Movie Against Movie: ‘The Parent Trap’ Versus ‘Citizen Kane’ (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!)

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on August 28, 2012 0 Comments

We all know the routine; Citizen Kane (maybe now Vertigo too) is the best movie now and forever at least in the opinion of various movie buffs because they always put it on their best films ever lists.  Oh sure it has innovations galore from a storyline told from multiple narratives, to sound edits, to shots using deep focus, but in the end the tale is about a man attempting to understand where everything went wrong and remembering the last time he had been happy was while playing with his sled Rosebud.   It is a simple story told masterfully.  On the other hand, The Parent Trap is a disturbing complicated psychological drama masked as a comedy and then iced over with the Disney treatment.

           If you like your Carl Jung mixed with Greek/Roman archetypes you have to love The Parent Trap.  Since there are two main movie versions (1961 and 1998) I will primarily deal with the one starring Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills since the Lindsay Lohan film now feels almost Freudian considering the ups and mostly downs of Lohan’s life since her child star making debut.

             The Disney version was inspired by the 1949 German story Lisa and Lottie by Erich Kastner about two nine year olds with opposite temperaments separated after their parents’ divorce.  One is a shy good girl who makes good grades, the other is a hellion.  Like the theatrical versions the two meet up at summer camp and decide to switch places.  The good one’s GPA is ruined by her lazy sister and their mother eventually figures out the stunt after seeing summer camp photos.  Meanwhile dear ole dad is about to remarry but is thwarted in his attempt down the aisle by his daughter’s “sudden illness.”  The family is reunited and Mom and Dad realize that they do indeed love each other despite psychologically scaring the fruits of their union.

             Jung believed in individuation which was the psychological process of integrating the opposites – the conscious and unconscious.  Like the book it was inspired by, The Parent Trap takes two girls who are opposite, and also from sides of the continental United States, then throws them together at a summer camp.  One of the girls is a pop culture enthusiast who enjoys boys and riding her horse (she’s a big daddy’s girl).  The other one has grown up in a home where manners, discipline, and tradition are appreciated since these intangibles are passed on to her from both her mother and grandmother.  Together they make one multidimensional girl – separate they are stereotypes of their perceived lives.  Think of it as a chunk of their true selves is missing until they find “the other.”  If Susan and Sharon weren’t siblings one could almost use the term “soul mates.”  However unlike the sentiment of that famous Jerry Maguire quote, by finding each other they are not complete because what is absent from their reunion is the unity between their parents.

            Here is where the mythological element comes in.  A child’s primary connection to the world is through his or her parents.  First, the girls are robbed of knowing the mere existence of her sister…her identical twin…her other, while led to believe that her non custodian parent is dead as if Zeus himself struck them down.  It is almost an act of divine intervention when the girls (on the verge of adulthood no less) are stuck in an isolated cabin and discover the biggest secrets of their existence.  Like any hero worth his or her salt it is up to them to mend what has been torn asunder and in the process finally get some quality time with the parent who only a short time ago they thought was dead.

          Of course since the story was produced by Disney and aimed at a family market, particularly young teen girls, the plot didn’t include any great cinematic confrontation where screaming and accusations of psychological crippling via trust issues are addressed to the parents.  No, the parental units get off rather easy and the only one really punished for any misdeeds is the father’s fiancée who is a gold digger.  Ergo the family friendly message is that you can severe a marriage and raise one of your two children in complete ignorance of her other parent and sibling, but you dare go for the gold and you end up on the camping trip from hell.

      I’m comparing Citizen Kane to The Parent Trap is because I was at a dinner party which included a plan to watch Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece but after eating no one was in the mood to watch a film which you really have to pay attention to or you won’t get the brilliance of all of its innovations, its acting, directing, or even the storyline.  Instead the TV was turned on and low and behold The Parent Trap was showing.  Of course most of us had seen it a million times before but still we had to view a few minutes of it since it reminds most of the sweet nectar of childhood (despite not being alive when it debuted) and it is as familiar as an old pair of shoes.

            Its only contribution to the art of cinema might have been perfecting the split screen formula but it is a beloved movie that will never make any respectable lists of best films.  Whereas Kane has the technique, Trap has the heart.  Though Kane never gets his heart’s desire, those plucky girls aright their universe using a song, “Let’s get together; yeah, yeah, yeah!”

           It has always struck me that in the act of storytelling the audience knows that money can’t buy happiness, but triumphing against the odds is always a crowd pleaser.  Despite its grandiose settings, Citizen Kane is realistic (Charles Foster Kane was based upon William Randolph Hearst) and despite having not seen the movie in about a decade, I don’t recall ever secretly hoping that Kane and his sled would reunite.  Of course Kane and Rosebud are meant to remain apart because the last scene of the film defines irony in cinematic form.  The Parent Trap is devoid of irony despite the many coincidences the audience must accept in order to keep up their suspension of disbelief.  It would be a far different movie indeed if an ironic twist was added, say one of the twins succumbed to a bear attack after famously showing their father’s girlfriend how to ward off the critters by banging on sticks.

             Despite Kane being more realistic it is also the less relatable of the two stories.  Most of us don’t fancy living in a palace where we hoard our belongings to such a degree that we can’t find one childhood sled.  However the idea of meeting a mirror image of ourselves is intriguing.  Couple that with the idea of being the catalyst for repairing our parents’ marriage and you have the wish-fulfillment of most children of divorce.  There is an undeniable appeal about making harsh everyday realities such as divorce into something that can be solved and smoothed over with a song and surprise dinner.

           I know that if I see Citizen Kane is on TV I will stop and watch, but it isn’t the same as when I see The Parent Trap is on.  The Parent Trap will make me smile in a way Kane cannot and although I have seen it a dozen times I always appreciate the simplicity it gives to its otherwise deep psychological themed story.  The truth of the matter is that finding Rosebud will never equal the possibility of spotting the face I see in the mirror every day staring back at me in a lunch line of a summer camp canteen.

Westerfield © 2012

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