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“You can forget the tears an’ troubles of the world outside. There’s nothin’ but fun and diversion here!”
– King Brian Connors of Knocknasheega
Ah, back to Disney already.
You know, it’s around this weekend every March that’s a treasured time for me and my family; a time where we can gather around and indulge in some of our cultural heritage, maybe enjoy a nice dinner of corned beef and cabbage, all while worshiping a beloved patriarchal saint…
HAPPY SAINT JOSEPH’S DAY!!
What? I’m Italian from my father’s side. While others go out in green, I stay at home and enjoy some nice homemade pastries with my family. It’s not like there’s any other holiday revolving around a saint that involves getting plastered in the name of nationality.
Going back to what I said in my previous review, we’re inundated by so much Disney in the media, particularly from their animated films, that we often forget their value. Just as often, there are great films by Disney that tend to fall by the wayside and be eclipsed by more recent and popular movies.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People is one of them.
Made during Walt Disney’s time, Darby O’Gill, based on the stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, is an amalgamation of Irish folklore and classic Disney moviemaking magic. It’s got that Uncle Walt touch that mixes in a lot of bright, happy moments with plenty of dark, scary ones, as well as some old-fashioned charm emanating from its actors and its production design. There’s a lot of effort put into making you believe you’re in a village among the green hills of Ireland that you forget that it’s filmed in a backlot in sunny California. Plenty of research was done in presenting these classic myths and it shows (there are moments when the actors even speak real ancient Gaelic). And I’ll go into more detail about the special effects once I get to them because for a movie well over fifty years old, they still hold up surprisingly well –
Also, this one of the few live-action Disney movies to have a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%. I don’t normally go to Rotten Tomatoes to judge the quality of a film, but it always warms my heart to see a movie that doesn’t get enough love have such a high score.
And what else can this movie offer to sweeten the deal?
The film opens with a special thanks from Walt Disney to King Brian of the Leprechauns for making his cooperation in making the film. It might seem odd, but remember, this is Walt Disney. He wanted to make his films, as fantastical as they were, seem as real as possible. When filming the Wonderful World of Disney episode meant to promote the film, “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns”, he played up his encounters with King Brian and Darby as an actual event. It might come off as cheesy to some, but that was Walt’s secret; he could make anything seem possible.
Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) is the caretaker of the wealthy Lord Fitzpatrick’s estate, but he’s getting on in years. More often than not, he can found at the pub telling tales of his encounters with the titular little people – better known as leprechauns to us non-Irish folk – rather than hard at work. Darby has a daughter, Katie (Janet Munro), who’s something of the town catch, if not for her sweet girl-next-door looks then for the privilege she has of living on a fine estate. Katie, however, isn’t interested in finding a man just yet, preferring to taking care of the house and her father.
Katie is visited by the Widow Sugrue, a nosy busybody who’s hoping to make a match between Katie and her son Pony. Lord Fitzpatrick pays a surprise visit accompanied by one Michael McBride (Sean Connery) and Katie runs out to find her father. Sure enough, he’s at the local watering hole telling anyone who would listen about meeting the king of the leprechauns himself, Brian Connors.
The movie makes excellent use of perspective shots and angles when it comes to the leprechauns and humans sharing the screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Jackson was influenced by this just a bit when making Lord of the Rings.
In his story, Darby has King Brian cornered in the old Gaelic ruins of Knocknasheega outside of town. Darby, who’s been chasing the fair folk around for a good portion of his life hoping to get some of their fabulous wealth for himself, is one step ahead of Brian when it comes to any tricks he might pull to escape, and insists Brian grant him three wishes before he releases him (because leprechauns and genies are the same thing?)
