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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. Darby O’Gill and the Little People

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically.  Since we did all the animated films, we’re moving on the the live-action films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Darby O’Gill and the Little People

Year: 1959

Source materials : Darby O’Gill and the Good People and The Ashes of Old Wishes And Other Darby O’Gill Tales by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh. 1

Box office: $2.6 million

Plot: Darby O’Gill is the aging caretaker of Lord Fitzpatrick’s estate in the small Irish town of Rathcullen, where he lives in the gatehouse with his daughter Katie. Darby spends most of his time in the town pub, regaling his friends with tales of his attempts to catch the leprechauns, in particular, their king, Brian Connors.

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Darby is past his prime as a laborer, so Lord Fitzpatrick decides to retire him on half pay and give him and Katie another cottage to live in, rent-free, and give his job to a young man named Michael McBride. Darby begs Michael not to tell Katie that he is being replaced, to which Michael reluctantly agrees.

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That very night, Darby is captured by the leprechauns while chasing Fitzpatrick’s runaway horse Cleopatra, 2 on top of the fairy mountain Knocknasheega. 3 Darby learns that King Brian has brought him into the mountain so he could avoid the shameful admission to Katie about losing his job, but this would mean that Darby would not be allowed to return to Rathcullen and must remain with the leprechauns permanently. However, Darby tricks the leprechauns into embarking on a fox hunt by playing a rousing fiddle tune called “The Fox Chase” for them on a Stradivarius violin, loaned to him by King Brian. The leprechauns leave on horseback through a large crack in the mountainside wall, from which Darby also escapes.

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Expecting Brian to track him down once realizing he escaped, Darby produces a jug of poitín 4 and tricks the leprechaun into a drinking game to trap him at sunrise. 5

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Darby uses his first wish to have Brian remain at his side for two weeks or until he makes his two wishes. Meanwhile, despite a rocky beginning between them, Michael and Katie begin to show signs of growing affection. Brian stirs the two more in the direction after tricking Darby into making his second wish, warning Darby that his kin might resort to targeting Katie to get him back. Later, the town bully Pony Sugrue attempts to get Michael fired.

A livid Katie chases Cleopatra to Knocknasheega at nightfall. By the time Darby finds her, she’s gravely injured with a fever as a banshee 6 appears. Despite Darby getting Katie back to Rathcullen while attempting to drive the apparition away, the banshee summons the cóiste-bodhar 7 to carry Katie’s soul off to the land of the dead. Desperate, Darby elects to use his final wish to go in his daughter’s place, which a saddened King Brian reluctantly grants. But while accompanying Darby on his way to the next world, King Brian tricks Darby into making a fourth wish. Because he is only allowed three wishes, this negates all the previous wishes and spares Darby’s life.

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Katie’s fever lifts and she and Michael reveal their love for each other. Michael later confronts Pony at the pub for his attempt to get him fired, knocking him out and making him appear an incompetent drunkard. Finally, Darby and Michael depart arm-in-arm, joining Katie outside in the wagon for a happy ending, with Michael and Katie singing a final duet together of “Pretty Irish Girl.”

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Background: The film’s development began with a visit to Ireland and the Irish Folklore Commission by Walt Disney and associates in 1947. Jimmy O’Dea and the other actors who played leprechauns were not given any screen credit, nor did Walt Disney allow any other material to be published about them in the marketing for this movie. Disney’s intention was to give the illusion he was using real leprechauns for the filming. The filmmakers used forced perspective to make the leprechauns look smaller. The DVD has a special “making of” short video which demonstrates the process.

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Songs:

  • “Pretty Irish Girl.” 8
  • “Fox Hunt”
  • “The Wishing Sing”

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Cast: Janet Munro returns as Katie O’Gill. Denis O’Dea returns as Father Murphy. Walter Fitzgerald returns as Lord Fitzpatrick.

Albert Sharpe 9 as Darby O’Gill. He was Finian McLonergan in the Original Broadway production of the musical Finian’s Rainbow. He appeared in the films Royal Wedding and Brigadoon. Sir Sean Connery as Michael McBride. He is best known as the first actor to play James Bond. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Untouchables. His film career also includes such films as Marnie, The Name of the Rose, The Man Who Would Be King, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Finding Forrester, Highlander, Murder on the Orient Express, Dragonheart, and The Rock.

Jimmy O’Dea 10 as King Brian. An Irish stage actor, his film appearances include Jimmy Boy, Cheer Boys Cheer, Let’s Be Famous, and The Rising of the Moon. Kieron Moore 11 as Pony Sugrue. He appeared in David and Bathsheba, The League of Gentlemen, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, The Siege of Sidney Street, Doctor Blood’s Coffin, I Thank a Fool, The 300 Spartans, The Main Attraction, The Day of the Triffids, Girl in the Headlines, Hide and Seek, The Thin Red Line, Crack in the World, Son of a Gunfighter, Arabesque, and Bikini Paradise.

Estelle Winwood 12 as Widow Sheelah Sugrue. She was a stage actor who reluctant turned to films. She appeared in The Glass Slipper, The Swan, 23 Paces to Baker Street, The Misfits, The Magic Sword, The Notorious Landlady, Dead Ringer, Camelot, and The Producers. Her final film appearance, at age 92 as in Murder by Death. J.G. Devlin 13 as Tom Kerrigan. He was a stage actor with the Ulster Group Theatre and the Abbey Theatre.

Jack MacGowran 14 as Phadrig Oge. He appeared in the films No Resting Place, The Quiet Man, The Gentle Gunman, Rooney, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Titfield Thunderbolt, Tom Jones, Doctor Zhivago, How I Won the War, King Lear, Wonderwall, and Age of Consent. His final film was The Exorcist. Nora O’Mahoney 15 as Molly Malloy. Her film credits include Holiday for Lovers, The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, Daughter of Darkness, and Captain Boycott.

Critical Reception:

  • A. H. Weiler of The New York Times praised the cast and thought the film an “overpoweringly charming concoction of standard Gaelic tall stories, fantasy and romance.”
  • Variety called the film “rollicking Gaelic fantasy” with “meticulously painstaking production” and “a gem” of a performance from Albert Sharpe, though Sean Connery was called “artificial” and “the weakest link in Robert Stevenson’s otherwise distinguished direction.”
  • Charles Stinson of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Being a Disney product, it is as technically perfect a job as can be had: the Technicolor, the camera work, the special effects, the Irish music and all are a rich feast for anyone’s eye and ear.”
  • The Monthly Film Bulletin called the special effects “brilliantly executed” but found that “all attempts at Irish charm seem pretty synthetic, a notable exception being the playing of Jimmy O’Dea, who makes King Brian the most likeable and beguiling leprechaun yet to appear on the screen.”

My take: I remember seeing this as a kid and being terrified of the banshee and the cóiste-bodhar, especially the headless coachman. I had nightmares for weeks. I can say that on the rewatch, that it’s still pretty creepy. The practical effects still hold up. it’s a cute, charming film with a little bit of spooky.

Next Week: Fred MacMurray again in The Absent-Minded Professor