Guilty Pleasures: Todd Ritter

Guilty Pleasure: The Parent Trap
By Todd Ritter

You’re a teenage girl sent to summer camp. When you arrive, you come face to face with a fellow camper who looks exactly like you. Instead of being curious about this coincidence, the two of you rebel, engaging in an escalating war of pranks against each other. Only one of the pranks goes too far, and you find yourself thrown into seclusion with your mysterious doppelganger where you learn that you’re, gasp, long-lost sisters!

Sounds like the plot of a Lois Duncan book, no? Or maybe an episode of The Twilight Zone. But it’s not. Instead, it’s The Parent Trap, a hearty slice of American cheese served up by Walt Disney in 1961. But what seems on the surface to be harmless family fare actually gets more darkly preposterous the more you watch it. And, I hate to admit, I’ve watched it a lot.

The two identical campers are named Sharon and Susan, and both are played by Hayley Mills, the It Girl of the Disney studios throughout the sixties. It seems their parents divorced when both were babies. Instead of doing the logical thing and sharing custody, their parents decided to each take a girl and pretend the other one didn’t exist. This is the first of many, many somersaults in logic that make the movie seem like it was beamed down from the planet What The Fuck.

The second is that, instead of doubting everything they ever knew and despising the bickering parents who tore their family apart, the girls naturally decide to switch places. Sharon pretends to be Susan and goes to live with gruff dad Brian Keith. Susan becomes Sharon and lives with elegant mom Maureen O’Hara. Hijinks ensue.

You’d think their parents would figure out this ruse right away. But they don’t. I chalk it up to the fact that Brian Keith is too busy planning his wedding to a gold-digging harpy (In Disneyland, all stepmothers are gold-digging harpies.) and Maureen O’Hara is too busy being a glamorous redhead or something. It also helps that both girls speak with British accents, even though they’re supposed to be from Massachusetts and California.

The girls’ big switcheroo is eventually discovered and it’s decided that everyone should spend some time together. Instead of bitterness, remorse and revelations that will take years of therapy to unravel, everyone has a chummy time. So chummy, in fact, that Susan and Sharon hatch a plan to get rid of the gold-digging harpy and reunite their parents, even though their divorce was so rancorous that, I must remind you, they never told their twin daughters about each other. Because this is Disney, everything ends happily, with nary an emotional scar in sight. Except maybe for the gold-digging harpy, and, let’s face it, she had it coming.

As a movie, it’s pretty standard fare, one that has been remade and sequeled several times. But what makes The Parent Trap a heaping pile of greatness is the comical lengths it goes to to keep Sharon and Susan’s faces from appearing onscreen at the same time. There’s so much random cutting away from one girl to the other that a viewer could get whiplash. When they are onscreen together, one of the girls usually has her back turned toward the camera. The movie contains literally hundreds of shots of the back of Hayley Mills’ head. Or, I should say, the head of her body double. There are so many over-the-shoulder shots that the bad wig Mills’ double is forced to wear should have received second billing.

Apparently in the early sixties, it cost a lot of money to put the same actor in the frame twice. So The Parent Trap saves the effect for very special moments. There’s when Susan and Sharon meet, of course. And when the whole family is finally reunited. But the scene that best exemplifies everything that is wrong (and oh-so-right) with The Parent Trap is when Susan and Sharon serenade their parents on a “date,” a clip that I’ve dug up on YouTube so everyone can enjoy.

Notice the way Mills can’t manage to convincingly mime playing a piano or a guitar. Or how, during large parts of the song, one twin inexplicably has her back turned to the audience. Then there’s the random cutaway to the guy playing the guitar, dressed in his best Italian peasant garb.

And yet, I’m charmed every time I see it. Part of that charm stems from the quaintness of seeing analog special effects in a digital world. When hordes of marauding robots and zombies are the norm at the multiplex, it’s nice to spend a moment with movie magic that’s so distinctly old-school. The other part is that it reminds me of my childhood, lying on the living room floor and watching the movie on TV. I guess a lot of guilty pleasures are like that. They remind us of simpler, happier times.

Now, that isn’t an excuse for why I adore the movie. It’s merely an explanation. Not that I have to explain myself. That’s another great thing about guilty pleasures. You don’t need a reason to love them. You just do. And if loving The Parent Trap is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Todd Ritter is an author and editor. His second mystery, BAD MOON, was released last month by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. Visit him online at www.toddritteronline.com.