Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Emil And The Detectives

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Emil And The Detectives

On paper, Emil And The Detectives makes total sense as a Disney film. It’s based on a perennially popular young adult novel. It features an ensemble of kids taking on a trio of over-the-top, cartoony bad guys. And later in the decade, these kinds of lightweight mystery/heist/caper pictures would become the studio’s bread and butter. But in practice, Emil And The Detectives is a sluggish affair that never fully delivers the fun promised by its animated opening title sequence.

Author Erich Kästner was no stranger to the Disney studio. His novel Lottie And Lisa formed the basis for the Hayley Mills blockbuster The Parent Trap. Emil And The Detectives was published in 1929 and had already been adapted to film in Germany, England and Japan. The 1931 German version was an early screenwriting credit for Billy Wilder. Walt’s version would be written by A.J. Carothers, who had previously handled the script for Miracle Of The White Stallions.

Director Peter Tewksbury was new to Disney, although he’d worked with Disney Legend Fred MacMurray on his sitcom, My Three Sons. Emil And The Detectives would turn out to be his only Disney credit. After this, he worked primarily in TV and directed a couple of Elvis Presley’s later movies.

The story is pretty simple. Young Emil (Bryan Russell) is sent to visit his grandmother in Berlin. His mother gives him 400 marks to deliver to Grandma, pinning it to the inside of his coat so he won’t lose it. Unfortunately, she does this in full view of Grundeis (Heinz Schubert), a “skrink” in a loud checkered suit and a bowler hat.

What, you may well ask, is a skrink? According to the film (which represents the only recorded use of the term, as near as I can tell), it’s a low, dishonest, disreputable person, often a criminal although not necessarily. Variations of the expression get used throughout the movie, as in “my skrinky sister”. By the end, you’ll wish you had a time machine to go prevent A.J. Carothers from trying to make “skrink” happen.

Anyway, Grundeis hops on board the bus and finagles his way into the seat next to Emil. He pulls out a pocket watch and hypnotizes Emil into falling asleep. Once that’s done, he picks Emil’s pocket and hops off the bus. If he’d been a better hypnotist, he probably would have gotten away with it. But Emil wakes up the second the door closes, so he gets off the bus and follows Grundeis to a nearby café.

While he’s spying on Grundeis, Emil meets Gustav (Roger Mobley), a street kid who seems to have a hustle for all occasions. When Emil explains the situation, Gustav whips out a business card introducing himself as a private detective. Since Emil has no proof that Grundeis stole his money, the police are useless. So Emil hires Gustav and his team of boy detectives to take the case.

Their one clue is a note Grundeis tried to destroy setting a time and place for a meeting that evening. Gustav saved most of it but the part with the name of the hotel got away (it went “skrinking off down the gutter”), so they split up to stake out all the hotels in the area. While this is going on, Emil sends a note to his grandmother, assuring her that he’s okay. But the message is intercepted by Emil’s cousin, Pony (Cindy Cassell), a cub reporter for her school newspaper. Sensing there’s a story in this, Pony trails the messenger boy back to Emil.

Grundeis meets two other skrinks, The Baron (Walter Slezak) and Müller (Peter Ehrlich). The three skrinks have hatched a plan to rob a bank by tunneling into it from the ruins of an old building nearby. Emil and Gustav spend the night at the ruins but the next morning, Emil is discovered and taken prisoner by the Baron. With their client missing, the detectives decide it’s finally time to call in the police. The cops show them a number of mug shots, one of which bears the name “Albert Jahnke”, which just so happens to be my grandfather’s name. I had no idea I had skrinks in my family tree.

The Baron ends up finding a use for Emil after all when Müller blows a hole through the wall that’s too small for any of the skrinks to fit through. Emil squeezes into the vault and passes as much cash as possible back to the thieves. But the Baron had always planned on double-crossing Grundeis. As soon as he and Müller get to safety, he rigs a dynamite charge to trap Grundeis and Emil underground.

While Gustav tries to rescue Emil, the rest of the detectives stay on the Baron and Müller’s trail. As they try to escape on foot, the detectives spread a rumor that they’re carrying a bagful of money and stopping every few blocks to give it away. Before long, every kid in the neighborhood is hot on their heels looking for a handout. The police arrive, the skrinks are carted off to jail and everyone agrees to never use the term “skrink” again.