Brian grants Darby’s wishes for a pot of gold, a long healthy life and a good crop of potatoes that year (because this movie won’t rest until we see almost every Irish stereotype in existence. No, seriously, take a shot every time one pops up throughout the review). And then Brian asks what Darby’s fourth wish will be because apparently he can grant extra wishes if he feels like it. Darby, who’s in a generous mood, asks for some of his neighbors to be given a pot of gold as well. Darby’s gold vanishes before his very eyes, because as Brian says “Three wishes I’ll grant you, big wishes and small, but wish a fourth wish, and you’ll lose them all!” and he disappears.
The people in the pub are enraptured by the story, except for Pony. Pony’s a bullying brute who loves getting drunk at the bar, starting fights to make himself feel more macho, and dismisses this old man’s story as fairy-tale nonsense and WAIT JUST A DARN MINUTE –
Father Murphy, the local priest, comes in looking to ask a favor from his congregation. The pastor in the next town over is donating a new bell for the church and he needs someone to go pick it up. Pony agrees to do it, but only if he gets paid well beyond what the good father can scrounge up from the charity box. Father Murphy then not-so-subtly plays on the guilt of some of his fellow parishioners to coerce them (ah, good ol’ fashioned Catholicism for you). Darby volunteers, turning down any payment, and the priest promises him the music of the bell for him and his future generations as his reward. Katie then appears and drags her father out to see Lord Fitzpatrick.
The lord, meanwhile, is showing Michael the estate grounds and we learn why they are here; Lord Fitzpatrick is planning on retiring Darby and making Michael his replacement. He breaks the news to Darby when he arrives, but says he’ll keep him on at half-pay and let him and Katie move to a new cottage on the grounds because he likes him. Darby isn’t happy, however, because his current home is the only one Katie has ever known. Fitzpatrick decides to give him two weeks to move out, but insists that he does so before he returns.
On leaving, he’s stopped by the Widow Sugrue, who tries to push Pony on him as a potential replacement for Darby. Neither men are comfortable with her persistence, but the old woman works her Lady Macbeth-ish wiles on Pony and soon he’s dreaming of the fine upstanding position of groundskeeper.
On another note, do you think when Pony was a kid, his mother referred to him as “My little Pony”?
Sorry. Had to do it.
Michael wants to stay the inn until it’s time for him to move, but Darby insists that he live with him and Katie instead. He also asks that he doesn’t tell her about the changes in management as he wants to be the one to do so. Darby introduces Michael as his new assistant, which Michael doesn’t like because that makes him as guilty of lying as Darby is, but Darby promises he’ll tell her eventually. He’s also quick to notice that Michael and Katie already have eyes for each other, though he doesn’t say a word.
After supper he goes to ready his horse Cleopatra for tomorrow, but she’s wandered out of her stable. She leads Darby up to Knocknasheega where she spontaneously gets a Windows Movie Maker filter grafted over her.
Cleopatra knocks Darby down an old well, leading to, well –
In a movie full of really good effects, this one is easily the worst. Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole in the animated Alice in Wonderland looks more convincing than this does. Thankfully, it’s all uphill from here.
Darby is knocked out but unharmed by the fall and two leprechauns come across him.
They wake him up, and after messing around with him for a bit with their magic, they take him to see King Brian, who lives in the caverns beneath the ruins and is in the middle of throwing a party for his fellow leprechauns. Darby comes in and I have no idea how they show him walking among all the little people but it is astounding. It bears repeating, this is some high-quality perspective trickery.
Brian, it turns out, has been expecting Darby, and shows him his treasure – not just the usual chests of gold and jewels, but a throne belonging to the first high king of Ireland, weapons wielded by ancient heroes and so on. Darby can’t wait to tell everyone what he’s seen at the pub, but Brian reveals that he’s not going back – once he’s in the realm of the fair folk, he’s stuck there forever. Brian learned what happened between him and Lord Fitzpatrick, and feeling sorry for Darby, he decided to let him live out the rest of his days in his kingdom.
Darby isn’t happy about this new arrangement, however, and says the worst insult imaginable, one that sets off a riot among the leprechauns: “Your heart’s as cold as a wet Christmas!”
