Wednesday, May 30, 2018

THE PARENT TRAP: Blu-ray (Walt Disney, 1961) Disney Club Exclusive

Based on a German novelette, Das Doppelte Lottchen by Erich Kästner, director David Swift’s The Parent Trap (1961) is a most delightful petty larceny – a light-hearted family entertainment that, thanks to Ub Iwerk’s ingenious sodium process split screen, convincingly sells its star, Hayley Mills as twin sisters Sharon and Susan McKendrick. The daughter of renown British movie legend, John Mills, young Hayley came to Walt Disney’s attention after her auspicious debut opposite dad in 1959’s Tiger Bay. More recently, Walt had been most impressed with the girl as she accompanied Mills, along with his wife and other daughter, Juliet during the arduous Tobago shoot on Swiss Family Robinson (1960); a move that led directly to Hayley being cast in Walt’s most anticipated live-action feature to date – Pollyanna (released the same year). Despite her youth – Hayley was, in fact, fourteen playing fourteen in The Parent Trap, she proved every bit the professional after John sat her down for a serious talk about her acting capabilities. The experience of starring in back to back Disney classics (although Pollyanna was not immediately taken to heart as such then) catapulted Hayley Mills into the stratum of superstar overnight, following in the footsteps of other Disney child star alumni, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello. 
Indeed, immediately after her special Oscar for Pollyanna, Walt labeled young Hayley “the greatest movie find in 25 years.” Mills’ great gift to the movies undeniably stemmed from her unpretentious and instinctively meaningful acting style. She seems to enter the frame fully formed; a child in years only, yet far less naïve than most, and in possession of a fresh vitality absent of the contrivances of a trained monkey.  Walt would sign Hayley to a 5-year contract. Although featured in some of the studio’s highest profile projects, including In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners, and, That Darn Cat, at least in retrospect, none of Hayley’s subsequent features would rival the spunk and energy of The Parent Trap. As she grew into adulthood, Mills also lost the ‘wholesome’ aspect that had endeared her to audiences in the first place. Although not a musical, Hayley would warble the Sherman brothers rockabilly ditty, ‘Let’s Get Together’ in The Parent Trap. This became an unanticipated big hit with prepubescent audiences, director Swift later recalling how Mill’s annunciation of several lines in the song unintentionally carried over her British accent in a picture decidedly about two American teenagers; one from Boston, the other a Southern California girl - “It certainly had its charm!”
Although no soundtrack album to The Parent Trap was ever released (odd), ‘Let’s Get Together’ was released as a single by the studio after it was discovered kids were sneaking into their local movie houses with tape recorders to capture it for posterity. In reflecting upon her years as a Disney child star, Mills was circumspect about the reasons for her success. “It was all Walt. I went to his suite at the Dorchester Hotel along with my parents, my younger brother and our Pekingese, Suki. Walt laughed a lot in rather a shy way. I found him very endearing. I think that’s what made me warm to him. I remember he and I crawling around the floor after Suki, who was eating potato crisps off of the carpet. But he was such a friend and oh, when you’re a little girl you don’t appreciate a lot of things. I miss him dearly.” 

Throughout his career, Walt Disney was as fascinated by the technical aspects of picture-making as discovering new talent to populate his films. And in this former regard, The Parent Trap is a superb pantomime of cinema trickery; Hayley Mills, effectively dissected into two sisters with very distinct personalities. Part of the believability stems from Mills’ duality; her screen double, Susan Henning cleverly used for over-the-shoulder shots, effectively wearing wigs, and possessing an uncanny resemblance around the eyes – enough, to actually be shown from the front (albeit, Henning’s face smeared with cake icing) during the battle royale that takes place between Sharon and Susan McKendrick while away at summer camp.
