Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

Posted by on Dec 22, 2011 in Out of This World | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: A scary superimposed Grim Reaper and drinking – lots and lots of drinking.

Until the day he died, Walt Disney insisted he discovered and contracted real Leprechauns for the filming of Darby O’Gill and the Little People while on holiday in Ireland. Disney even appeared in a television episode alongside the king of the little people trying to convince him to be a part of the live-action film (the studio later claimed the same about elves for The Santa Clause). Before the film begins, a title card appears signed by Walt stating, “My thanks to King Brian of Knockasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious cooperation made this picture possible.” Though it’s a golden oldie, long before CGI technology, the effects are superb. So much so that, when the film’s credits begin to roll, you’ll be hard-pressed to confidently disagree with the animation pioneer’s outrageous claim.

The movie takes place in an old Irish town Darby2comprised of Catholic farmers and fiddlers. The title character, Darby (Albert Sharpe), is a retired groundskeeper who spends his days at the pub spinning yarns about Leprechauns. He’s not a drinking man, his daughter assures, but frequents for the company. Darby is especially known for his yarn about the time he captured the Leprechaun king during one of his regular nighttime visits to an ancient hillside where the little ones are rumored to live. After catching the king, Darby says, he demands three wishes – apparently these Leprechauns don’t guard pots of gold at rainbows, but grant wishes like genies. But the mean-spirited bugger tricks Darby and he is left with nothing. “Lived 5,000 years has he,” Darby explains, “and learned a new trick in each.” Most of the pub’s denizens entertain his unbelievable stories – as people do with Albert Finney’s character in Big Fish – except young whippersnapper Pony (Kieron Moore). Coming from a regretful man whose age continues to climb and money continues to wane, we aren’t exactly sure what to believe.

For the past few years, despite his retirement, Darby has collected funds from Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald) as Darby overlooks his estate. Knowing that Darby isn’t able to hack it anymore, he hires a much younger, more capable groundskeeper in Michael MacBride. In two weeks Darby and his daughter will have to move out of their home, accept less income, and take more guff from townspeople. Hoping to change his luck, Darby once again visits the hillside, falls into a well, and wakes up in a Leprechaun haven. The King (Jimmy O’Dea) tells Darby he must stay there the rest of his life. And the life wouldn’t be bad, to be sure, as the little tricksters like but three things: whiskey, dancing, and hunting. But Darby has tricks up his sleeve as well.

Until the second act, when the Leprechauns Darby3finally arrive, a romantic subplot takes center stage. The effects also give the Leprechauns various powers – fire-producing wands, jumping crazy high, transforming into various forms, and turning invisible are a few that come to mind. The romance involves Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro in her first of three Disney roles) and his replacement (Sean Connery, three years before James Bond). The role is close to home for Connery, a Scot, and he even takes part in a duet, Pretty Irish Girl, with Munro. “I know I can’t sing a lick,” he says in the film, but he’s surprisingly pretty good. There’s also a duet between Darby and Brian, The Wishing Song, a drunken ballad made up as they go along.

Live-action Disney regular Robert Stevenson directed the film from H.T. Kavanagh’s stories. And other than Munro and Connery, it featured mostly Irish stage actors (Sharpe, O’Dea, and Denis O’Dea, who plays Father Murphy). Sharpe is especially endearing – like your favorite grandparent known for stories laced with hyperbole – and came out of retirement for the role. But the true stars of the movie are the mystifying effects to create the illusion of real Leprechauns. They mostly use forced perspectives – as did Lord of the Rings and Elf – meaning they placed the Leprechaun actors in large, over-sized sets and filmed them from much further away. The effects also give the Leprechauns various powers – fire-producing wands, jumping crazy high, transforming into various forms and turning invisible are a few that come to mind. While the vast majority of the film is a combination of romantic comedy and fun fantasy, the ending turns extremely dark and mildly frightening – once again thanks to the effects. As in Baron Munchausen, the grim reaper appears here as a wailing banshee, stalking folks and ominously glowing. Following close behind is a death coach and headless chauffeur.

Ultimately, the movie is about losing sight of what’s important when greed comes into the mix – kind of a cautionary tale to the tune of “be careful what you wish for.” And Darby’s a clever one when it comes to wish making. When the town hears he’d captured King Brian, they gather at the pub to hear Darby’s final wish. One man suggests, “Wish for a large house on top of a hill.” Darby responds, “Who’s to care for it?” Another suggests, “Wish for gold.” But Darby declines, “Nine times out of 10 it leads to unhappiness.” In response someone says, “Then wish for happiness,” but yet again Darby turns them down, “Human beings need bitter with the sweet.”

“When I was a young lad,” Darby explains, “me grandfather Podge – God be good to him – he told me there was only one man in the town who was happy altogether. The village idiot.” And wouldn’t you know it, the ending gives us the feeling of just that.

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