Brian tells Darby that he’d better get comfortable because he’s not changing his mind despite his P.O.’d subjects, and suggests they lighten the mood with some music. He stops Darby from sneaking off to “fetch his violin” and gives him a fine Stradivarius one for him to play. Darby, with all his expertise of the little folk, knows what they like best – good music, whiskey, and hunting – and plays the merry tune of a fox chase that sets them all a-dancing. It’s a wonderful catchy bit of music that builds as it plays, and it’s a shame there hasn’t been a version of it released anywhere to listen to on its own.
The music puts the leprechauns in the mood for a hunt and they abandon their dancing to go on a fox hunt of their own (I’m still blown away by how they show them riding miniature white horses around Darby). Brian makes an opening in the hill for him them to ride out through and Darby seizes his chance to escape after them, but not before snagging a couple of jewels for himself. He makes it out just before the hill closes up again, but karma instantly kicks in and Darby finds the jewels have all fallen out through a hole in his pocket.
Knowing Brian will soon be looking for him, he takes the no-longer seizure-rific Cleopatra back home and prepares some good whiskey. Sure enough, Brian arrives demanding that he return with him. Darby pretends he only came back for his pipe and acts all “you didn’t think I really wanted to stay home, did you, especially with this second-rate whiskey I’ve got lying around”. Brian insists that they try the drink before he writes it off as beneath him, and sure enough, Darby’s got him hooked. This leads into the two trying to outdrink each other to the tune of “The Wishing Song”, a fun little drinking song they make up as they go along. Sadly, despite it most likely being the source of inspiration for Whose Line is it Anyway’s Drinking Song game, I have yet to hear anyone start up this particular tune at the local bar.
This scene got me to thinking, as much as I admire the Disney we have today, I miss the Disney of old that included characters smoking and getting piss-drunk in their family movies, don’t you?
Darby succeeds in keeping Brian drinking until dawn. Brian tries to escape when he realizes what time it is but can’t, as being out after sunrise means he’s stripped of his powers until nightfall. Brian rails against Darby for deceiving him, but Darby sics his cat on him until he agrees to grant his wishes. Brian tries to pull the “fourth wish” trick again, but Darby’s too smart for him this time. He uses his first wish to make Brian promise not to go back to Knocknasheega until he grants his other wishes or at least until the two weeks before he has to move are up, and he sticks him in a sack for safekeeping (but if he’s powerless until night how can he grant that wish to begin with? I’m going to assume he just said that to make him call off the cat).
Katie serves Michael breakfast and comes to her father’s defense when Michael thinks he may have spent the night out drinking and chasing imaginary leprechauns. She tells him that he’s been a lonely man after her mother died and he only goes to the pub to socialize, his position on the lord’s estate keeping him in the town’s esteem. When Darby pops in, he asks her about what she would like if she had two wishes. Katie doesn’t want anything, however, and rather than listen to him tell his story of “battling the powers of darkness”, she tells him to sit down and eat his porridge in a very motherly way.
Back when I said Maurice and Belle were the first realistic father-daughter relationship in a Disney movie, I should have clarified that they’re the first animated characters to be like that; Darby and Katie are the first. You can see how much they care for each other, and in spite of her down-to-earth ways, she’s still very much his daughter with her stubbornness and quick wit.
Later, Michael gets to work and Katie overhears him singing of “My Pretty Irish Girl”.
And yes, despite what you may have heard, that IS Sean Connery singing. No dubs, all him. We have a movie involving leprechauns, banshees and seizure-inducing horses, and THIS is the weirdest thing that’s in it. Charming and catchy as hell, but still bizarre considering the career Sean Connery would later have.
The two flirt a little, though Katie acts the role of the tsundere very well.
