastner (book "Das Doppelte Lottchen")
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Robert Clatworthy
Music: Paul Smith
Film Editing: Philip W. Anderson
Cast: Hayley Mills (Sharon McKendrick/Susan Evers), Maureen O'Hara (Margaret 'Maggie' McKendrick), Brian Keith (Mitch Evers), Charlie Ruggles (Charles McKendrick), Una Merkel (Verbena), Leo G. Carroll (Rev. Dr. Mosby), Joanna Barnes (Vicky Robinson), Cathleen Nesbitt (Louise McKendrick), Ruth McDevitt (Miss Inch), Crahan Denton (Hecky), Linda Watkins (Edna Robinson), Nancy Kulp (Miss Grunecker).
C-129m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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