Initially, The Parent Trap called for only a handful of these ‘trick shots’ to be featured; the studio’s resident effects artist, Ub Iwerk’s employing a proprietary sodium vapor process (a.k.a. yellow screen) for compositing in lieu of the more time-honored chroma key technique. The sodium vapor process was, in fact, superior in this regard. It could even matte smoke without creating any hint of those disturbing ‘blue fire’ halos around its principle actors. The sodium vapor process was a photochemical technique for combining actors and backgrounds shot at different times and in different locations; the actor, in front of a white screen with a powerful sodium vapor light on them, affecting a specific color spectrum. A camera with a beam-splitter prism exposed two separate film elements; one, a color negative, practically impervious to sodium light; the other, a fine-grain B&W, extremely sensitive to its vapor’s specific wavelength. This latter element was then used to create a matte and counter-matte, allowing for the clean isolation of each element, later to be re-composited one at a time in an optical printer.
When Walt saw the few inserts of two Hayley Mills created for The Parent Trap he was so impressed by its seamlessness he immediately ordered rewrites in Swift’s screenplay to take full advantage of the uncanny effect. As Hayley Mills was relatively ‘new’ to pictures, the appearance of her mirror image, behaving differently (thanks to Mills formidable skills as an actress) interacting with herself, created a marketing sensation for the picture. Nevertheless, Walt was not about to rely solely upon a gimmick to sell The Parent Trap to audiences. And so, he populates the film with a crackerjack array of stellar Hollywood alumni; Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith to play the girl’s estranged parents, Maggie McKendrick and Mitch Evers; Charlie Ruggles and Kathleen Nesbitt as the girls’ grandparents, Charles and Louise, Una Merkel as Verbena, their housekeeper, Leo G. Carroll, an amused Reverend Dr. Mosby, and, Nancy Kulp and Ruth McDevitt as a pair of middle-age and mannish summer camp directors (Miss Grunecker and Miss Inch respectively). The one casting misfire is Joanna Barnes as Vicky Robinson, Mitch’s fiancée (Linda Watkins, playing Vicky’s mother, Edna). Vicky is oft referred to as ‘a child’ – meant to invoke a considerable discrepancy between her and Mitch’s age, and thus, amplify the incongruity of his plans to marry her. But Barnes, despite being 27 years old (to O’Hara’s 42) looks every bit as mature on screen (more so, if you ask me); making the prospect of Mitch being reunited with Maggie all the more appealing. Barnes does play a good villain, however – the enterprising ‘young thing’ with her hooks in Mitch’s wallet and plans to ship the girls off to boarding school just as soon as the band of gold has been affixed to her ring finger.
The Parent Trap was shot by cinematographer extraordinaire, Lucien Ballard – mostly, in California, with picturesque settings at Bluff Lake and Cedar Lake camps near Big Bear Lake; also, Monterey, Carmel and Placerita Canyon, where the exterior of Ever’s sprawling ranch house was built by Art Directors Carroll Clark and Robert Clatworthy. The blueprint to this abode proved so popular the Disney studios continue to receive frequently requests by affluent home owners seeking to duplicate its layout. The joke, apparently, was on them, as virtually all of the interiors were merely false fronts, reconstructed on various sound stages at the studio. Walt also assigned Paul J. Smith to underscore the picture. Smith had worked at Disney since the early 1940's, contributing background cues on many of the studio’s most beloved animated and live-action features. But Walt also wanted songs for The Parent Trap, putting the pop-tune-writing duo of Richard and Robert Sherman on the payroll to pen a title song, a tender love ballad and a specialty number to be performed by ‘the two’ Hayley Mills. ‘The Parent Trap’ is sung by Walt’s favorite Mousketeer, Annette Funicello and teenage heartthrob, Tommy Sands. Walt had hoped to make ‘a couple’ out of this pair. But after their box office implosion in his costly flop Babes in Toyland (starring Funicello and Sands), this idea was scrapped.
As the aforementioned ‘Let’s Get Together’ proved a runaway hit once The Parent Trap hit theaters, this left the Sherman’s love ballad, ‘For Now, For Always’, the only real victim of the editing process. Curious too, as Swift’s screenplay gives a big build up to the moment where Susan (masquerading as Sharon) asks her mother what song they were playing when she and Mitch first met. After some brief contemplation, Maureen O’Hara’s Maggie hums a few bars of ‘For Now, For Always’ and then contributes a brief refrain, the camera cutting to a high angle of mother and daughter strolling through the park before a quick fade to black. Apart from Susan’s fracturing of a few bars during one of her midnight conversations with Sharon, and an all too brief reprise tacked on to accompany Maggie and Mitch’s second wedding ceremony at the end of the picture, ‘For Now, For Always’ would remain unheard.
