Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Parent Trap" (1961)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

I grew up watching the The Parent Trap a lot. Not the 1961 version starring Hayley Mills, which is the subject of this post, but rather Nancy Meyers' surprisingly faithful 1998 remake that introduced the world to Lindsay Lohan. I'm not even sure that I remember why: I don't think my family owned it on VHS, but I distinctly remember seeing it frequently. In any case, I know that version well enough that, watching the 1961 original for the first time, I was struck by how well I could remember the remake and play "spot the difference" even though it's been at least a decade since I've seen Meyers' version. But "spot the difference" isn't the reason we're here, is it?

The Parent Trap stars Mills, then coming off her starmaking performance in Pollyanna the previous year, in the dual role of Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick, twins separated shortly after they were born who are reunited by chance at summer camp. Susan lives in California with her father, Mitch (Brian Keith), while Sharon lives in Boston with her mother, Maggie (Maureen O'Hara). After realizing that their single parents are in fact their parents, the girls set in motion an elaborate plan to reunite the broken family by switching places. Their plan faces a major obstacle, however, when Mitch reveals his engagement to Vicky (Joanna Barnes), who wants to marry into Mitch's considerable fortune.

The film is an eclectic mix of genres: a screwball farce, a romantic comedy, a family drama, all wrapped up in a Disney-approved family-friendly bow with a few nods to teen rock 'n' roll flicks to boot. What's perhaps most surprising about the film is how the film shifts between these modes fluidly while maintaining the distinctions between them. The film is never really so much a genre blender as it is a genre buffet: some exaggerated mischief here, an emotional realization there, but not letting anything on the metaphorical plate touch.

More after the jump.

For example, the film begins and ends with its most mischievous moments. When the girls meet each other for the first time at camp, they immediately launch into a rivalry that begins with a few childish insults and quickly escalates into elaborate pranks and the madcap destruction of the camp's dance. Similarly, the penultimate set-piece of the film - a camping trip with Mitch and Vicky - sees the girls uniting in their mischief to drive Vicky away, culminating in bears licking her honey-coated feet. These are obviously the moments most geared toward the children in the audience, and they are the most comedic moments in the film. Yet they function as bookends to the film, sandwiching the more difficult emotional content of the central conflict: mending a broken family after discovering it was broken in the first place.

Despite some dodgy linguistics (both her Napa Valley and Boston accents are distinctly British), Mills' performance has surprising emotional maturity. Of course, she excels at playing the impish nature of a 13-year-old girl twice over, but what's truly impressive is how she differentiates Susan and Sharon's responses to meeting their opposite parents for the first time. Susan, meeting Maggie, is overwhelmed by her mother's posh home but let down by her busy calendar. Sharon, meanwhile, is more restrained, soaking in her new environment but much more distraught by the introduction of Vicky. In both characters, she confronts the difficult terrain of discovering family secrets, and she plays these moments surprisingly well.

One of the best comes when the girls are shacked up together in the Isolation Cabin at camp. Susan puts pictures of her teen idols on the wall of the cabin, including Elvis Presley and actor/singer Ricky Nelson:

A gust of wind dislodges most of the pictures, leading to the first moment in which the girls speak to each other as potential friends. Their bond is deepened over Nelson, whom Sharon does not recognize. Susan explains who he is with incredulity, but a subsequent shot reveals Nelson's headshot on the bed next to Sharon, indicating the twins' budding shared interest.

It's a small moment, and possibly even an accidental one. It does, however, indicate that the girls are warming to one another and that they will soon discover a great bond than mutual affection for a pop singer.

Running parallel to the twins' attempts to mend their broken family is an examination of why it fell apart in the first place. It's here that, for a family film, The Parent Trap entertains some complex ideas about marriage. Once reunited in California, Maggie and Mitch can hardly spend a moment around one another without verbally (and sometimes physically) sparring with one another. Yet it's also clear what did - and still does - attract them to each other: a hinted-at sexual dynamism that suggests that when the relationship was good, it was really good. This is not a novel idea in film by any means. It is, to borrow Stanley Cavell's term, a literal comedy of remarriage: a man and a woman who can't stand one another but also can't get away from one another finally come together in a manner that upholds the primacy of heteronormative coupledom. Or, in other words, we know this couple is going to learn to love one another all over again.

And sure enough, there's a palpable sexual tension whenever Keith and O'Hara share the screen. This is most evident in one of the film's final scenes, when Mitch and the girls return from their camping trip without Vicky in tow and the engagement called off. With the girls blissfully retreating upstairs, Mitch lingers in the kitchen as Maggie puts the finishing touches on a stew. The costuming accentuates their beauty: Mitch's masculine chest hair protruding from his unbutton shirt collar, Maggie's shoulders nearly bare in a green satin blouse (no man is a match for O'Hara in green; see also: The Quiet Man).

This is the moment of reconciliation, as Mitch tells Maggie what he missed about her. In the midst of his confession, Maggie asks Mitch for assistance in untying her apron.

*Best Shot*

Again, for a family film released by Disney, it's an incredibly erotic moment. O'Hara's face conveys the sensual pleasure of the act, at first surprised but then glowing with satisfaction. It's not long after this moment that the couple kisses, the broken home turned into a happy home. It's a pat, simple ending to be sure; that's fairly commonplace in the comedy of remarriage. But you'd hardly expect this kind of sexual heat from a Disney comedy.

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