His and hers…I feel like a bathroom towel.

The Parent Trap (1961)
The Parent Trap (1998)

Anne: Last night I decided to re-watch the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap…and then I decided that it wouldn’t be a proper trip down memory lane without re-watching the original Hayley Mills movie. I wasn’t necessarily intending to write about them–obviously they’re not on our blog list, not being animated, plus we would have had 11 years of movies to get through between Cinderella and the original Parent Trap anyway–but I had so many thoughts that I decided to hijack the blog and go rogue with a non-canon solo post (with my partner-in-crime’s blessing, of course!).

All I really remembered about the original was the camp stuff–the wonderful pranks (“Where are you going to find ants at night, silly?”), Susan telling Sharon that she looked like Frankenstein, the hapless Miss Inch, the march to the isolation cabin, eating Fig Newtons, the discovery that Sharon had a photo of Susan’s mother (“She’s my mother too!”), coming up with the plan, cutting Sharon’s hair, each girl teaching the other to play her part. And I remembered “Let’s Get Together,” of course, and certain bits and pieces of the material in between. But I didn’t really remember what makes the movie so good, which is the fact that once the girls leave camp, it’s a story about their parents, played by Brian Keith and the glorious Maureen O’Hara.

In the Lindsay Lohan version, Elizabeth (Natasha Richardson) is a wedding dress designer and Nick (Dennis Quaid) owns a vineyard. They both achieved success and built exactly the lives they wanted for themselves after getting divorced–and they seem very happy in those lives. What struck me about the Hayley Mills film is how UNHAPPY both Mitch and Maggie are, and that makes the plot to bring them together even more poignant. Mitch has lots of money and a big house in Monterrey, but he looks uncomfortable with them; his engagement to the evil Vicki (Joanna Barnes) seems like the logical next step in attaining affluence and status, rather than an older man in love with a younger woman. Maggie is an old-fashioned Boston society matron living with her aristocratic controlling mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) and her doormat of a father (Charlie Ruggles).

Natasha Richardson’s character was reluctant to go to Napa to see her ex-husband…but Maureen O’Hara’s Maggie clearly (to me, anyway) can’t wait to get out of her stifling life at home. She gets her hair cut (with some prompting from her father, and Susan), buys some new clothes, and goes straight to California–in fact, straight to her ex-husband’s house and shower!–to show that Mitch how utterly fabulous she still is.

I think what makes this movie stronger than its remake (among other things) is that before they set the Parent Trap in motion, neither Sharon nor Susan have such great home lives. They’re certainly loved and cared for, but I think they way they describe their parents when they’re at camp is wishful thinking, for Sharon especially. Maggie is beautiful at the start, but oh, so tight-laced and stoic; somebody so dutiful that she almost goes to a Red Cross fundraiser instead of spending the day with her daughter who just came home from camp, and who defers to her mother in all things. And Susan says that everything is just “Dad and me” in California, but Mitch is running a ranch; it seems like Susan is actually closer to Verbena, the housekeeper, who says, “You used to confide in me.” Unlike Dennis Quaid’s Nick, Brian Keith doesn’t seem like the kind of father you could talk to or really connect with.

But when Mitch and Maggie meet again for the first time in thirteen years, it is instantly clear that when they were together they were the best versions of themselves. Maggie loosens up, relaxes, and becomes the kind of “divine” mother that the twins wish they had; Mitch becomes softer, less hyper-masculine, a little more romantic. I love the scene when Mitch sees the girls together for the first time and becomes, well, more like Dennis Quaid, actually.

What we also get to see in the original version that is totally absent from the 1998 film is the reason Mitch and Maggie split up in the first place. In the Lindsay Lohan version when Nick and Elizabeth are reunited, there is no indication of what may have passed between them to bring about the separation and the his-and-hers kids arrangement; we are informed that Elizabeth once threw a hair-dryer at Nick, then packed her bags and left, but we see none of the fire that must have once been there. Mitch and Maggie, on the other hand, immediately fall to verbal sparring. The chemistry is palpable–it’s easy to guess that the passion that brought them together also brought about their eventual separation. They can barely have a conversation without fighting, and in their first scene together she punches him in the face (and this is after not having seen each other in almost fifteen years!).

To me it’s absolutely clear that Maggie goes to California knowing that if she sees Mitch again, sparks will fly–but she’s tired of tamping down her fiery temper and fabulosity. Maureen O’Hara pretty much steals the second half of this movie for me. My favorite moment is when the girls tell her that Mitch is going to be married on Saturday, and you can see the heartbreak cross her face for just a second, before she pulls out some of that Boston self-control and makes a conscious decision to make everyone in the house fall in love with her. Including the Reverend Mosby and Vicki’s mother, Edna. When she insists that Vicki go on the camping trip with Mitch and the girls, Maggie knows exactly how badly it will go…and upon his return, Mitch finds her adorably barefoot and aproned. And there’s the moment where she has a knot in her apron (put there on purpose, perhaps?) and she asks Mitch to help her untie it, and a look flickers across Maureen O’Hara’s face, like, I’m going to get him to put his hands on my waist right now.