After an ebullient main title, with start/stop animation produced by Xavier Atencio, depicting a disgruntled couple, their slightly depressed daughters, and a pair of overly-amorous cherubs in hot pursuit of a reconciliation, The Parent Trap opens on Sharon McKendrick’s chauffeur-driven arrival at summer camp. The camps overseers, Miss Inch and Miss Grunecker place Sharon with a pair of roommates, Ursula (Lynette Winter) and Betsy (Kay Cole). But quickly, Sharon becomes fascinated with another girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to her. Rather jealously, this mystery girl and her cohorts sabotage Sharon’s chances to attend the much-anticipated dance featuring boys brought in from the neighboring ‘scouts’ camp. As revenge, Sharon, Ursula and Betsy cut out the back of the girl’s dress, exposing her panties during the dance. A fight breaks out between these two rivals and quickly escalates to an all-out/hair-pulling brawl. As punishment, Miss Inch confines the girls to a cabin all by themselves for the duration of their stay. At first, neither is willing to budge. But then, an impromptu thunderstorm brings out Sharon’s benevolence. The girls begin to talk and Sharon learns the other girl’s name is Susan Evers. Before long, Sharon reasons there is more to their burgeoning friendship than meets the eye and decides to share a portrait of her mother she has brought along to camp. Susan recognizes it as the same picture she remembers sitting on her father’s mantle a long time ago. It now becomes clear to both they are twin sisters, having been separated at birth after their parents’ messy divorce.
The girls hatch a plot: to trade places so they can experience what the other parent they have never known is really like. Susan cuts Sharon’s hair to fool Mitch, and the two rehearse the particulars of each other’s lifestyle and friendships so as to seamlessly pull off the ruse. Alas, like all well-laid plans, this one begins to unravel after Sharon, having met Mitch, Verbena and Susan’s beloved German Shepherd, Andromeda (the dog does not recognize Sharon and barks at her) also discovers Mitch is seeing a new woman, Vicky Robinson with whom he has already become engaged. During one of their many midnight telephone calls – to keep abreast of each other’s developments – Sharon informs Susan she must bring Maggie to California post haste to sabotage Mitch’s wedding plans. Having eavesdropped on the girls’ conversation, Sharon’s grandfather, Charles urges her to reveal the truth to her mother and grandmother the next afternoon. This half of the plot exposed, Maggie hurriedly packs for the trip to California, still unaware of Mitch’s plans to remarry. Meanwhile, Vicky, her mother, Edna and Dr. Mosby have arrived to go over the plans for the pending ceremony, presumably to take place this Saturday.
Of course, Maggie and Susan arrive in the midst, causing Mitch to badly fumble in the moment. Sending Vicky, Edna and Dr. Mosby away, Mitch and Maggie have another of their infamous arguments that, so we are led to believe, was the cause of their divorce in the first place. Mitch learns of the girls’ switch and is delighted to rediscover the daughter he has never known. For a brief wrinkle, everything appears to be in order; Maggie, making plans to return to Boston immediately with Sharon. Alas, the girls have other ideas, pulling off a convincing disguise so that neither Maggie nor Mitch can tell them apart. Sharon and Susan re-stage Maggie and Mitch’s first date in the courtyard of Mitch’s ranch house, hoping it will bring the couple together. It doesn’t. Next, the hatch a plot to go camping together as a family. At the end of the trip, come what may, Sharon and Susan will tell their parents who is who and return to their respective places of origin without incident.
