Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

Darby O’Gill and the Little People
Albert Sharpe
Janet Munro
Sean Connery
Jimmy O’Dea
Kieron Moore
Estelle Winwood
Directed by
Robert Stevenson
It being St. Patrick’s Day Weekend, and not having any green beer on hand, I could think of no better way than to spend it with my friend King Brian of Knocknasheega and downing a few rounds of stout. It was during our  third round at Finnegan’s Tavern when the King looks up at me.

“Clyde,” he says, “ it’s a wonderful Irish name you have there, a name any Irishman would and should be proud of.”

I took a sip of my stout and turned to look down at the king. I know you're not supposed to look down at a King but in King Brian's case, unless he’s standing on your shoulder it’s kind of hard not to.
“Well, actually I think it’s a  Scottish  name,” I told him.

This threw King Brian into a hysterical rage.“YOU DARE TO QUESTION MY JUDGEMENT!”  He says putting down his empty cup.
“Dare to call me a liar will you! I’ll have the plague visited upon you so fast you won’t know what hit you! I’ll send for the Coach de Bower”
I began to panic. I could almost hear the banshee woman wailing away outside Finnegan’s.  I knew about the powers of the little people and also know that when angered, hell hath no fury like an intoxicated Leprechaun.  Take my word for it.  Clyde’s number one rule is never to disagree with  the wee people, especially their fearless leader.
“Why no, your highness, I would never do that. I bow to your infinite wisdom in these matters. If you say it’s Irish, then far be it for me to challenge you on such a matter. It must be the ale clouding my thoughts.”

King Brian poured himself another cup and took a sip. But he still looked angry.  “Don’t be so condescending,” he told me. “But you can make it up to me.“

“Anything you ask, King Brian! Anything at all!” I wanted nothing more than  to please the king, lest I be spirited away to spend the rest of my days in some cave buried in the hills of Ireland.

“Here you are, Clyde, writing movie reviews for more than half a decade now, and you’ve yet to write one for my own film.  And with St. Patrick's Day upon us, him being the great patron saint of all Ireland, the greatest country in the world, and still not one word in that blog of yours about the greatest movie about Ireland has ever been commited to celluloid. What do you have to say for yourself?”

I had to think fast. “Well King, Brian, I was going to write one to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the film next year.”

He looked at me suspiciously. “I don’t care about that,” he said downing the rest of his stout and heading towards the door. He turned to look back towards me. “You write it now. You do it this weekend and no excuses or I’ll……”

“If you want it this weekend, then this weekend it will be,” I told him. He turned to leave but quickly turned back to me.
“And I expect it to have a high grade,” he said. “Otherwise….”

I didn’t want to know what otherwise meant. But I wouldn’t let threats ruin my integrity. I just didn’t tell King Brian that. He’d find out soon enough. I could only sigh as I watched him disappear through the door, not even bothering to open it. I paid our tab to the barkeep. I couldn’t figure out why I was always getting left with the tab when it was King Brian who had the pot of gold.
So that was yesterday and this is today. The movie King Brian was referring to  is Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Darby was a film conceived by Disney in the forties and finally brought to the screen in late 1959. It took a while, but sometimes it’s better to get it right than to hurry the process along and end up with something that’s average at best or mediocre at worst.

Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) is a widower who lives with his beautiful daughter Kate (Janet Munro) in a small town in Ireland. It is Darby’s job to look after the grounds and manor of Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald). But old age having caught up with him, Darby spends most of his time in the local pub telling wild tales about his many exciting encounters with King Brian and the Leprechauns. As Lord Fitzpatrick puts it, “Darby retired five years ago and didn’t tell me about it.”

So Lord Fitzpatrick hires young Michael McBride (Sean Connery) to replace Darby, at which time Darby will be retired to half pay and will also have to move from the home he lives in to a smaller home on the grounds.

Darby decides to hide this fact from Katie and tells her that Michael is just to be his helper. At the same time, local woman Sheelah Sugrue (Estelle Winwood) and her son Pony (Kieron Moore) plot to have Pony be the one hired by Lord Fitzpatrick so that Pony can than have Katie as his bride.

In the middle of all this plotting and planning, King Brian kidnaps Darby to make him a permanent resident inside of the mountain where the Leprechauns dwell. King Brian sees it as helping Darby out since he's about to be sacked by the Lord of the Manor. It is left up to Darby to plan his own escape, and to get Michael and Katie to fall in love before Katie finds out Darby has been fired. Either that or he must capture King Brian once again in order to be granted his three wishes which he will then use to set things straight.

And it would be a shame for me to tell you anymore than that because to uncover the details of how all of this is resolved would be to give away the many magical surprises the film has in store. Of the Disney live action films from the
fifties and sixties this is one of the best.

