It may not strictly be a summer camp movie like “Meatballs” or “Wet Hot American Summer,” but for many of us — whether we first saw it in theaters or on VHS (or DVD) — “The Parent Trap” was our introduction to the sleepaway camp experience. (In my case, almost literally: I went to summer camp near the location used for Camp Inch.) Starring British child actress Hayley Mills in dual roles as twins Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, the 1961 Disney classic was a box-office hit, later spawning three sequels and a 1998 remake with Lindsay Lohan.
“The Parent Trap” was a vehicle for Mills, who had just starred in “Pollyanna,” the first of her six Disney movies. Bill Dover, head of Disney’s story department, read a book by children’s author Erich Kästner called Das Doppelte Lottchen (also known as Lottie and Lisa) about separated identical twins who meet at camp and conspire to reunite their divorced parents. Kästner’s plot was loosely inspired by the 1936 comedy “Three Smart Girls,” a Best Picture Oscar nominee starring Deanna Durbin, about three sisters who run away from their mother’s home in Switzerland to halt their father’s remarriage in New York. Disney acquired the screen rights and gave the project to screenwriter-director David Swift (“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”), who had also worked on “Pollyanna.”
Swift cast Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith as parents Maggie McKendrick and Mitch Evers, but the movie is, of course, famous for its stunt casting of Mills as both twins. Though a stand-in (an uncredited Susan Henning) doubled for obscured and long shots, camera tricks developed by legendary animator Ub Iwerks and Oscar-nominated editing by Philip W. Anderson allowed Mills to appear opposite herself in split screen. Even by today’s advanced standards, the result is remarkably convincing; you’d have to be made of stone not to be charmed by Mills duetting with herself on the catchy “Let’s Get Together.”
Billed as a kids’ movie, “The Parent Trap” has plenty to offer adults, from its comedic moments to its lust-worthy real estate (seriously, that house) to the very grown-up sizzle between O’Hara and Keith (who reunited for Sam Peckinpah’s debut “The Deadly Companions”). And, in fact, the chemistry of the adult leads provides the heart of what’s arguably a sophisticated romantic comedy. In a 2006 New Yorker article, Anthony Lane, citing Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s famous How to Read Donald Duck, discussed the lack of parents in Disney movies. Main characters often have one or no parents, ultimately creating an “instant family, stirring together a handful of unlikely acquaintances.” “The Parent Trap” is one of the few Disney pictures with two parents, though separated, and their reunion is a romantic fantasy not just about marriage but also about family. As Mills said in a making-of documentary, “I meet people all the time and have letters all the time, still to this day, from people who say that ‘The Parent Trap’ was a very important film for them, that it was a very significant film in their life, that they found it a really empowering movie because the children take charge of the situation and bring it to a very satisfactory conclusion.”
That emotional fulfillment, along with the winning cast and witty script, is part of the film’s timeless appeal. But, ultimately, we still think of “The Parent Trap” as one of the great movies about summer, from its opening sleepaway camp scenes to the climactic hiking trip in the mountains. Convincing someone that banging two sticks together scares off mountain lions? That trick never gets old.