I’ve always had a very deep affection for The Parent Trap, both the 1961 original with Hayley Mills and 1998 remake with Lindsay Lohan. They were movies I frequently watched with my mom. There are not many movies about mothers and daughters – fathers get much more screen time – and when there is a mother, often they come out like Mildred Pierce or Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother. Or they’re too busy suffering à la Bette Davis to actually have a relationship with the child.
And admittedly, The Parent Trap is not specifically about mothers and daughters. It is about two twins, who never before knew each other existed, but who meet and conspire to get their parents back together. But Mom and I never failed to cry whenever Susan/Hallie would see her mother for the first time or when she gets to spend those days talking with her mother and getting to know her. I always thought those were very special moments in the film.
But for various reasons, I haven’t seen either movie in years, especially the original, which I must have seen last when I was in my early teens. However, I was recently watching a movie with Maureen O’Hara and it gave me an irresistible urge to see The Parent Trap again. So I watched it and must confess that I loved it as much as ever.
The film is less sentimental than I had remembered, partly because it really is less sentimental than the remake (though not exactly Orson Welles, either). Hayley Mills was older than Lindsay Lohan, so the film was less about cute kids and their shenanigans. She was around fourteen rather than Lohan’s twelve, which is only a two year gap, but I remember when I was twelve and my sister was fourteen and it felt like we were worlds apart, she a young lady and I still a kid. Then I became thirteen and the gap promptly closed. Hayley Mill’s Susan and Sharon are girls who are just becoming young ladies, though still innocent, interested in boys and at least aware, relatively, of the sexual dynamics at play.
There is a hilarious moment when Sharon is trying to get her father to remember her mother and he thinks she is asking about the birds and bees and tries, bumblingly, to explain, though when she figures out what he’s talking about, she says she already knows about that.
There is also far more conflict in the film than the remake or than I had recalled. Besides initially fighting with each other, Sharon fights with her father (played by Brian Keith) about his fiance, Vickie, and she doesn’t speak to him for several days. This is, admittedly, partly a calculated attempt on her part to sabotage the marriage, but it’s still conflict. And there is real, catty animosity between Vickie and Sharon (and really both girls). Even their grandparents have some conflict; their grandmother is imperious and their grandfather puts his foot down at one point.
And of course there is the conflict between Mitch and Maggie. In fact, their surprisingly sexy (for a Disney film) rapport in the film reminded me of a screwball comedy. It is a battle of the sexes, where the women generally rout the men. Poor Mitch never has a chance. He is surrounded by females; his two daughters, his gold-digging fiance and her mother and his ex-wife, all duking it out.
And despite the unifying thread of twins trying to reunite their parents, the film actually has three distinct parts to it, that explore three different forms of relationships in a family.
The first third of the film is about sibling interaction as Sharon and Susan (both played by Hayley Mills) meet at camp. They loathe each other, but after discovering they are actually twins, form a bond and grew to know each other and become allies as well sisters.
The middle part is how children interact with their parents. Susan gets to know her mother (Maureen O’Hara) and Sharon gets to know her father (Brian Keith). And you can see how their mother is rather better at fielding unexpected questions than their father is.
But by the third part, the girls actually take a back seat to their parents, who have now met and must do the rest of the work themselves. The twins may have driven Vickie away, but their parents still have to work through their own problems and admit that they miss, need and love each other.
Hayley Mills does a very good job of differentiating the two girls, one proper and more soften spoken and the other brash and tomboyish, even when they are pretending to be each other. Although by the last third of the film the two girls have essentially merged into one while the parents take over. I’ve always been a fan of Hayley Mills. Precocious without being annoying, but also still young and not striving to play wiser than she really is.
But for me a real highlight is Maureen O’Hara. She almost runs off with the picture. Warm and touching as a mother, maternal and feisty, she has excellent comedic timing and was extremely sexy. I love it when Mitch tells Vickie that Maggie is maternal and mature and then Maureen O’Hara as Maggie pops down the stairs, cheerful and gorgeous and meanwhile really socking it to Vickie by gushing over what a sweet child she is. She really does as much as the twins to drive Vickie away, putting her in a healthy tradition of screwball comedians who rout the competition, like Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife.
It was also fun to see all the character actors in this film, actors I now know from other classic movies. Mitch’s housekeeper is Verbena, played by Una Merkel, who I best remember for having a barroom brawl with Marlene Dietrich in the 1939 Destry Rides Again. And Maggie’s father is played by Charles Ruggles, who did a number of Ernst Lubitsch films in the early 1930s, like Trouble in Paradise, and also shows up as the big game hunter in Bringing Up Baby who does loon and leopard call imitations.
But the character I always remembered as a kid was Dr. Mosby, the reverend who is going to marry Mitch and Vickie, though he likes Maggie much better. Dr. Mosby is played by Leo G. Carroll, who appeared in more Alfred Hitchcock films than anyone else, six in total: North By Northwest, Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, Strangers On a Train, and The Paradine Case. Though I always think of him as Dr. Mosby.
This clip shows the film at its screwball best, when Maggie first meets Vickie while Dr. Mosby treats the entire situation as a spectator sport.