I think my point is that this is one of those really special movies that starred a young girl and was marketed to a Disney audience, but that both children and parents could enjoy. There are even things in the camp section that went over my head as a kid (who were Pelléas and Mélisande, for instance? Who, come to think of it, were Gilbert and Sullivan?). The Parent Trap is not only a feel-good family movie that is entirely appropriate for kids, but also a surprisingly sophisticated story about two grown-ups who never stopped loving each other.

And I haven’t even talked about Hayley Mills yet, have I? Gosh! Okay, so…this may be a little blasphemous, but I think I enjoy Lindsay Lohan’s performance as Hallie and Annie more than Hayley Mills’s performance as Sharon and Susan. That said, Mills gives a more impressive performance by actually managing to create two distinct characters. Lohan had the easier job–to play Annie, most of the work was done as soon as she put on the English accent. Sharon and Susan are both American, with slightly different American accents and inflections. “Cahn’t, shahn’t, aunt!”

Sharon is clearly meeker, more bookish and thoughtful, while Susan is brash, boy-crazy and athletic. (On that topic, while it makes sense for Sharon not to have heard of Ricky Nelson, growing up in her very strict Boston home in the 1960s, there is NO WAY that Annie, a Londoner with a fashion designer for a mother, would not have heard of Leonardo DiCaprio. Moving on.) Mills does a lot of that just with the voices of the two characters, especially in the beginning when they are so distinct. And I love Susan as the belty pop singer and Sharon more classical in “Let’s Get Together.”

To me it’s a very thoughtful performance, while Lohan’s–much as I enjoy it, and it’s pretty seriously cute–is more gimmicky. She’s a good child actress who could put on a creditable English accent, but has to mostly rely on the writing to get the differences in the characters across (Annie says things like “You gave me a fright” and “It’s a horrid habit,” while Hallie says “like” a lot). Hayley Mills really does give two different performances–and it’s fun to see what happens when Sharon and Susan are posing as one another, because the slip-ups are very, very subtle.

With regard to supporting characters, I like Chessy (Lisa Ann Walter) and Martin (Simon Kunz) very much in the 1998 movie, though I find it highly implausible that they would end up together (mostly because my gaydar goes crazy when he comes onscreen!). They both have lovely relationships with the girls, and I love the scene when Chessy realizes that Hallie is actually Annie. But I also think that Una Merkel’s no-nonsense housekeeper Verbena–“I’m not saying a word, not a single word”–and Crahan Denton’s soft-hearted ranch hand Hecky are more interesting, and it’s a lot funnier when they become co-conspirators, especially Hecky’s turn as a gypsy when the girls recreate their parents’ first date at Martinelli’s. The two fiancées–Joanna Barnes as Vicki and Elaine Hendrix as Meredith–are suitably evil, both uttering the classic Elsa Schraeder line about shipping the girls off to boarding school as soon as they’re married. “Baroness Machiavelli!” I think Barnes is slightly funnier in the camping scene, and she does get to have a full-out temper tantrum…but Hendrix gives Dennis Quaid the acid ultimatum: “Them or me?” T-H-E-M, them.

All in all, I enjoy both films, but I think the original has the upper hand. It’s richer, better-written, more complex, and much more witty in a grown-up way. And much as I like Natasha Richardson as the twins’ mother in the re-make, Maureen O’Hara is absolutely the life-blood of the original movie, and creates an indelible film character even independent of the mixed-up twins plot.

To conclude, let me just say that when I went to summer camp, nobody ever managed a prank quite like the one Susan and her friends play on Sharon–the one with the honey and the strings everywhere. And what’s great about that prank is that it becomes a pretty strong plot device later on, when the twins recreate it in Vicki’s tent on the camping trip. It’s pretty epic in the re-make as well (pretty impressive Rube Goldberg-machine-type rigging from little Hallie!), but instead of using it on Vicki, the girls drag her air mattress into the lake. Which is funny enough, but we don’t get that flash of recognition we get in the original when we realize that they’re calling back to the earlier plotline, when the twins were enemies. A neat bit of storytelling, that.

Our next canon film is Alice in Wonderland, and guess what? We’re going to watch it TOGETHER! In Chicago! Unheard of! Absurd!


P.S. “And remember, you must bring Mother to California. Boston is no place to re-kindle a romance!”


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