As a Hollywood powerhouse, Disney is very good at heralding its successes and hiding its oddities. Sure, we’ve all seen Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But tucked deep inside the Disney Vault are more obscure titles, like The Black Cauldron, In Search of the Castaways, and The Three Lives of Thomasina. Some are merely bad. Others are weird. In some cases, like the gloriously campy The Watcher in the Woods, it’s both.
Yet Disney’s strangest movie was also one of its biggest hits. I’m talking about The Parent Trap, the 1961 comedy starring Hayley Mills. During its initial theatrical run, the film earned $25 million, which amounts to roughly $200 million today. That’s a lot of money for a movie that, while on its surface is a fun family romp, is actually bonkers.
It’s so bonkers that when it came time to write The Last Time I Lied, the follow-up to my bestselling thriller, Final Girls, I chose to set it at an all-girls Summer camp not unlike the one in The Parent Trap. It seemed fitting for a book about secrets and lies, considering how the movie is the most twisted thing Disney’s ever made.
Just how twisted is it? Let me count the ways.
(Author’s note: In all cases, I’m referring solely to the 1961 film and not the 1998 version starring Lindsay Lohan.)
- Based on a 1949 German novel, Das Doppelte Lottchen, The Parent Trap is about two girls named Susan and Sharon who meet for the first time at Summer camp. They look exactly alike. They sound exactly the same. Yet no one in camp seems to find this strange, least of all the girls themselves. Rather than just approach each other and say, “Hey, we look like twins – what’s up with that?” the girls embark on a series of escalating pranks that lead to chaos during a fancy formal dance with a nearby boys’ camp. As punishment, Sharon and Susan are forced to bunk together in an isolated cabin. It’s only then, during a rare moment of bonding, that they realize, “Hey, we look like twins because we are!”
- It turns out that Susan and Sharon’s parents divorced when they were infants. Because the divorce was so acrimonious, those same parents decided that rather than share custody, it was best to split the twins up and never tell them that they have a sister. I can’t stress how mind-bogglingly messed-up that is. We’re talking Lois Duncan levels of twistedness. In fact, it’s just one incestuous brother away from entering V.C. Andrews territory.
- Instead of confronting their parents about lying to them all their lives, Susan and Sharon decide the best course of action is to impersonate each other at Summer’s end. So posh bookworm Sharon pretends to be Susan and goes to live with hunky dad Brian Keith in California. Cool kid Susan, meanwhile, is whisked to Boston to live in haughty splendor with elegant mom Maureen O’Hara. And while that scenario has all the trappings of a wonderfully juicy YA thriller, the movie goes a different route. Hijinks ensue, suspicions are raised, and all parties involved reunite.
- Again, rather than confront their parents, Sharon and Susan hatch a new plan: to get the family back together by ending their father’s engagement to a younger woman. At no point do the girls stop and say, “Hey, seeing how they hated each other so much that they decided to separate us at birth, maybe getting our parents back together isn’t a good idea.” Nor do they stop to consider that, seeing how she’s the only adult in their lives who hasn’t lied to them, maybe the fiancée isn’t so bad after all. Instead, they drive her away with the same pranks they used at camp.
- Both parents, meanwhile, display an odd lack of remorse for, you now, spinning a lifelong web of lies. You’d think one of them might feel guilty about agreeing to never see one of their daughters again. But other than a few throwaway lines, it’s never addressed in depth. What the whole family needs is decades of therapy. What the movie gives them is a catchy duet between Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills and another camping trip before coming in for a hasty, happy ending. If you want realism, this isn’t the place to find it.
Bonus Cultural Oddity
“Let’s Get Together,” the song Sharon and Susan sing for their parents, truly is a winner. Radio listeners at the time agreed, turning it into a Top 10 hit for Hayley Mills in the Fall of 1961.
Bonus Conspiracy Theory
No one – and I mean no one – notices that even though Susan and Sharon grew up in California and Boston, respectively, both speak with a British accent. The movie fails to bring it up as well, leading me to think Sharon and Susan’s parents split them up and never told them about each other because THEY AREN’T THEIR REAL PARENTS.
Think about it. There’s zero reason not to tell Sharon and Susan that they have a twin sister unless there’s more to cover up. Perhaps the girls were abducted at birth, probably from a London hospital, and smuggled overseas. Back in the US, their kidnappers decided the best chance of not getting caught was to split up the twins and live on opposite coasts. Their only mistake was accidentally sending them to the same Summer camp at the exact same time.
I, for one, love this theory. It yanks the movie from the realm of family-friendly fun into the YA thriller genre where it rightfully belongs, making it not just twisted but truly devious.
Riley Sager is the author of the international bestseller Final Girls. His latest novel, The Last Time I Lied, is out July 3.