DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959)

  • Director: Robert Stevenson
  • Writers: Lawrence Edward Watkin, based on the Darby O’Gill stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh
  • Starring: Albert Sharpe, Janet Munro, Sean Connery, Jimmy O’Dea, Kieron Moore, Estelle Winwood, Walter Fitzgerald, and Denis O’Dea
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

Look, I’m not going to seriously argue that this is some kind of masterpiece. I will say, however, that despite being literally a Disney movie, Darby O’Gill and the Little People’s Irish-ness somehow feels less theme-parky than yesterday’s Film Festival entry, The Quiet Man. Which is not to say this is some great cultural document, either. But here Disney is delving into Irish mythology about the same way that I’m given to understand that Raya and the Last Dragon uses Thai mythology or Moana uses Hawaiian mythology. The movie’s uses of said mythology are fairly accurate as far as I know, in terms of keeping with the original myths. We get not only leprechauns but banshees, changelings, and the cóiste-bodhar, the Death Coach, coming for our heroine’s soul. Yet the premiere in Dublin was still the subject of protests for portraying “Irish Stereotypes.”

Walt Disney himself reportedly came up with the idea for this movie in 1947 on a trip to Ireland sponsored by the Irish Folklore Commission. Many years later, Disney made a second trip to Ireland, where he spent three months studying Irish mythology at the Dublin Library and consulted with various seanchai, or storytellers. This all sounds very high minded, and I’m not sure it fully translates to a movie that includes a horse glowing in rainbow colors. In the end, Darby O’Gill is aimed squarely at kids, and I think that if I had kids it might be a good movie for them to watch. Whether a modern kid would want to is a whole other issue, given the occasionally lugubrious pacing on display here. Plot points tend to get repeated multiple times, just to make sure we follow. I am not the one to ask what children are thinking.

Walt Disney had originally intended to cast Barry Fitzgerald (seen yesterday in The Quiet Man) in dual roles as both Darby O’Gill and Brian, King of the Leprechauns, but Fitzgerald thought he was too old for the part and turned it down. So Albert Sharpe, who had originated the title role in Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, was cast as Darby and comedian Jimmy O’Dea plays Brian. The main thrust of the movie is an ongoing battle of wits between these two characters, as Darby tries to get Brian to grant him three wishes and Brian tries to get out of it, but they seem to be playing out this battle more because it’s what they’ve always done than because of some deep motivation. They are old friends who happen to relate to each other through this cat and mouse game.

Also involved are Janet Munro, as Darby’s headstrong 20-year-old daughter, and Sean Connery, in his first major movie role, as a young Dubliner hired by the local lord (Walter Fitzgerald) to replace Darby as caretaker of his estate. These two engage in a fairly rote romance, encouraged by Darby seemingly to get his daughter out of the house more than anything. Munro is particularly winning here, while Connery has little to do except stand there and look handsome and vaguely clueless. At least three times, this pair breaks into a song called “Pretty Irish Girl,” though neither is particularly good at singing. What I found weird is that this song is presented, without comment, just as if the movie is a straight-up musical, but it’s the only song in the movie. Normally you don’t get to pretend that you’re a musical for one song and then go back to being a regular movie, but this movie insists that this is totally normal you guys.

I am not one to discount anything for cheesy or old-timey special effects, but the effects in Darby O’Gill are overall very, well, effective, particularly for their era. There are a lot of scenes with both the knee-high leprechauns (all portrayed by full-size actors) and regular size humans, and they all work seamlessly in terms of the effects involved. This seems like a major feat for 1959. In fact, many of these effects were done the old-fashioned way, through “forced perspective” (that is, objects are made bigger or smaller by placing them at varying distances from the camera). When other effects are attempted (such as the ghost-like banshee) they are generally laughable, but I would submit that this is less a defect than you might think. 

If there is a disconnect between Darby O’Gill and Irish audiences, it might be because this is an Irish-American recollection of old Irish mythology. The Irish of the time wanted to think of themselves as good, worldly Catholics who had left the old superstitions and rural backwardness behind. But for Irish-Americans, it evokes a nostalgia for a simpler time. The series of short stories the Darby O’Gill stories are based on was written by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, an American daughter of Irish immigrants. At that Dublin premiere, Walt Disney insisted, to reporters’ amusement, that he really believed leprechauns were real, but he also said that “the Irish can no longer see them because their minds are on other things.”

The live-action Disney movies of the mid-20th century have not had the staying power over the decades of their animated cousins. Whether that’s because of simply the changing tastes of kids, or changes in special effects, or just that they weren’t as successful initially and so Disney didn’t put as much effort over the years into keeping them alive, I don’t know. Robert Stevenson had started as an English director who, after helming a 1940s adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, caught Disney’s eye and went on to direct a long series of some of the better-known Disney live-action movies of his era. Darby O’Gill was not a major financial success, but Stevenson followed it up with, among other movies, Mary Poppins, The Nutty Professor and its sequel, The Love Bug and its sequel, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. You are far less likely to know his name than many of the “classic film” directors of his era, but at the same time you’re probably fairly likely to have seen some of his movies.

If you’re looking for some sort of authentic portrait of Ireland, this is not your movie. Nor is it a thrill-a-minute action movie. Yet I’d still much rather have watched this movie than, say, the recent Artemis Fowl movie, which treads on vaguely similar Irish mythology ground to much, much dumber, action movie-type results. This is a movie where a leprechaun, temporarily without his magic, runs and hides from a cat in one scene, and in another pretends to be a rabbit so that Sean Connery won’t see him. But I found the emotional arcs to actually work, for the most part, the effects to be surprisingly good, and all the performances to be charming. If you liked some of those other Robert Stevenson movies I listed but have either never seen or never heard of this one, Darby O’Gill might be worth a shot, especially on its first St. Patrick’s Day in wide streaming distribution on Disney Plus.

One thought on “DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959)

  1. The weirdest thing about this movie is that Sean Connery sings. In fact, my mom taped this movie off tv back in the day, and labeled the cassette “Sean Connery Sings!”

    I don’t know what kids today would think of this movie, but when I was a kid this movie was on the bubble between “extremely corny” and “nightmare fodder.”

    Liked by 2 people

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