As an adult, The Quiet Man (full review) is my favorite Irish fantasy, but as a kid, nothing could beat Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Sean Connery with fearsome eyebrows as a young man taking over the job of Darby as groundskeeper, because the old feller sees leprechauns a little too often. Well, being a Disney movie he ain’t drunk or crazy. And for the ’50s, the effects are pretty impressive. Enough to keep our little butts planted in front of the boob tube every St. Patrick’s Day.
Between this and The Gnome-Mobile (based on a book by Upton Sinclair, of all people) Disney had the short people racket cornered, and we loved it. Darby O’Gill’s story is simple- we’re thrust into a picaresque Irish village, where Darby tells tall tales at the pub every night about the faerie folk while his daughter pines away for a husband. He’s getting on in years and chews the fat more than he cuts the turf, so his employer forces him into retirement, bringing in a young and sturdy replacement as the new caretaker. That’s a job wanted by mean old lady Sugrue for her bully of a son Pony Sugrue, and she begins conniving forthwith against newcomer Michael McBride.
That’s Sean Connery, a few years before Bond, and a perfect catch for Katie O’Gill (cutie Janet Munro, Bertie from Swiss Family Robinson, who died far too young). She’s a bit fiery and distant until she catches him singing while swinging the scythe with his manly arms. It’s almost unfortunate that this is a Disney movie, because Connery looks like he’s barely able to contain his devilish demeanor. With his expressive eyebrows and grin, we expect a shotgun wedding any moment, but he’s a perfect gentleman.
The story begins in earnest when Darby tells the pub how he once caught the King of the Little People, King Brian, up at the castle ruins on the hill one evening. He even got his wish of a crock of gold, before he was tricked into making a fourth, and forfeit them all. But King Brian hasn’t forgotten him- and when he learns that he’s being put out to pasture, he puts a glamor on Darby’s horse so he knocks him down a well that leads to the land of the Little People. Down there, the King tells him he must stay forever. Thus begins the best part of the story- how the 4,000-year old king of the leprechauns and clever old gaffer Darby O’Gill, as they continually trick each other.
First Darby has to trick his way out to the real world again, and once he does, he needs to keep King Brian (the perfectly cast Jimmy O’Dea) from dragging him back, so they have a whiskey-drinking and rhyming contest till dawn. Once there’s daylight, the leprechaun’s powers are gone, and Darby just needs to sic the barn cat on him to get his way. From then on he’s got the king in a sack, and the battle is on to see if he can get any of his wishes before the King can make him waste them all! It’s great fun, interspersed with the chaste romance of Katie and Michael, set on the Disney backlots with some nice matte paintings reminiscent of Ireland. Having been there, the castles and ruins stood out as unlikely, but I could imagine a ring fort instead.
Once we’ve had all our fun with a leprechaun in a sack, it’s time for Sheelah Sugrue and Pony to start their mischief, turning Katie against Michael with chicanery, so she flees on the mountain road on the night the banshee howls. That banshee scared the shamrocks out of me as a kid. Now I have my grandfather’s shillelagh and a belt of Jameson handy to protect me, but back then it was good for a nightmare or two! The story turns true to its fairy tale roots then, as the banshee haunts poor Katie, and the Death Coach comes for her. Darby’s fight for his daughter’s life could be right from the classic deal with the devil, and not even King Brian can save him from his fate- or can he?
Sure it’s cheesy Disney, but it’s one of their best live-action fantasy films. It takes a while to take off, but it’s good clean fun. The perspective effects are quite good, and when they’re not- such as when it’s an obvious doll being thrown into Darby’s gunny sack, or a hilariously fake little arm fending off the cat- it just makes it even more endearing. The glow effects for the Death Coach and the Banshee are very dated, but work in this case- they’re used sparingly and in misty darkness. And when you see the banshee’s face, it’s still creepy 50 years later. For the adults, there’ll always be John Wayne having to prove his mettle to Maureen O’Hara- a movie with nearly as idyllic a view of Ireland as this one- but for the kids, watching Darby O’Gill play his fiddle for a roomful of leprechauns is still great fun.