Emil And The Detectives certainly has a lot of potential. The idea of a bunch of kids forming a private detective club is pretty irresistible. Erich Kästner’s book went on to inspire everything from The Famous Five to Encyclopedia Brown to the late Richard Donner’s movie The Goonies. But part of the trouble is not a whole lot actually happens in this movie. Especially in the first half, there’s way too much sitting around and waiting. Staking out hotel lobbies may be a realistic part of detective work but it isn’t much fun to watch. Things pick up considerably when Emil gets captured and Tewksbury instills those scenes with a sense of real danger. But it all happens too late to save the picture.

The other problem is the kids themselves. They’re pretty interchangeable and don’t have the most dynamic personalities in the world. Apart from the Professor (Brian Richardson), who likes to show off his ten-dollar vocabulary, and the twins (Ron and Rick Johnson), who are twins, I couldn’t tell you much about these kids. Say what you will about The Goonies but those kids had very distinct, colorful personalities. The detectives just seem like average, ordinary kids.

Walt may have agreed with that assessment because almost none of the young actors ever appeared in another movie, much less another Disney project. The two exceptions were Emil and Gustav. Bryan Russell had already been in one Disney movie, an uncredited appearance in Babes In Toyland. He’ll be back in this column but he’d also go on to appear in a couple of productions for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, including Kilroy, a comedy about an ex-Marine who has a big effect on his best friend’s hometown.  

Roger Mobley will also return to this column but he had an even bigger impact on TV. In 1965, Walt gave him the title role in The Adventures Of Gallegher. As an ambitious copyboy determined to make a name for himself as a reporter at the turn of the century, Mobley snooped his way through four series of Gallegher over the next three years. Walt seemed to be grooming Mobley for bigger things. His name was one of four jotted down (along with another actor we’ll be seeing soon enough, Kurt Russell) on Walt’s cryptic last memo before his death in 1966. But Mobley’s acting career was interrupted in 1968 when he was drafted into the Army. After a tour of duty with the 46th Special Forces Company (Airborne) in Vietnam, Mobley never quite picked up the threads of his former career. We’ll see him again but it appears that he was quite content to leave acting behind.

We won’t be seeing any of the adult actors again, which is a bit surprising. Walter Slezak is certainly the best known of the three. He’d been in the industry since the silent days and had become a reliable character actor in movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. He’s a lot of fun as the pretentious Baron, hauling an ornate table setting, caviar and fine wine down into an underground tunnel. He’d have made a fine addition to the Disney roster of cosmopolitan villains.

Heinz Schubert and Peter Ehrlich were both German actors who never made much of a dent outside their home country but were particularly prolific on German television. They both acquit themselves well here. Schubert especially has an amusing physicality that draws you to him whenever he’s on screen. He has dialogue but the way he moves is reminiscent of silent film comedians. Maybe if the movie had been a bigger hit, Schubert would have had more opportunity to break through in America.

As it happened, Emil And The Detectives wasn’t a hit. It was positioned as the studio’s big Christmas release for 1964. And to be fair, Disney’s previous film, Mary Poppins, was continuing to cast a very long shadow. Any movie would have struggled to live up to the expectations set by that juggernaut. Despite some favorable reviews, Emil And The Detectives pulled in less than $2 million at the box office. By 1966, Walt had relegated it to TV status.

One other thing I should add about Emil And The Detectives. Despite its relative obscurity, Disney has elected to include it on Disney+. However, that version opens with a disclaimer stating the film has been edited for content. I can find no information about what exactly that edited content might be. There’s nothing that stands out as an obvious trim. Maybe the original version was a bit more violent? I really don’t know, so if anyone can shed some light on this mystery, I’d love to hear it.

VERDICT: It isn’t the skrinkiest movie you’ll ever see but anything this inconsequential has to be considered a Disney Minus.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Parent Trap

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Parent Trap

Hayley Mills has battled typecasting her entire career. This is to be expected when you are so closely identified with a particular brand. But quite honestly, it could have been worse. After Pollyanna became a runaway success, it would have been very easy for Walt to continue using her solely in period pieces celebrating Americana. He’d done it before with Fess Parker. Parker’s dissatisfaction with the roles he was assigned led to his leaving the studio. Walt seemed determined not to make the same mistake with his newest star. Her second Disney vehicle, The Parent Trap, was about as far away from Pollyanna as the studio could get.

