Retro Review: Darby O’Gill and the Little People
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, the one day every year where we reflect on the rich traditions of the industrious Irish people…by engaging in the time honored rituals of getting hammered, putting on green, and indulging in racial stereotypes until someone of actual Irish heritage engages in another time honored ritual, that of beating up idiots in Celtic t-shirts. It’s a phenomena hard to fathom for people living outside of the North-East how much of a complete crap-shoot any establishment that serves alcohol becomes on this most special of evenings, but hey, at least we can all come together for the crowning achievement of Gaelic culture: McDonald’s Shamrock shake.
Joking aside, the list of excellent movies set in Ireland or about the Irish is longer than a St. Pat’s parade in Boston, so picking a film to review is no easy task. Luckily, like a bastion of cultural sensitivity, Disney is there to answer the call, and provides us with a thoroughly enjoyable romp through kinda-sorta Irish folklore.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Unlike other attempts by Disney Studios to use minority folk traditions in its programming (Song of the South anyone?), Darby O’Gill is not only entertaining, but is a rather capable introduction to Irish myth. Based on two collections of collected folk tales by Hermione Kavanagh, the film introduces audiences to Gaelic fantasy through the misadventures of the cunning Darby O’Gill, an aging caretaker with a penchant for tall tales and wild schemes.
Darby has spent his leisure time attempting to catch the leprechauns, but has thus far been frustrated by their cunning. An old man, he faces a forced retirement (thought the details of this retirement sound blessed in this day and age: a pension of half his working wage and a cottage to retire to, all paid by his former lord.) This situation embarrasses O’Gill, who hides his upcoming demotion from his daughter, Katie, who lives with her father. Caught between a rock and hard place, Darby could really use some magic, which is exactly what he gets…
Late one night, his escape -prone horse (bizarrely named Cleopatra) wanders off to the enchanted mountain home of the leprechaun, led by a shape shifting spirit called a pooka. Darby catches up with the animal, but is himself caught by the king of the leprechauns, Brian Connors. I would have expected a grander title than Brian, but eh, it’s Irish, who can say. Thus begins a battle of wits between Darby and Brian Connors which is the central motif of the film. Each plays trick and counter trick upon the other, leading to mounting silliness which eventually helps Darby to discover a way out his present problems, both with the leprechauns and his coming retirement.
Luck of the Irish
This film made the career of Scottish born actor, Sean Connery, who stars as Darby’s replacement caretaker, and eventual son-in-law. Connery had plied his rugged good looks and physique in several other fields of work, notably as a Scottish bodybuilder and football star, but eventually decided on the more common place career of becoming the most famous Scotsman to ever walk the planet (despite making Highlander 2, The Avengers, and Zardoz…) A prominent producer was introduced to the young Connery through this Disney production and hired him to play the starring role in a little-known series of films about a British spy with a forgettable name. Jim, I think. I told you it was forgettable.
The production value for Darby O’Gill manages to look decidedly decent, even in this day and age. The forced perspective camera angles used to create the illusion of tiny leprechauns is fun to watch, and like many other practical effects, manages to hold its value over time. One could have hoped that more amazing visuals would have been present for a story about fantastical creatures, but the material itself tends to be the work-a-day fare of the common people. No dragons or monsters here, sadly.
The film had been saluted for its music in its day, though I doubt many would consider the tunes likely to inspire remakes any time soon. Since it never rains but it pours, the final duet between Connery’s character and Katie was actually released as a popular single. Did anyone check in between takes to see if Connery was actually squeezing wishes out of the poor leprechauns? For a movie about a lucky Irishman, the Scotsman seems to have gotten all of the good fortune.
The Magic of Disney
I clearly remember having enjoyed this tale as a child, back when Disney was at the pinnacle of its prowess, dominating the small screen with The Wonderful World of Disney -featuring live action fare such as Darby O’Gill, Pete’s Dragon, and anything starring the fish-faced funny-man Don Knotts- and wowing audience at the theater with their non-stop animated hits. Years later, when I was teaching Irish folklore to grade school children, I was delighted to see Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill and the Good People come up as a reading selection. Perhaps I have a bit of bias (no, I’m not talking about all the Irish jokes at the start of the article!) but I think young viewers will still enjoy the comic mischief of the quick-witted Darby O’Gill. They’ll at least get a kick out of the ending where Connery bashes his rival over head with a whiskey bottle and proceeds to pummel him. Some jokes are timeless, I suppose.