Darby delivers the bell and the townsfolk take him into the pub to celebrate. Come to think of it, something that differentiates this film from Beauty and the Beast is the town itself. Unlike the judgmental jerks where Belle lives, all the people here feel very much like people you’d know in your neighborhood and are warm and inviting. I’d like to walk around this village and get a drink at this pub with these folks. They make this world the film creates feel all the more cozy and lived-in.
When they question Darby about what’s he keeping in the bag, he tells them he’s captured the king of the leprechauns and impresses them all except for Pony, who thinks he’s keeping a hen in there and goes away with his cronies squawking like just they asked Marty McFly if he’s chicken.
That night after Katie goes to a dance in the town, Darby looks for Michael, who’s keeping an eye out on the grounds for poachers. Michael mistakes Darby sneaking around with a sack for one and nearly attacks him. Darby attempts to prove his innocence and win Michael over by showing him what he’s really got in his sack – Brian – but it doesn’t go as planned.
Darby says he wishes he could really see Brian, which Brian takes as his second wish and keeps his rabbit form, just to annoy Darby even further. He reassures him, however, that Michael can see him as he really is in his dreams that night.
Katie returns with Pony, who (literally) strong-armed her date into letting him take her home. She goes in before he can get a kiss from her, much to Darby’s relief. On seeing how much Darby cares about her, Brian warns him that she’s a liability; if his people learn about her, there’s a good chance they might hold her ransom until Darby frees him. He urges him to make his last wish before the unholy spirits of the night under his jurisdiction are set loose on the town as revenge for his kidnapping, which includes the worst one of them all –
Darby confesses he doesn’t know what to wish for anymore as Katie doesn’t want riches or a fancy house to live in. Brian surmises that all Katie needs is a good man to settle down with and elicits a promise from Darby that he’ll make his last wish if he can arrange a match between Katie and Michael. He visits them both as they sleep and whispers subliminal messages to them, though they remain defiant even as they slumber.
The following morning, Katie and Michael go on a cute picnic together by Knocknasheega which is marred when they run into Pony. Michael nearly challenges Pony to a fight to defend Katie’s honor, but Katie steps in to save him from getting walloped. Michael calls her out for embarrassing him though she insists that one, Pony would have taken him out with one punch, and two, she does not care what happens to him at all in any way no sirree bob and who is she kidding? There’s so much belligerent chemistry between the two I’m surprised their real names aren’t Benedick and Beatrice. The scene isn’t helped by Brian and Darby watching from the sidelines whispering “Kiss her! Kiss her!” and acting disappointed when he doesn’t.
Of course, when Michael walks away, Katie just goes to hell with it and kisses him, which makes Darby very happy. After all, if Michael marries Katie, then there’s no need for them to move. Brian asks if he can make his last wish now, but the new bell rings out in the church; Darby is too happy to hear its music to care about anything else and puts him off for tomorrow.
While Darby takes Brian to the pub to make his final wish in front of everyone, Pony’s mother goes through the mail in the general store with another gossipy hen. They come across a postcard addressed to Michael from Lord Fitzpatrick and learn why he’s here in the first place. Widow Sugrue, who’s none too happy that an outsider from Dublin is taking work she feels belongs to her son, decides to deliver it to Katie herself out of Christian charity but mostly to see her react to the news that her father is out of a job.
Michael returns from a hard day’s work to find Katie packing everything in a hurry before his lordship arrives. She lashes out at Michael for lying to her, believing he intentionally stole her father’s position and their home. Michael tells her he’s ready to up and leave unless he can have her, but she goes back into angry tsundere mode denying she has any feelings for him and storms out. She tries to drag Darby out of the bar as he’s about to make his wish and angrily throws the sack on the floor, allowing King Brian to escape in the form of a rabbit and humiliating Darby in front of the entire town and just GOD DAMMIT KATIE! I like you but I don’t know which infuriates me more right now, you ruining your dad’s last chance at a wish because the cliche third-act misunderstanding has got you all emotional or that same damn cliche!
