2 October 2001 | TJBNYC
Sassy, warm and genuinely funny
"Family" movies usually make me cringe. Saccharine plots, cloying kiddie actors, goopy dialogue...no, thank you! But "The Parent Trap" succeeds admirably as both children-friendly fare and reasonably witty, sophisticated comedy.
The high-class production values don't hurt, and neither does the superb cast, right down to the character roles. The ever-dependable Una Merkel is a gem as the smart-talking maid, having lost none of her streetwise timing since her brassy blonde days in the 1930's. Charlie Ruggles is extraordinarily lovable as the grandfather, and Cathleen Nesbitt plays wonderfully against type as the domineering grandmother. Leo G. Carroll once again benefits a film simply by his appearance, and even Nancy "Miss Hathaway" Kulp is on board as a butch camp counselor (quite a stretch).
Of course, at the heart of it all, is the bravura performance of Hayley Mills as twins Susan and Sharon. She's never revoltingly sweet--there's a winning streak of spice in her personality that separates her from all other child stars. Plus, her kicky pre-Beatles British accent and snub-nosed beauty lend her a more worldly air than her contemporaries.
The ravishing Maureen O'Hara, in one of her last major roles as the twins' mother, Maggie, begins the film as a nondescript cipher, but her glamorous metamorphosis in the latter half of the film shows just how funny and sexy she can be. Mitch, the twins' father, is played by the ruggedly handsome Brian Keith, who generates the right mixture of roughneck toughness and paternal warmth.
And the criminally-overlooked Joanna Barnes plays Vicki, the predatory golddigger looking to sink her claws into Mitch. Vicki's verbal duels with Maggie and the twins are surprisingly catty for a children's film, and delivered with perfect villainy.
The very 1961 flourishes are priceless: the hopelessly tone-deaf Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello "singing" the theme song; the "formal" dance, with the girls all decked out in crinolines and laces; Susan plastering her bungalow wall with pictures of her favorite pin up boys (Rick Nelson!); and, my personal favorites, Sharon and Susan showing each other their parents' photos: hyper-posed, glamorous Hollywood 8x10 glossies!
The plot actually plays like a highly sanitized Rock Hudson/Doris Day bedroom farce, except that Susan and Sharon direct the course of action. You know what the ending will be even before you watch the movie, but it doesn't really matter. This is a delicious bon-bon of a flick, as irresistible to adults as to their children.