100 Film Favorites – #55: Darby O’Gill and the Little People
(Robert Stevenson, 1959)
Thus far in the Countdown, we’ve seen several holiday specials: One Halloween, one Thanksgiving, and two Christmases. Now we come to a film that, while not explicitly holiday-specific, is my go-to St. Patrick’s Day movie. Darby O’Gill and the Little People is based on short stories by Irish-American author Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, and deals with wily old Irishman Darby O’Gill’s ongoing attempts to outsmart Brian of Knocknasheega, king of the leprechauns.
Darby works as groundskeeper on the estate of an Irish lord near the village of Rathcullen, living in a cottage on the grounds with his adult daughter, Katie. However, the aging Darby shirks his work, and can most often be found in the the town pub, regaling its patrons with tales of his many encounters with leprechauns. His most often-told stories concern his ongoing rivalry with King Brian, whom Darby once nearly conned out of a pot of gold. You see, when caught, leprechauns must grant their captor 3 wishes. However, King Brian claimed to be “generous,” and talked Darby into making a 4th wish, which negated the effects of all previous wishes. King Brian, and the gold, vanished into the night.
Meanwhile, Lord Fitzpatrick, the owner of the estate, has returned home to find Darby gone, the weeds overgrown, and signs that rabbit-poachers have been trespassing on the property. Though Katie hurriedly fetches her father from the pub, Lord Fitzpatrick pulls Darby aside to tell him his mind is made up: Fitzpatrick has decided to retire Darby, and hire a young man named Michael McBride in his place.
Darby is reluctant to tell Katie about his dismissal, and so tells her that Michael, whom the lord has brought along, is simply to be Darby’s assistant for the season. Katie and the strapping Michael (played by Sean Connery in his first leading Hollywood role) gradually begin falling for one another.
That night, while searching for his horse atop Knocknasheega, a “faerie mountain” on the estate, Darby trips and falls down a well, later awakening in the leprechaun throne room at the heart of the mountain. King Brian states he has learned of Darby’s plight, and thus has summoned him here to spend the rest of his days among the leprechauns, living in “fun and diversion.” Though he is eager to return home, Darby is forbidden to leave. He therefore concocts a plan: Knowing that leprechauns are fond of “dancin,’ whiskey, and huntin'” above all else, Darby picks up a violin and plays a hunting reel, gradually increasing in tempo and intensity until the leprechauns are whipped into a frenzy. King Brian opens the side of the mountain, and he and his hunting party of subjects gallivant out across the twilit hills in search of sport. Darby scoops up several pockets-full of treasure and rushes out through the closing rock face. He just barely makes it out, but realizes that his pockets are riddled with holes, and he has lost his leprechaun gold once again.
The next night (faeries possess much less power during the day), King Brian visits Darby at his home. Darby’s escape has made the King a laughingstock, and Brian demands that Darby return to the mountain. Instead, Darby tricks the diminutive king into joining him in a combination drinking game / singing contest. To use the vernacular, King Brian gets thoroughly schwasted on an Irish spirit called poitin (pronounced paw-cheen). The morning comes, and King Brian loses his powers as the sun rises. Having caught the little king at last, Darby makes his first wish: That the leprechaun will be unable to leave his side until all three wishes are granted.
Darby hurries to show Michael his wee captive, but instead of King Brian, the young man sees only a rabbit. Irritated, Darby makes his second wish: for King Brian to make himself visible to Michael and the other townspeople. King Brian parries this by saying the wish is already granted – he IS visible to the townspeople…visible as a rabbit.
Feeling cheated, Darby delays his third wish. Brian, growing anxious as to what might happen in the faerie world should he fail to return, kind of offers Darby a freebie: In exchange for Darby making his third wish, King Brian will do what he can to expedite the courtship between Katie and Michael, whom Darby prefers greatly over her other suitor, the boorish, very Gaston-like, Pony Sugrue.
Katie and Michael grow close, and Darby prepares to wish his last wish. One night, he heads to the pub so the townsfolk can witness the event firsthand. Meanwhile, Katie has discovered the real reason behind Michael’s presence. Furious that he has not told her about his replacing her father, Katie smacks Michael upside the head and runs off into the darkness. Possibly influenced by the dark faerie forces King Brian had feared, Katie winds up scaling Knocknasheega, falling off a ledge and cracking her head on a rock. Michael and Darby hurry up the mountain and find her unconscious.