Katie returns home to get Cleopatra hooked up to the wagon but night is falling. Michael insists that she not go looking for her because it’s dangerous but she whips him before running out and BITCH YOU DO NOT SLAP SEAN CONNERY!! If it were any other movie he’d make you pay for that with his Walther P99!
Before Michael can follow her, Pony knocks him out, then lays him on the steps of the manor and drenches him in alcohol to make him appear drunk when Lord Fitzpatrick arrives (better than his original plan of strapping him to a table and slowly lasering his nethers).
Believe it or not, Pony was fine with letting Michael have the groundskeeper job when his mother told him about it. He actually snipped back at her for trying to make him look good for the lord when he already had someone else in mind for the position. It wasn’t until she openly questioned his manhood that he decided to take some action (and now for some reason I’m really tempted to refer to him as Seymour for the rest of the review).
Darby goes looking for Katie and finds Michael. After rousing him, he hears an eerie sound on the wind, like a ghostly wail. Darby recognizes it, he heard it the night Katie’s mother died and knows it means Katie is in danger. Michael and Darby search Knocknasheega and Darby finds Katie has fallen on the rocks and is gravely injured.
When I showed this to my boyfriend, he didn’t feel sorry for Katie at all because it’s her fault for being so rash and running into this situation, as well as letting Brian, who could have fixed all this, go free. Then again, if Darby had told her up front about the situation, everything could have been avoided, so I’m not entirely sure who to blame for this. Darby does admit that this is his fault, so he’s got that going for him at least.
As Darby frets over his daughter, the wailing rises up and we see what it is – it’s the cry of the Banshee.
Um, wow. It’s so scary. Downright terrifying. I’m pissing myself right now I’m so afraid…
Ugh, I can’t do it! I’m sorry, I know a lot of people find this one of the scariest things in Disney history, but those people grew up with this movie, and I didn’t. I’ve heard about it through secondhand sources but didn’t get the chance to watch it until I was in college. I can see where they’re coming from though; the buildup to it is creepy, and the image of a ghostly figure billowing in the wind is an eerie one. Had I seen this at a much younger age, I’m sure I would have been terrified. As it stands, however, it looks like a neon/glow-in-the-dark ghost you’d find in the Haunted Mansion, and it doesn’t do much when it appears other than float around and go “boo”.
Also, here’s something that I find distracting – why is she combing her hair whenever she’s onscreen?
Darby scares the Banshee away by throwing a lantern at it (because fire is always the cleanser of the afterlife) and he and Michael take Katie home. The outlook’s not good as it seems she’s at death’s door. As if to rub it in Darby’s face any further, he gets an unwelcome visitor right outside his house.
Since Darby has no proton pack at his disposal, he has to make do with a rake and chases the Banshee all around the yard with it. Again, nightmare-inducing.
The Banshee backs off, but reveals she was more or less stalling for the arrival of the coiste-bodhar, the death coach, which is coming to take Katie away. Much like the Banshee, it’s obviously filmed separately with the colors inverted and a glow effect added to make it look ghostly, but the appearance is much more effective here. It looks like it really is riding through the clouds down to earth.
Darby calls for Brian and tells him to send the coach away, but unfortunately it’s the one wish Brian can’t grant; once it’s summoned, it cannot leave without a soul. Darby then wishes for him to go in Katie’s place, which visibly moves Brian. Against his will, he grants his wish, and the coachman invites Darby in.
All joking aside, it’s a very effective scene, and touching considering how Darby, in spite of his greed, always puts his daughter first. We also get some trademark Disney rain of despair as he climbs in and flies away to an unknown fate, just to remind us this is serious.
Brian then appears beside Darby to comfort him, telling him that Katie’s fever broke once he got in the coach and she and Michael made up. Darby asks if he could watch over them after he’s gone, and he promises.