Although Disney originally wanted Barry Fitzgerald for the role of Darby, he plucked Albert Sharpe out of retirement and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Although I like Fitzgerald's work, I can’t picture anyone but Sharpe being able to do what he does here which is to make you believe there are not only Leprechauns but that he has a personal relationship with each and every one of them. Sharpe was seventy four years old when the film was made, but he shows no signs of having slowed down in this film. He's one irrepressible old codger.

Janet Munro as Katie is both beautiful and charming, not to mention feisty when the occasion calls for it so she certainly takes after Darby in that respect. There are times when her temper can get the better of her. She is however, not in any hurry to become anybody’s wife. She has her father to take care of and that is enough (although in this film it would seem that the main goal in life of any female is to find a man to take care of). When Munro smiles, it lights up the screen and would melt any man’s heart no matter what country he is from.

Sean Connery comes to Darby O’Gill pre-James Bond. I think it’s his first major role and the freshness of a young actor early in his career plays to his advantage. After all, Michael is the new young colt hired by Fitzpatrick to look after his estate so the comparison is applicable.

What’s more important is whether the chemistry between the three main leads work. (Connery, Munro, Sharpe) It certainly does here.   Michael knows that because of his years and the work experience he has, Darby deserves a certain amount of begrudging respect. Michael actually seems very uncomfortable with the fact that he will be not only replacing Darby, but taking his home as well.  Not to mention that he quickly develops a crush on Katie, who would have to be evicted as well.

The romance, such as it is in these Disney films from the 50’s, acquits itself quite well. To help things along, Sean and Janet sing a charming little song called A Pretty Irish Girl that will have you sing right along with them. Yes boys and girls, ladies and gents, mums and dads, sisters and brothers, James Bond can sing and you can too by playing the included video and lending your dulcet tones to the proceedings. Often it is claimed that Munro and Connery’s singing was dubbed,  and after locating the version by O’Dowda and Murray and having listened I  to both recordings extensively, I’m inclined to discount it..  From Wikipedia:
Regarding the duet, Pretty Irish Girl, apparently sung by Sean Connery and Janet Munro: It has been alleged that the vocals on the recording were dubbed by Irish singers, Brendan O'Dowda and Ruby Murray.  A single of the duet was released in the UK. However, the deeper male vocal and breathy female vocal (which matches Munro’s a capella finish to the song, plainly recorded on set) performing the song in the American version of the film do not match the voices of O'Dowda (a tenor) nor Murray (a trained singer.)  Connery does sing the song Pretty Irish Girl (with solo piano accompaniment) on the 1992 compilation The Music of Disney: A Legacy of Song, and in 1959 Top Rank released a single in the UK (catalog number JAR 163) which featured Connery and Munro singing the song.

A Pretty Irish Girl is sung throughout the movie.

And of course I can’t forget about King Brian and for me to tell you that he was played by actor Jimmy O'Dea would be Leprechaun blasphemy causing me to incur King Brian’s wrath so I just won’t say anything about that fact. King Brian is King Brian and don’t argue otherwise or I’ll sick the banshee lady on you.
For a film about Leprechauns to succeed it has to also be able to make us believe we are seeing real true to life little people.  Darby O’Gill certainly surpasses anything beyond expectations. It’s amazing how a film that I just reviewed that was made in 1976 (King Kong) can be so clunky with its effects, and this film made in 1959 can be done in such a spectacular fashion and still bring wonderment almost fifty years later.

Most of the shots were made using forced perspective and matte painting, but unlike the previously mentioned King Kong film, you are never ever aware of it. It gives credence to the fact that when you take pride in your work and such care in doing so, rather than just spending money and plastering it up on the screen,  that for years people will be scratching their head wondering how you achieved the desired results. (Note: I do know how it was done now after watching the DVD with its special features. Alas, sometimes its better not to know as it takes away some of the magic you’ve always felt for so many years.)

The success for the special effects work can be laid at the feet of special effects technician and matte artist Peter Ellenshaw. Most of Darby was filmed in Hollywood with only a very few location shots added. But it doesn’t matter because thanks to Ellenshaw’s wonderful Matte work and the Cinematography of Winton Hoch, you will believe that every second of this film was made in Ireland as they work to bring it magically to life. You can tell that every frame of this film was put onto the big screen with the love, care, and artistry of someone who took extreme pride in their work.

So honestly, I can think of no better way for you to spend St. Patrick’s Day than to pick up the DVD and enter the world of King Brian and the Leprechauns. Just tell them that King Brian of Knocknasheega sent you. Oh and about that grade……that’s not the banshee I hear is it? It’s an A King Brian! It’s an A! Now send her away!


  1. I can't believe I never read this review until now. I agree with everything you wrote. It has been one of my favorites for years and the special effects still amaze me.

    1. I fixed the missing video. Until they take that one down. It doesn't belong to me.