As Katie lies comatose in bed, Darby hears a horrible wailing on the wind. It is the scream of the banshee, a ghostly woman whose call signals that death is imminent. In one of the most frightening moments in “family” film (it topped internet reviewer The Nostalgia Critic’s list of “scariest moments in kids’ movies”), Darby flings open the cottage door, and finds himself face-to-face with the wailing banshee. Darby attempts to shoo away the ghoul, but it is too late.
At the banshee’s call, a ghostly carriage referred to as the “Death Coach” descends from the sky to claim Katie’s soul. Frantically, Darby shouts out his third wish to King Brian: That the Death Coach will take Darby himself, instead of Katie. Brian, admiring the pluck and sacrifice of his “greatest adversary,” grants Darby’s wish. A dullahan, an Irish variant on the headless horseman, ushers Darby aboard the Death Coach and departs for the sky.
Suddenly, King Brian appears at Darby’s side in the carriage. The king informs Darby that Katie is well again, but that he will miss Darby nevertheless. “We had great sport together,” says King Brian. “I just wish I could ride with you all the way.” Sadly, Darby mutters “I wish you could, too.”
Brian laughs triumphantly. This, he says, constitutes Darby’s FOURTH wish. And, as in their earlier encounter, leprechaun rules dictate that “three wishes I’ll grant ye, big wishes and small, but you wish a fourth wish, and you lose them all!” All of Darby’s wishes are undone, and he returns to the land of the living. Katie is well again, Michael decks Pony Sugrue in a good old-fashioned Irish bar-fight, and Darby is invited to stay on in the cottage by the newly engaged young couple.
This movie has some pretty incredible special effects for its time. Rather than green-screen or similar tricks, forced perspective is used extensively to create the illusion of the leprechauns’ small stature. The “regular-sized” actor will stand near the camera, while the “tiny” actor stands much further back, therefore appearing much smaller than the actor in the foreground. The effect is enhanced by diligently matching eye-lines so that the characters, though actually far apart from each other on a massive set, appear to be looking at one another.
Also, while the “human” actors manipulate regular-sized props, the “leprechauns” use hugely scaled-up replicas. The leprechaun effects are so convincing (well, okay, except for one shot in which Darby picks King Brian up and shoves him into a sack, when it’s very clear that “Brian” is a creepy, flailing doll), that the opening credits of the movie include a special thank you from Walt Disney for the participation of “King Brian of Knocknasheega and his leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible.” The film also features skillful use of matte paintings, to make the “Irish village,” which was actually a Burbank studio lot, seem much more expansive than it really was. Nearly the entire Knocknasheega hill is created with a series of matte paintings.
In 1967, Darby O’Gill had a spiritual successor of sorts in The Gnome-Mobile, the last film on which Walt Disney worked personally (it was released after his death). The later film, which features gnomes instead of leprechauns, uses similar big-small effects, though with much more use of green-screen rather than forced perspective. This technique ironically shows its age much more than the “Darby” effects, and the film that’s nearly a decade older continues to look better.
Overall, Darby O’Gill is a great fantasy film with memorable music and spectacular effects for its time. Plus, it’s got a young, SINGING Sean Connery. If you’re a Disney fan who’s looking for something besides The Luck of the Irish to watch on St. Paddy’s, check it out.
Tidbits: For its VHS release, the film was dubbed over with an alternate audio track, intended to be “easier to understand” for American audiences. Characters perceived to have strong Irish accents, including of both Darby and King Brian, were dubbed over by other actors. Snatches of Gaelic dialogue in the original film were also dubbed over awkwardly in English. This is a serious botch job, and if you find yourself watching it, stop and find the proper version. Luckily, the DVD (at least the American release) has the original audio restored.
-Albert Sharpe came out of retirement to play Darby. He and Jimmy O’Dea (King Brian), both Irish actors, came to America to do the film. The 1959 episode of the Disneyland TV series they appeared in with Walt Disney to advertise the film marks the only television appearance the two men ever made.