This is the part that always gets me. The heart of this movie is the friendly rivalry between these two, and the deep respect they have for each other in spite of the cat-and-mouse game they’ve played for years. Though they call each other adversaries, at heart they are friends.
Brian admits with a bit of a sly grin that he wishes he could accompany Darby all the way to the other side, and he wishes the same.
And Brian bursts out laughing.
Yep, remember the trick with the fourth wish? Brian made Darby fall for it again hook line and sinker, and this time for all the right reasons. He bids farewell to Darby and sends him flying out of the coach, free to live the rest of his natural life with his loving family and chasing leprechauns til the cows come home.
Still, that means Brian is probably stuck in the coach until it reaches its destination, which I’m sure is going to cause a lot of confusion in the underworld.
Darby tells the patrons at the bar about his adventure the next day. Pony laughs it off and says he’s glad he won’t have to hear any more of Darby’s stories since he’s moving out of town tomorrow (No doubt he’s gotten a job as an elementary school principal the next county over). Michael saunters in saying he’s got proof King Brian is real, as he told him in a dream just who conked him in an attempt to get him fired.
Hmm, let’s see, we’ve had leprechauns, green hills, cozy towns, Catholics, pots of gold, whiskey, potatoes, riverdancing, and banshees, that means there’s only one Irish stereotype left and less than five minutes to go…
Seeing Michael and Pony finally go at it is tremendously satisfying. There’s more of a focus on Darby’s reaction to their half-drunken barroom brawl than the brawl itself (Showing heavy drinking and horrifying evil spirits are fine, but VIOLENCE? Think of the children!) but Michael does get some great punches in and finally cleans Pony’s clock. It’s not the end of The Quiet Man, but hey, it’s still a fun fight. Then Michael and Darby leave the pub and the film ends as they ride home with Katie and sing a reprise of “Pretty Irish Girl”.
Despite all the jokes I’ve cracked, I think Darby O’Gill is a movie that’s very underappreciated. The acting is great all around, the characters are likable, the world is fleshed out, the special effects would pave the way for the likes of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and without it we would never have had Sean Connery as James Bond. Apparently Albert R. Broccoli’s wife saw the movie and said “Honey, you know how you’re looking for a complete macho to play England’s most suave spy? How about that singing Scotsman in that Disney flick with the leprechauns?” I especially appreciate how it balances the lighter and darker aspects of Ireland’s cultural heritage (or at least how Americans in the 50’s saw Irish cultural heritage); much of the film plays out like an old-fashioned fairy tale that’s both fun and spooky. I may be Italian but I watch this every St. Patrick’s Day, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a new tradition this holiday.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what genuine Irish people think of this movie. We live in a world where we often try so hard not offend anyone while creating something that old movies such as these can come across as awkward at the very least and unwatchable at the most. What would someone who’s 100% Irish feel towards this film?
Wait, is that…Unshaved Mouse?!
Just wrapping it up now. Say, you’re an Irish reviewer, do you…have any thoughts on this movie you’d like to add?
Well, that’s good to know. Thanks a lot, Mouse!
Happy St. Patrick’s (and St. Joseph’s) Day, everyone! Let’s end it on a song.
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see and want more reviews, vote for what movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
Be sure to check out Unshaved Mouse aka Neil Sharpson at his blog, unshavedmouse.com . He started by reviewing every animated movie in the Disney canon and is currently working through Marvel’s superhero films, all while looking at other animated works, doing some stand-up, and occasionally posting a bit of political snark on the side. He’s also one of the reasons why I got into reviewing in the first place, so, yeah, awesome guy.
Yes, I know the real reason why the banshee is combing her hair; some of the folklore about sirens and mermaids got mixed up with legends of banshees and the image of her combing her hair while foreshadowing death with her wail stuck somehow. I just didn’t mention it for the sake of a joke. Same reason why I didn’t mention the seizure-inducing version of Cleopatra is a spirit called a pooka.