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Darby O’Gill and the Little People

(SPOILERS) While up to its eyeballs in Oirishness – Disney had attempted to secure professional Hollywood Oirishman Barry Fitzgerald as Darby, to no avail – this adaptation of Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s stories is surprisingly unfiltered by the studio’s predilection for sentimentality and cutesiness. The Sean Connery-Janet Munro romance lends Darby O’Gill and the Little People a sniff of a supernatural (or is it?) The Quiet Man, while Albert Sharpe’s unmoderated accent – unless you’re unfortunate enough to see it on Disney+ – in concert with the emphasis on boozing, all the while with the main drama/comedy revolving around the interaction of a couple of sexagenarians, announces this as slightly unlikely kids’ or even family fare.

Darby: You murderin’ little heathens!

Darby O’Gill and the Little People was directed by Disney’s go-to non-auteur Robert Stevenson; by 1977 he was (per Variety) “the most commercially successful director in the history of films” (these including The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!, Mary Poppins, The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks). Darby wasn’t among them, although, unlike the typical cheap-and-cheerful look of the preponderance of Disney live-action movies around that time, Darby O’Gill and the Little People’s a visual feast.

Darby: God forgive me, she be chasing a pooka.

When it comes to the hilltop ruins of Knockasheega, miraculous matte paintings lend the movie an enormously evocative, ethereal texture (unsurprisingly, Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock are among those credited). Even the skies are splendidly atmospheric; so much of the movie isn’t there (rendered via mattes), it really is comparable to the current (sometimes seamless, always disappointingly clinical and synthetic) use of CGI. The leprechaun effects are pretty good too, and there’s even a banshee and ghostly death coach along for the ride to boot; Peter Jackson would use some of the same techniques for The Lord of the Rings, and there’s an undeniable echo of the banshee in his Dark Riders.

Mrs O’Toole: When you sup with the devil, you need a long spoon.

Walt had wanted to make an Irish folklore picture for more than a decade, and however much fidelity he does or doesn’t show, he gives the impression he’s versed in it. There are leprechauns, banshees, pookas, a Dullahan driving a death coach, references to changelings and, of course, pots of gold. Banshee wailing is seen as threatening, rather than traditional mourning (or keening) for the imminently deceased. Conversely, the pooka, which can bring bad fortune (or good – Harvey), here poses as a horse, and lures Darby to the leprechaun kingdom and Katie to her demise.

King Brian: Then you can forget the tears an' troubles of the world outside. There's nothin' but fun and diversion here!

It seems Kavanagh was adapting something of The Adventure of Fergus mac Léti, in which three captive Leprechauns grant Fergus three wishes for release. Darby’s interaction is mainly with King Brian, a trickster and massive pisshead, who grants him three wishes and then proceeds to erase them by fooling Darby into asking for a fourth. Darby in turn, being familiar with leprechaun ways, sings The Wishing Song with Brian; by the juncture of the eightieth verse, Brian is thoroughly bladdered, dawn has risen, and Darby stuffs him a sack, wishing for him to say by his side until he has completed the other two wishes.

Whether or not Brian is all in Darby’s head – and indeed, all the supernatural events – is for the viewer to decide. Certainly, no one else ever sees Brian as other than a rabbit, and Katie falling ill could have any number of explanations. The most convincing argument for Brian in fact being disguised as a rabbit is that either he’s in the bag in the pub or the rabbit knows how to drink a whisky from a glass very cleanly and quickly. Perhaps Irish rabbits have such a gift.

Darby: I’ll throw you in the river and drown you like a kitten.
King Brian: Do that and you’ll have a scourge that’ll make the potato famine look like a Sunday regatta!

The element of never catching a break with regard to earning that pot of gold is balanced by Darby knowing all the drawbacks involved and considering his daughter’s happiness paramount. Indeed, when he substitutes himself for her on the death coach, the all-round positive vibes – well, aside from Kieron Moore’s Pony Sugrue and Estelle Winwood as his mother – lead to King Brian granting him a get out that would appear to nix the whole deal (rather than the coach simply going back for Katie once more).

Paddy Scanlon: Five thousand years old he is, an' every year of his life he's learned a knew trick.
Darby O'Gill: And I've learned a hundred of 'em!

Sharpe and O’Dea give inimitable performances, while young Sean and Janet make a winning couple, once their inevitable contretemps are out of the way (Walter Fitzgerald’s Lord Fitzkpatrick has employed Michael to take over caretaker duties on his estate from Darby). Naturally, Sean’s Irish accent is as Scottish as they come, but his singing voice is quite good (it’s been debated if it’s actually him, but he could clearly carry a note in Dr. No). Munro is very sunny and delightful; Disney evidently thought so too, as she then showed up in Third Man on the Mountain and Swiss Family Robinson in quick succession (the year after that, she was decidedly more siren-like in The Day the Earth Caught Fire). It would take Connery another thirty years plus to work for the Mouse House again (Medicine Man).

King Brian: Oh, he’s got a head on his shoulders. Just like Aristotle.

Certainly, Darby O’Gill and the Little People doesn’t deserve to languish as a mirthful footnote to Connery’s career, akin to Bowie’s Laughing Gnome. On the contrary, it earns maximum credit for avoiding the twee and treacly. As long as you aren’t put off by Tinseltown takes on the Emerald Isle, there’s a good chance you’ll discover a neglected gem.

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