Thursday, May 03, 2007

Retro Review: A Perfect Summer Movie

Ah, what is the perfect summer movie? Spiderman? Pirates of the Caribbean? Cars?

Solid arguments could be made for any of these and countless others as well. Ever since Jaws and Star Wars were released in the mid-1970s, summer has become the season for high energy popcorn-filled trips to the local multiplexes. But my candidate for a perfect summer movie predates those two films by nearly a decade and a half, and while it was certainly a special effects powerhouse in its day, it is best remembered for its undeniable charm and the engaging performances of its cast.

The Parent Trap makes me wish I had been a kid back in the summer of 1961. Released ever so appropriately in June of that year, the film remains timeless on many levels despite being so firmly grounded in the post-war, early baby boom popular culture. From the very funny shenanigans and heartwarming discoveries at Camp Inch to the fateful camping trip where gold digger Vickie gets “submarined,” The Parent Trap just oozes summer in nearly every frame of film.

There are so many points of merit to this wonderful movie; it’s hard to know just where to start.

Well, how about the opening credits? This captivating sequence of stop-motion animation was created by T. Hee, Bill Justice and X. Atencio and echoed their earlier efforts on Noah’s Ark and foreshadowed 1962’s Symposium of Popular Songs. Accompanied by Annette Funicello’s and Tommy Sands’ bubblegum rendition of the title song, the clever vignette immediately sets a tone of fun and romance that the entire movie ultimately embodies.

The screenplay and direction of David Swift mix equal parts melodrama, romance and comedy for very satisfying results. Some reviewers, including Disney scholar Leonard Maltin, felt the film uneven in its comedy and ultimately average, a criticism I personally have to disagree with. However, nearly all critics of the time were universal in their praise of the film’s cast. Accolades were deservedly given to romantic leads Brian Keith and the always beautiful Maureen O’Hara, but the film is also notable for its equaling engaging supporting players; among them Nancy Kulp, Frank DeVol, Una Merkel, Joanna Barnes, Charlie Ruggles, Ruth McDevitt and Leo G. Carroll.
But let’s face it; from beginning to end, The Parent Trap belongs to Hayley Mills. Her remarkable performances as both Sharon and Susan are every bit as convincing as the special effects that allow her two characters to share the screen. Studio veteran Ub Iwerks supervised the processes that brought together the two distinctly different twins; it proved an amazing marriage of technical achievement with the exceptional acting of the very talented Mills.
My favorite detail from the film? When Sharon and Susan are placed in isolation at Camp Inch, their discovery of sisterhood appropriately happens within the walls of a cabin named Serendipity. But you’ve got to squint to see the sign by the cabin’s front door.

As I said near the beginning, The Parent Trap is pure summer, in atmosphere as well as setting. Filled with summer camp antics, poolside pratfalls and treks through the wilderness, it is a shining example of family entertainment made the old fashioned way. While I’ll likely be visiting places such as Far Far Away, World’s End and Spiderman’s Manhattan in the coming weeks, I will also be doing some R&R at Camp Inch and Mitch Ever’s southern California ranch. 

One minor postscript: While the 1998 Lindsay Lohan remake was not a bad movie, it was certainly unnecessary. It was one of the less than remarkable results of Walt Disney Pictures “recycling” phase of the late 1990s that begat the likes of Flubber, and the live action 101 Dalmatians among others.

Postscript #2: The two-disc Vault Disney edition of The Parent Trap is an exceptional DVD set. You can still scare up a copy of this out-of-print edition on Amazon and other various online retailers.

4 comments:

Biblio Adonis said...

Jeff,

I agree. The Parent Trap is a great summer film. But I had the biggest crush on Haley Mills when I was grwoing up in the 70's.

Chris Stangl said...

Also at the Serendipity isolation cabin: the quarrelling girls are pinned inside by a muggy summer rainstorm, and make their peace when the clouds have parted; Susan's teen idol photo collection and Sharon's classical piano training are used to sketch the girls as if they are destined to be divided, but it's also forecasting their family reunion musical mash-up "Let's Get Together"...

David Swift layered a lot of detail into his Disney films, with an animator's eye for visual storytelling and a drummer's sense of rhythm. I think despite his slim feature filmography, he's the only Disney director to give Robert Stevenson a run for his money. It's only a shame that his other feature films didn't have the benefit of Disney supervision and resources. Oh well -- that's how true love creates its beautiful agony! Some days THE PARENT TRAP is my favorite Disney live action movie... the other days it's just my favorite movie.

If Disneyland had a recreation of Mitch Evers' ranch house, it would be the most popular place in the park.

Jeff Pepper said...

Chris--

Thanks for adding those really great observations. I really feel the film is vastly underrated for all that care and detail that obviously went into it.

On my most recent viewing, I was also especially struck but some of the great dialog Swift scribed. The back and forth between Vickie and Sharon, and then later between Vickie and Maggie, was sharp and very, very funny.

beth said...

i just happened upon your blog via wdw radio show podcast and site, and i was immediately pulled to the parent trap post. it is my all-time favorite live action disney film, primarily for the nostalgic feel it oozes and for many of the same reasons you mentioned. i watched it as a kid in the 70s, and have bought the dvd to show my kids once i think they are old enough to appreciate non-animated films. it is even more endearing to me now as a mom of twins, albeit they are boy/girl twins, but nevertheless i am sure they will really enjoy that element of the storyline. thanks for the flashback and for the observations ... wish they had more films like that now, i would take my kids to see them in a heartbeat!