Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hayley Mills at the Disney Studio

Hayley Mills starred in six Disney films between 1960 and 1965, her pert personality, up-turned nose, blonde hair, and British accent accentuating the squeaky clean image both of the actress and of the studio that gave her her greatest screen successes. The daughter of great British actor John Mills (best known stateside for his starring role in David Lean's Great Expectations), Mills had only one film under her belt when Walt Disney spotted her, but she had boatloads of personality and was exactly the sort of child actor that thrived at the Disney Studio. Her first film there was Pollyanna - the best film she ever made and without doubt one of the finest ever produced by Disney.

The original novel by Eleanor H. Porter was enormously popular when it was first published in 1913, but its saccharine moral message and maudlin sentimentalization of children has made it decidedly unpalatable for modern readers (even this one, with my considerable tolerance for sentimentality). Disney asked David Swift to adapt the novel for the screen (he would also direct) and Swift delivered a screenplay vastly superior to the novel, stripping it of its most egregious sentimentalities and instead creating a complex, albeit idealized, portrait of an American town in the relatively idyllic years prior to the first World War. Hayley Mills was joined by an extraordinarily stellar ensemble cast including the incomparable Agnes Moorehead, Jane Wyman, Adolphe Menjou in his final screen performance, and Karl Malden. Part of what makes Pollyanna such a fabulous film is that the child characters are not idealized. Although Pollyanna may play the Glad Game and be determinedly optimistic, she is nosy, chatty, and has something of a temper; her misbehavior comes as a blessed relief. While in the novel, Pollyanna is something of a Little Nell, thank goodness she behaves like a human child in the film. Mills would be awarded the Juvenile Award by the Motion Picture Academy for her performance.

A year later, Mills starred, two times over, in the ever-popular The Parent Trap, a comedy with surprising depth about identical twin sisters separated by embittered divorced parents, also adapted and directed by David Swift. The politics of The Parent Trap are as conservative as one would expect, but the film, despite its determined message of the importance of the united family, is addressing and exploring what happens to children of divorce in a creative and entertaining way that has more depth than one might expect. Once again, Mills was joined by an extraordinary cast, including Brian Keith, Maureen O'Hara, and veteran character actors Una Merkel, Charlie Ruggles, and Leo G. Carroll. The film is also a technical tour de force, completely convincing the viewer that Mills is really two different twins. The Parent Trap is a prime example of Disney filmmaking, delivering the sorts of shenanigans that kids enjoy while also giving the adults a substantial plot surrounding the older characters and their marital problems.

While both Pollyanna and The Parent Trap are acknowledged classics, Mills's third film at Disney has faded into obscurity, though it is available on a no-frills DVD. In Search of the Castaways, based on a Jules Verne novel and costarring Maurice Chevalier and Wilfrid Hyde-White, has not aged terribly well due to its deeply uncomfortable racial politics. The plot concerns the children of a missing sea captain who appeal to their father's boss to reply to a message found in a bottle found in a shark, ostensibly written by their missing parent. The studio pulled out all the stops in terms of the special effects, though certain sequences may seem laughable now, but the vintage special effects, fun songs, and charming performances from Chevalier and Hyde-White cannot overcome the deep discomfort of colonialist and racist politics. Both Andean natives (of an unspecified group) and the Maori are portrayed as barbaric, less than bright, and easily manipulated. This a great pity because the film has much to recommend it, but I can easily understand why Disney has let it fade into the background.

Mills's fourth film, Summer Magic, is by far the worst of the six. Based on a mawkish novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin (writer of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), the film is so extremely backward in its politics that it's hard to imagine anyone over the age of ten being able to take it, even in 1963. Dorothy McGuire plays a widow forced to relocate to a provincial town in Maine with her three children (the youngest boy is particularly insufferable); Mills plays her daughter. The main conflict comes from the arrival of snobbish Cousin Julia (Deborah Walley) and the well-intentioned truth-coloring of the house's caretaker (Burl Ives). The most offensive scene features Walley and Mills singing the nauseating song, "Femininity," in which the girls exhort each other to "Walk feminine, talk feminine/Smile and beguile feminine/Emphasize your femininity/If you want to catch a beau." Aside from the bad grammar, that's quite possibly the most disgusting thing ever uttered in a children's film.

Mills was growing up, and the studio was now challenged with how to cast her in roles that acknowledged that she wasn't a kid anymore, but that weren't yet genuine romantic leads. Her next film, The Moon-Spinners, plainly shows that this was not a conflict they quite understood how to deal with, though the film succeeds in entertaining. The rather convoluted plot follows a young girl, played by Mills, vacationing on Crete, who, drawn to a handsome, haughty young man (Peter McEnery), pursues romance and finds herself in the midst of a violent plot. Eli Wallach and Pola Negri (who was convinced to come out of retirement) add some much-needed spice and conviction to the rather outlandish story. Mills's youth (she was eighteen at the time, though she seems younger) lends urgency to her plight and also makes the story more convincing, her vulnerability creating an empathy that would otherwise be lacking.

Mills's final Disney film was a wacky comedy, That Darn Cat!, a romping police procedural in which Mills's cat is the key to solving a kidnapping. Costarring Disney regular Dean Jones as the rather hapless policeman willing to rely on a teenage girl's cat (always referred to as the "informant") to solve the case, That Darn Cat! is dated, but in the most charming way, its hairstyles, costumes, cultural references, and slang coming off as kitschy. Despite the silliness of the premise, director Robert Stevenson manages to inject the film with a good dose of suspense. The title song by the Sherman Brothers and sung by Bobby Darin is the cherry on top of this terrific 60s comedy, one of the best the Disney Studio produced in the 1960s.

After That Darn Cat! Mills's contract with Disney ended and she moved on. Though her first film post-Disney, The Trouble with Angels, has a decidedly Disney sensibility, Mills then tried to move away from her wholesome image. Though her career has lasted decades, she has never equaled the successes that she had as a child with the Disney Studio. In a fascinating twist, Mills was in fact considered for the role of Lolita in 1962, a role that certainly would have propelled her career in the opposite direction, but Walt Disney dissuaded her from taking a role in such conflict with the persona cultivated at his studio. Had Mills taken that role, she would certainly have a very different place in the public memory.

2 comments:

  1. Later in life, she made a lovely movie of one of my favorite books, The Flame Trees of Thika. You should check it out! PS: you may be tickled to know that Miss Hayley was Arturo's first "crush"!!

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    1. Amusingly, Mills was also my dad's first crush!

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