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Caught in "The Parent Trap" -- Part I

Caught in "The Parent Trap" -- Part I

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Yes, it's true. Disney's "The Parent Trap" will always be special to me because -- unlike other Disney movies -- this one is personal. However, we'll get to that in a moment.

Let's take a trip back in time. The year is 1960, and the Walt Disney Studio is still a beehive of activity in a laid back Disney kind of way. You're probably aware that Walt's magic factory had its own mellow studio style. Unlike the other Hollywood movie factories where outright panic seemed the order of the day.

The animation department had just wrapped the last scenes of "101 Dalmatians," and the animators anxiously awaited their next assignment. A short walk from the Animation Building, a former Disney animator was gearing up for production on a new motion picture. However, this film would not involve bees, bears, or bunny rabbits. This new movie would be live-action, and would star the studio's hottest new personality since Annette Funicello.


 
Hayley Mills on the set of "Pollyanna."
Copyright 1960 Walt Disney Productions
All Rights Reserved

What is this new Disney movie, and why is a former Disney animator directing it? The movie, "Pollyanna" had recently opened to favorable reviews. The critics especially took note of a charming young actress named Hayley Mills. Walt Disney wasn't wasting any time finding a new project for this talented actress and the writer / director who had helmed live-action feature.

If you're a Disney geek, you might recognize the name David Swift. Swift passed away a few years ago, but he was a Disney guy all the way. "Bud" Swift -- as his friends knew him -- was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1919. He began working at the Walt Disney Studio in the late 1940s assisting the great animator, Ward Kimball. During World War II he served in the United States Air Force and was stationed in England.

Returning from the war, Swift moved to radio comedy writing and eventually, in 1949, to television scriptwriting. Swift wrote screenplays for the Philco Television Playhouse and wrote & directed episodes of "Playhouse 90," "The Rifleman" and "Wagon Train." He created classic television series such as "Mr. Peepers" starring Wally Cox, and the series "Jamie," episodes of which he produced, wrote & directed.


 
Hayley Mills times two on the set of "The Parent Trap"
Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions
All Rights Reserved

With the success of "Pollyanna" behind him, David Swift moved on to his next Disney assignment. It would be the story of twin sisters that would star Hayley Mills. The film had the working title of "Petticoats and Blue Jeans," and was quickly moving into production. Beautiful sets were under construction on the Disney sound stages, and the beautiful Maureen O'Hara had been selected by Walt to play Hayley's mother. Brian Keith, who had already appeared in several Disney films, would play her dad. Swift rounded out his cast with a brilliant group of Hollywood character actors including Leo G. Carroll, Charlie Ruggles, Nancy Kulp and orchestra leader Frank DeVol as a wacky camp counselor.

I confess I found it difficult to stay off the set of "The Parent Trap" especially since it was only a short walk from my office in the Animation Building. I would wander over at break time, and -- as usual -- overstay my welcome. Though some scenes were shot on location, much of the filming was done on the Disney sound stages in Burbank. I especially loved the interior of Brian Keith's Northern California home. The "home" was completely constructed on Stage Two, and you could walk from the kitchen, indoor patio and living room and feel like you were in an actual luxury home. There were stairs leading "upstairs," although the "second floor" of the house was on another sound stage across the way.

The Director of Photography was the Hollywood veteran Lucien Ballard. Ballard reflected the attitude of old Hollywood and the filming techniques he had learned over the years. He was a dapper dresser and often wore an ascot. Ballard joked that he solved many of the special effects issues by simply using a screen double.


The dapper director of photographer was Lucien Ballard, seen here with Hayley Mills.
Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

The Disney technical wizards loved to pontificate about the special photographic techniques used on the movie. A special system of camera optics and the sodium matte process for compositing various elements was all the rage. However, there are fewer special effects shots in the movie than one might realize. Lucien Ballard found this technology cumbersome and solved the compositing issues the old fashioned way. Walt Disney loved to brag about Hayley Mills appearing in scenes with herself. In reality, she was often appearing in the scenes with her on-camera double.

The atmosphere on the set was relaxed and casual, and the cast and crew appeared to be having a fun time. There were, on occasion, memorable and unexpected moments. Maureen O'Hara managed to look beautiful even while tripping on the stairs. The fiery redhead wasn't above using some salty language while regaining her composure. As always, Disney made good use of the Burbank lot and the studio commissary became a country club for a few scenes in the movie.

Finally, a special moment for me was watching Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara film their love scene at the end of the movie. However, Ms. O'Hara happens to be a tall woman, and director Swift didn't want this lovely lady towering over his leading man. Bud Swift solved the problem by having Maureen O'Hara play the scene without her shoes. Not only did she look especially cute standing on the kitchen step stool in her bare feet, she no longer towered over Brian Keith.


 
Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith duke it out in "The Parent Trap."
Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

You might not have known that Brian Keith was the son of veteran character actor Robert Keith. I was lucky enough to strike up a friendship with Mr. Keith while working at Disney. On more than one occasion the burly actor stomped into my D-Wing office and plopped down in a chair to talk. It was a different Disney in those days. Actors and animators interacted as though they were family. One day, I saw Julie Andrews strolling down the hall on her way to Frank Thomas' office. Actors moved about without press agents or "handlers." I guarantee you won't find that at Disney today.

Next time, we'll learn how to make two Hayley Mills out of one. We'll also learn why Bud Swift was the perfect writer / director for this still-loved Disney motion picture, and why it's especially personal for me.

Did you enjoy the first installment of this new series about "The Parent Trap" ? Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many Disney-related tales that Floyd Norman has to tell. Many of which you'll find in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at the time that Mr. Norman has spent in Toontown.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

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  • Great article!  I am anxious to read part 2 since this was one of my favorite Disney films from my childhood.

  • Wonderful article! It's hard to imagine such a relaxed atmosphere was at one time the norm. Can't wait for part 2.

  • Wow, Floyd, that was amazing. The Parent Trap is one of my favorite films... I can't wait to hear more from you about it!

  • Can't wait for part two!

  • Very interesting article. I used to love this film as a kid. A small part of me used to wish that my parents were divorced so that I could pull off an elaborate reconciliation scheme. (I'm glad I never got that wish though ;) )

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