Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

8 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Faithful readers may have figured out that my two favorite Walt Disney-produced live-action movies are “20000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Old Yeller.” (And to get it out of the way, other great titles, produced by Disney himself before his death, that come into my mind are “Treasure Island,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” and “Mary Poppins,” but I’ll get to those later.) But there was one that I used to watch a lot as a kid—I mean, just as much as “Old Yeller” (yes, that much). That was 1959’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a delightful, fantastic movie that I loved as a kid and love even more now.

The film takes place in a small Irish village, where an old widower, named Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe), lives with his 20-year-old daughter Katie (Janet Munro) in a gatehouse near Lord Fitzpatrick’s (Walter Fitzgerald) estate, of which Darby is caretaker. Darby passes the time by telling stories around the town pub—telling stories about the times he constantly attempts to catch the leprechauns, particularly their king Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea), who live on a hilltop known as Knocknesheega. Lord Fitzpatrick has hired someone else to labor the estate, which means Darby and Katie will be forced to leave, so a young Dubliner named Michael McBride (a 29-year-old Sean Connery in one of his earliest film roles) can move in. Darby begs Michael not to tell Katie that he lost his job, and manages to convince Katie that Michael is only here to help out around the house. That night, Darby is led to Knocknesheega where he stumbles upon the home of the little people. It turns out he was led there by King Brian so he can stay forever, away from the harshness of the real world. Darby manages to escape and make his way back home, which leads to King Brian finding him and Darby being able to trick him so he can capture him. Now in Darby’s possession, King Brian owes Darby three wishes to be granted, and Darby decides to save them for something wise.

Where do I begin with this movie? There’s literally a lot to like about “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” and a great deal of inventiveness. Well, I guess I’ll begin with the rules that are established with the leprechauns. For example, if you wish a fourth wish after your third, then it negates the other three; leprechauns’ powers only work at night; leprechauns can take any shape or form (such as a rabbit); they love dancing, whiskey, and hunting, which Darby can use to trick them; and so on. All of these rules are important to the story, and important for Darby to be smart enough to remember them all. This makes Darby a wise adversary for King Brian to match wits with. And that’s another wonderful thing about this movie—Darby and King Brian can be good friends when they need to be, but when to get what they want, they know how to fool each other into making it happen for one another. For example, how does Darby escape the leprechaun underground world? He plays a hunting song on the fiddle for the leprechauns to dance to before jumping to their horses and going off to hunt, in spirit of the song, thus giving Darby a chance to escape—here, he has used the leprechauns’ love for dancing and hunting to his own advantage. King Brian is able to outwit Darby as well, such as when he tricks Darby into wasting one of his wishes, and even at one point to save Darby’s life (without giving anything away).

I like the way the rules for the leprechauns are set up. Although, I have to wonder—there’s one scene in which King Brian manages to escape from Darby’s bag through a crowd of people, but the people see him as a rabbit. How does that work? If King Brian’s powers only work at night, then how was he able to make everyone see him as a rabbit (if he didn’t transform himself as a rabbit)? I mean, OK, Darby was tricked into wasting his second wish so that Michael could see King Brian (though only as a rabbit), but what was the extent of that wish? Could everyone else just see him as a rabbit, like Michael? I don’t know; maybe I’m questioning too much.

And before anyone lists any comments below, I’m not going to list the possibility that Darby is imagining all of this about the leprechauns and the magic they represent all this time (as inventive as that may be, don’t get me wrong). This is a fantasy and I’m dealing with it. Let the leprechauns and whatever spooky element Darby comes across later be there; don’t read too much into Darby being the only one to see them.


Speaking of spookiness, Darby also comes across a sinister ghostly figure at the end, known as the Banshee, which is said to represent death. In a complicated turn of events, Katie winds up at death’s door and Darby desperately attempts to keep the Banshee and the Death Coach from taking her away. Both the Banshee and the Death Coach frightened me as a kid (the Banshee’s blue-tinted, ghostly image, and not to mention her moaning howl, still continues to send chills down my spine, I’ll admit). I don’t doubt it frightened other kids as well (well, perhaps not those who were angered that the Nostalgia Critic listed the Banshee’s appearance as the Scariest Nostalgic Moment, but I digress); it’s just one of those scary aspects you find in Disney movies (the donkey-transformation in “Pinocchio,” the forest scene in “Snow White,” and so on) that scare younger kids but delight older ones.

But as for the lighthearted scenes, of which there are a lot, there are two in particular that I just love to watch every time. One is the aforementioned fiddle-scene in the leprechaun world, and it is very entertaining as well as visually astounding—by the way, the special effects in this movie, for the most part (I mean, aside from obvious trickery), are just fantastic; there are many great shots that show Darby and the little people in the same frame (done through forced perspective) and it seems completely seamless. I’m not quite sure how they were able to make them appear in the same frame in that day and age, but it’s just incredible. Anyway, the other scene I love is the scene that follows, as Darby and King Brian play a drinking game together so that Darby can trick King Brian into staying until daylight so that he’ll be powerless (and that’s how Darby catches him). This game gives us the “Wishing Song,” one of two songs in this movie (I’ll get to the other one in a bit). The “Wishing Song” has the two of them trading verses back and forth to see how long they can go. This scene is entertaining in the way they continue and keep coming up with clever, amusing rhymes.

This one’s my favorite: “I wish I was married to Old Widow Tunney; she’s ugly as sin, but has beautiful money.”

Oh, I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention the budding romance between Katie and Michael, which takes up a good chunk of movie. Darby wants Katie to be happy, while Katie only thinks about caring about her father and working around the house and doesn’t believe she has time for a man in her life. But Katie and Michael spend some good time together and actually get close to one another, while Katie doesn’t know that Michael is actually here to take Darby’s place. And Michael is wondering how long it will be before Darby tells her. But Michael isn’t keeping this secret for his sake—he genuinely likes Katie and Darby, and does want to help them. While this part of the movie isn’t as fascinating as Darby and the little people, it does help to deliver solid characterization, and on top of that, the two do share convincing chemistry together.

And need I also mention Sean Connery singing the other, most memorable song in the movie, “My Darling Irish Girl?” You know, it might just be me, but I’m not quite sure how to react to Sean Connery singing here. It’s kind of surreal, and I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s a good song, though.

What else is there to like about this movie? Albert Sharpe is excellent in the title role, Janet Munro and Sean Connery are appealing, the special effects are outstanding for the most part (there are some noticeable goofs, but when they’re good, they’re very good), I love the creativity among the leprechauns’ folklore, I love how Darby and King Brian are able to outwit each other, the atmosphere surrounding this small Irish town is evident throughout, and even the side characters such as the town locals who listen to Darby’s stories are amusing. “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” is just an all-around fantastic movie. It’s charming, creative, and (for lack of a better word) Disney-magic.

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