This is definitely another one of those, “Wait, I haven’t gotten to this yet?” movies. Not just because it’s one of the really iconic movies of the Disney live action catalog but because it’s a personal favourite. I’ve used it as an article image at least three times now. There are lines I quote from it on a regular basis—well, one, mostly, which we’ll get to in a bit. I’ve watched it probably dozens of times in my life. And I can’t help wondering if it’s something I’ve considered on multiple occasions and rejected as “Oh, I’ve probably already done it.” Which I’ve done with other movies only to discover that, in fact, I have not.
Sharon McKendrick (Hayley Mills) is starting at one of those camps that do not resemble my own past camp experience in the least. There are already people there when she gets there, but she’s staying there for weeks if not most of the summer. And one of the first people she meets is Susan Evers (also Hayley Mills). Sharon is immediately struck by their incredible physical resemblance; Susan immediately hates her for it. The pair prank each other until Miss Inch (Ruth McDevitt), who runs the camp, assigns them to a punishment cabin and issues orders (somewhat ignored, as we see) that they are to speak to no one but each other for the rest of the summer. In the first moment where they actually speak to one another, they discover that they are in fact twins whose parents divorced, each took one, and never told them about each other.
The girls decide that the obvious next step is to reunite their parents, believing that their parents—who have both remained single—never stopped loving one another. And the best way to do this, they decide, is to switch places, forcing their parents to reunite at least long enough to switch them back. So Sharon cuts off her hair and starts chewing gum and her nails and goes to California, where she promptly discovers that their father, Mitch (Brian Keith), is engaged to Vicky Robinson (Joanna Barnes). She summons Susan, who has confided in their grandfather (Charles Ruggles) who had, to his credit, started figuring it out already. Susan tells their mother, Maggie (Maureen O’Hara), the truth, and Susan and Maggie come out to California from Boston to break up the marriage.
The problem with Vicky is not her age. She’s younger than Mitch, sure—thirteen years. But that’s not a huge difference, relatively speaking, The bigger problem with Vicky is that she’s both completely incompatible with Mitch and clearly interested in his money and not him. She plans to send Susan to a boarding school in Switzerland just as soon as she can. She’s marrying him for his money and clearly does not intend to stay married to him. Even if he never gets back together with Maggie, it’s in everyone’s best interests but Vicky’s to break up the marriage.
As Mitch’s staff knows. He’s got a housekeeper named Verbena (Una Merkel), who essentially raised Susan and is the only mother she knows. She’s the one I quote, her persistent, “But it’s none of my nevermind. I’m not saying a word.” I love her, and she’s a much healthier support system for Susan than Louise McKendrick (Cathleen Nesbitt) is for Sharon . . . or Maggie, in my opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if the custody arrangement weren’t Grandmother McKendrick trying to make Maggie forget the marriage had even happened. Mitch also has Hecky (Crahan Denton), the ranch foreman, who may not like Maggie—we’re never told, really—but definitely doesn’t like Vicky.
Seriously, though, that is a messed up custody agreement. I’ve never seen the remake, but one of the reasons I can’t imagine it works as well as this version is that I can’t imagine a judge in my lifetime—and I’m nine and a half years older than Lindsay Lohan—going along with that arrangement. The late ’40s—Hayley Mills is about forty years older than Lindsay Lohan—maybe, but not the late ’80s. The main reason I find it strange in this movie is that each parent was given custody of a kid; the gender politics of custody disputes are complicated, but there has never been a time when “each of you gets one” has been likely, and not just because splitting up kids is generally avoided.
This was actually nominated for two Oscars. Oh, it lost both of them to West Side Story, which I can’t say is wrong in either case, and the astounding thing is that it wasn’t either of the films nominated for what was that year called Special Effects. One was The Absent-Minded Professor, which I also somehow have not done for this column yet, and one was winner The Guns of Navarone. Which I haven’t seen; does it have better special effects than the effects here?
Because the effects of duplicating Hayley Mills are really well done. Now, they couldn’t have been done without uncredited body double Susan Henning, who I am beyond delighted to discover ended up marrying Cal Worthington and presumably helped care for his dog, Spot. Unless you’re seeing both Hayleys full face in part of the shot, it’s probably Susan as the one whose face you’re not seeing. She does really quality work, and Walt gave her a special award which does not at all, in my opinion, make up for requiring her to give up her credit.
But honestly, she does less work than she was originally going to, because Walt saw the early results of the visual effects work and very much felt that there needed to be plenty of those shots. This is not a “don’t show the shark” movie. This is “here’s the shark, isn’t it amazing?” And it is. The special features on the Vault Disney disc talk about how you can usually, if you’re looking, find the horizontal line that divides the shot, and that’s true. But for one thing, you do sometimes have to look for it. It isn’t a universally thick, heavy, solid line. When it is, it’s because it’s, you know, a doorway or something.
I have to say, I have always been annoyed that Miss Inch blamed Sharon and her tentmates, Betsy (Kay Cole) and Ursala (Lynette Winter) for the condition of their tent at inspection. It should’ve been obvious that no one would intentionally do that to the place they sleep in. Now, maybe she shouldn’t have automatically leapt to “yes, I will believe you about who you say did it,” but blaming them for it and not letting them go to the dance? Not acceptable.
For one thing, that means that Sharon missed her opportunity to dance with Dave Goelz, it turns out. I can’t think that’s a chance that’s going to come again soon. But he is, it seems, one of the teenagers in the party scene. It’s also interesting to note that, once the girls return to their parents, we never see other kids their age again. Oh, it’s because they aren’t necessary to the plot, but there isn’t even mention made of friends at home. No wonder they’re so determined to get their parents back together.