Alas, Vicky is opposed to the idea of Mitch spending a weekend with his ex. Maggie quite agrees and invites Vicky on the camping expedition in her stead, electing to stay behind at the ranch. Mitch, and his hired man, Hecky (Crahan Denton) take Vicky and the girls high into the mountains. Regrettably, Vicky is not used to the great outdoors – a deficit Sharon and Susan exploit to her ever-lasting detriment. They lie to Vicky about keeping mountain lions at bay by cracking together two sticks of kindling, trick her into wading into a lake that is much too deep, and, plant a harmless tree lizard on her cantina to frighten her. That evening, Sharon and Susan rig Vicky’s tent with some twine and a trail of honey that attracts a pair of black bear cubs to begin licking her toes.  Brought to the brink of frustration, Vicky tears apart the base camp, shoving Mitch into his tent and ordering Hecky to drive her back to town. She has had enough of Mitch, the girls and the wilds to last her a lifetime. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (literally), Mitch confronts Maggie about the girls’ scheme to wreck his second marriage. But she truly had no idea what he is talking about. Recognizing Maggie’s innocence as genuine, and moreover, suddenly brought to rekindle the magic of their failed first attempt at marital bliss, Mitch confides he has never stopped loving her. Upstairs, Sharon awakens in the dead of night to ‘a crazy dream’ where she and Susan were marching in organdy dresses down a pathway to an altar. We dissolve to the moment of truth; the girls actually attending their parents’ re-marriage, officiated by Dr. Mosby, who could not be more pleased by the outcome. Thus, ends our story – happily ever after, as was always Walt’s intention from the outset.
From beginning to end, The Parent Trap is a charmer. Director, David Swift deftly handles both the comedy and melodrama with a broad and thoroughly sincere gift for maintaining this lighthearted romp. The emotional ballast of the piece is offset by the dual performance of Hayley Mills, affectingly the girl(s) every mum and dad would love to call their own.  Although the screenplay occasionally deflates into rank lampoon and mild screwball comedy it never entirely falls apart. And thus, The Parent Trap remains a deliciously concocted souffle.  The magnificent usage of the sodium process and optical printer effectively aids Hayley Mills in her deception. Never for a moment do we doubt her as two separate people with conflicting personalities. Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara are old pros and possess genuine on-screen chemistry as the feuding couple brought back from the brink. In the final analysis, The Parent Trap is perennial satisfying; a true Disney classic in Walt’s live-action canon.
The Parent Trap was released in 1998 on DVD as part of the studio’s short-lived ‘Vault Disney’ series, a deluxe offering with oodles of extras.  Unfortunately, this incarnation was a travesty in other ways.  Colors were faded – amplified during the sodium SFX – and there was a lot of edge enhancement scattered throughout. I cannot believe it has taken 18 years to get The Parent Trap remastered and released in hi-def. But finally, miraculously, we have it on Blu-ray, via Disney Inc.’s rather idiotic decision to confine most of its live-action catalog to their Disney Club; thus, making it almost impossible for anyone living outside the U.S. to buy these deep catalog titles, except through third-party distributors charging exorbitant fees. Dumb! Ah, but there is very good news for fans of this movie, as Disney Inc. has seen fit to completely remaster The Parent Trap on Blu-ray. Gone are the wan colors of yore; also, the edge enhancement. New color balancing has restored the vibrant mid-sixties hues to their original brilliance. 

Blu-ray’s sharper image makes a few fleeting references to the sodium process more transparent, but it is to the credit of the process itself that what looked convincing in 1961 remains largely convincing even today. The trick shots cleverly peppered throughout The Parent Trap are good enough to fool the eye. Occasionally, these matte shots can look slightly softer by comparison. But on the whole, the visuals here are solid and well represented, with a modicum of film grain and contrast that is bang-on. The DTS 5.1 audio is adequate without going the extra mile to win any awards. Once again, Disney Inc. has made the executive decision to jettison virtually all extras that once accompanied this release. Idiotic, if you ask me. But nobody ever does. Bottom line: The Parent Trap is a bona fide Walt Disney classic and an exuberant coming-of-age rom/com.  Every child should see it today. Forget 1998’s clumsily remade version co-starring Lindsay Lohan. It’s the original you want because, despite changing times and tastes, the performances and SFX have held up spectacularly. Good stuff here, and well worth seeing. Very highly recommended! 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
0

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