David Swift, who had written and directed Pollyanna, based his screenplay for The Parent Trap on the novel Lottie And Lisa by Erich Kästner, a German writer perhaps best known for Emil And The Detectives (that book will turn up in a later column). The premise is simple but strange. Bostonian Sharon McKendrick (Hayley Mills) is sent to summer camp, where she meets her doppelganger, Susan Evers (also Hayley Mills). The two girls take an immediate dislike to one another, engaging in a series of Meatballs-style pranks culminating in an all-out brawl at a co-ed dance. Camp counselor Miss Inch (Ruth McDevitt) punishes the girls by forcing them to spend the rest of the summer together, sharing a separate cabin and taking their meals at an “isolation table”.

Eventually Sharon and Susan begin to tolerate each other and piece together the fact that they’re actually twin sisters. Sharon has been living with her mother Maggie (Maureen O’Hara) while Susan has been in California with her rancher dad, Mitch (Brian Keith). Curious to see how the other half lives, the girls switch places with the goal of ultimately reuniting the family. But Sharon discovers an unexpected complication upon her arrival in California. Mitch has become engaged to Vicky Robinson (Joanna Barnes), a gold-digging younger woman with zero interest in becoming a doting stepmother.

The Parent Trap raises far more questions than it’s prepared to answer. First and foremost, what the hell happened between Mitch and Maggie that they decided their best plan of action was to split up and literally never speak of each other again? Were they ever planning on telling their daughters that they had a sister? Who on earth would think it’s a good idea to get these two people back together? Sure, neither of them had remarried yet but you’d think the whole pretending their marriage never existed thing would trump that. And why would Mitch choose to send Susan to a camp all the way across the country? Surely they have some very lovely summer camps in California.

But the magic of The Parent Trap lies in the fact that, for the most part, you don’t really concern yourself with these very obvious questions while you’re watching the movie. Most of the credit for that goes to Hayley Mills. Before rewatching the movie, I had a false memory that Susan spoke with an American accent. That isn’t true. Mills makes no effort whatsoever to mask her Britishness, which is another weird question you might ask yourself. Both kids were born and raised in the States and there isn’t a single British person in the family, so why do they talk that way? But Mills is so appealing in both roles that you just kind of go with it.

What Mills accomplishes is pretty extraordinary, especially for a young actor just beginning her career. Sharon and Susan are both unique, distinct characters with their own physicality and mannerisms. But then Swift levels up the difficulty by having the girls trade places and pretend to be the other one. But somehow Mills is able to make it absolutely clear to the audience that Sharon-As-Susan is still Sharon and vice versa. In a sense, she’s actually playing four characters, not just two.

Mills is basically the whole show for the movie’s first third (although reliable character actors Ruth McDevitt, Nancy Kulp and Frank De Vol are certainly welcome presences as camp counselors). Swift successfully builds the twinning illusion through the use of split-screen effects, Mills’ photo double Susan Henning, and very precise editing which earned the film one of its two Academy Award nominations. (The other was for Best Sound. It lost both to West Side Story, which dominated the ceremony.)

Swift wanted to use fewer effects shots but Walt insisted on including as many as possible. For the most part, the effects still hold up today. In fact, the worst shot in the film doesn’t even include the twins. It’s a very obvious process shot with Hayley Mills and Maureen O’Hara strolling through a park. It doesn’t even seem like you’d need an effect to pull it off, so it’s odd that a perfectionist like Walt would leave it in.

Theatrical release poster for The Parent Trap

The movie’s two other secret weapons are Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara. The Parent Trap gives Keith a much better showcase for his talents than the misbegotten adventure Ten Who Dared. He coasts through the movie on his laid-back charm and some adept physical comedy. And he and O’Hara have some real chemistry, which sells the unlikely idea that Mitch and Maggie would even consider getting back together.

The role was a game-changer for Brian Keith’s career. After years of action pictures and westerns, Keith found himself offered more comedies and romantic leads. A few years after The Parent Trap was released, Keith followed fellow Disney star Fred MacMurray to television, headlining the sitcom Family Affair. We’ll be seeing a lot more of Brian Keith in this column.

Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing Maureen O’Hara again. O’Hara was in her early 40s when she made The Parent Trap, the age when Hollywood typically flips the switch on actresses from “leading lady” to “mom”. This is what happened to Dorothy McGuire, who was about the same age when she made Old Yeller. But O’Hara manages to retain her sexuality. In Old Yeller, it’s difficult to imagine McGuire and Fess Parker sharing more than a hearty handshake. Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara, on the other hand…they’ve got something going on.

By all accounts, O’Hara enjoyed making The Parent Trap and thought it turned out well. But in her memoir, she reveals that a contract dispute led to her walking away from the studio. According to the terms of her contract, O’Hara was to receive top billing. But when the movie came out, Hayley Mills’ name was above the title (twice, actually). O’Hara was not amused and swore she’d never work for the studio again. Don’t cross Maureen O’Hara, folks. She carries a grudge.

The Parent Trap was also the first major project for Walt’s newest songwriters. Richard and Robert Sherman had previously contributed the “Medfield Fight Song” to The Absent-Minded Professor but I’m fairly certain nobody left the theatre humming that tune. That would not be a problem for the earworms in The Parent Trap. The title song was performed by Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, a teen idol in the Elvis/Ricky Nelson mold. Tommy and Annette were busy shooting Babes In Toyland, a major musical that will soon appear in this column, on the lot. The song accompanies the cute stop-motion title sequence. The animation is fun. The song, not so much. It’s undeniably catchy but it’s more annoying than irresistible.

Annette also recorded a version of “Let’s Get Together” that can be heard during the dance sequence. But it was Hayley Mills’ duet with herself that became a top ten hit. So naturally Walt hustled her back into the recording studio to cut a full album. Her follow-up single, “Johnny Jingo”, made it up to #21 but this was not the start of a long career as a recording artist. But “Let’s Get Together” is a legitimately fun song and Mills’ energetic performance of it is a high point.

Let's Get Together with Hayley Mills album cover

My only real beef with The Parent Trap is that it goes on a little too long. There’s no reason for a movie this slight to clock in at over two hours. We probably didn’t need a third original song, Maureen O’Hara’s pretty but sleepy “For Now, For Always”. The camping trip that proves to be too much for Vicky is fun and gives Joanna Barnes a chance to shine but Swift probably could have made the same point more economically. By the time Keith and O’Hara get together over bowls of stew in the kitchen, you’re ready for Swift to start wrapping things up.

Still, it’s easy to understand why audiences responded to The Parent Trap’s winning combination of teenage hijinks and sophisticated (by Disney standards, anyway) romantic comedy. The movie was released in June of 1961. By year’s end, it had raked in over $11 million, surpassing The Absent-Minded Professor to become the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year (behind El Cid, The Guns Of Navarone and the juggernaut of West Side Story). Hayley Mills was now a bona fide movie star. She’ll be back in this column.

The Parent Trap proved so popular that in 1986, the studio brought Hayley Mills back for a Disney Channel sequel. The Parent Trap II catches up with Sharon 25 years later, a divorced single parent in Florida. She’s planning to move to New York, much to the dismay of her daughter, Nikki. So Nikki plots with her best friend, Mary, to hook Sharon up with Mary’s widowed father (played by Tom Skerritt). This isn’t easy and Nikki calls her Aunt Susan to fly out and pretend to be Sharon in an attempt to move things along. Seems like a weird plan to me but hey, whatever works.

The Parent Trap II was a ratings smash. It became the first part of a latter-day Parent Trap trilogy. Parent Trap III came out in 1989, introducing triplets played by real-life triplets Leanna, Monica and Joy Creel into the mix. That movie was followed less than a year later by Parent Trap: Hawaiian Honeymoon. In 1998, Lindsay Lohan took on the double roles in a theatrical remake that this column will get around to eventually. Currently, Disney+ is working on yet another reboot.

The Parent Trap also went on to have a surprising second life in Bollywood. The first Indian version of the story, Kuzhandaiyum Deivamum, came out in 1965. It was a Bollywood blockbuster, leading to four different remakes in other languages. The Indian film industry has a long, proud history of unofficial remakes and knock-offs, so there may very well be others for all I know.

With The Parent Trap, Hayley Mills secured her position as the brightest star in the Disney galaxy. Pollyanna had shown she could do drama and pathos. The Parent Trap demonstrated she was equally adept at comedy and could even sing a little. The movie still holds up as a breezy, entertaining romp. But it should probably come with a warning to other children of divorce not to try this at home. Real-life parent traps don’t usually have as happy an ending as the one Mitch and Maggie get.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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