Darby O'Gill and the Little People

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

While the phrase “Disney classics” usually refers to the Walt Disney Animation Studios output, Walt Disney Pictures did make a fair number of pure live-action films that did pretty well at the time of their release. 

Like their animation counterparts, many of these live-action films were based on popular folk tales from around the world. While some of them (I’m looking at you, Song of the South) did a disservice to absolutely everyone alive and were nothing more than offensive caricatures, some of them were actually well-intentioned films that exposed American audiences to myths and traditions from other places in the world (even if they are still in some ways culturally outdated). One of these films is Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

The Pitch

Walt Disney had always wanted to make a movie about Ireland. Being half Irish, Disney grew up hearing stories about Leprechauns, so he wanted to make a movie about Irish legends. As early as 1945, a feature about leprechauns was in development at Walt Disney Pictures, with Disney and several artists traveling to Ireland in 1946 to gather background material and corresponding with the head of the Irish Folklore Commission. By 1948, Disney decided to base his Irish film on Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s “Darby O’Gill” books. By the time the film went into production in 1958, the use of animation in the film was scrapped, and instead a full live-action film was made. 

Despite this being a very Irish film, it was shot entirely in California, with the main Irish village from the film being erected on the Disney studio’s backlot. Darby O’Gill and the Little People tells the story of the titular Darby (Albert Sharpe), a caretaker of the wealthy estate of one Lord Fitzpatrick, who prefers to spend his time at the pub telling stories about leprechauns and his failed attempts to catch their king. Sadly, his job is threatened by a young man who looks like a Scottish Gaston, named Michael (played by pre-James Bond Sean Connery), something Darby keeps a secret from his feisty daughter, Kate (Janet Munro). Darby ends up managing to capture King Brian of the leprechauns and being granted three wishes, but King Brian’s attempts to outwit the old man results in wacky adventures and creepy encounters with mythical Irish creatures. 

The Movie

Fresh of his generation-traumatizing Old Yeller, Robert Stevenson goes for a more crowd-pleasing movie that exudes quaint blarney, one that is definitely not like the Leprechaun horror movie series. You’ll definitely want to come for a young Sean Connery singing (and thankfully not doing an Irish accent). Really, Sean Connery sings, and it is a thing of nightmares that will have you wondering how he ended up as James Bond. I’ll tell you how, by looking like the real life version of Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston. Seriously. 

Surprisingly, despite the marketing and the poster focusing on Connery, he’s barely in the movie. Instead it’s all about Albert Sharpe, who completely sells you on the story, no matter how over-the-top it gets. He truly helps bring the folklore and the mythology to life. Like Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins or Mark Hamill in The Empire Strikes Back, Sharpe makes the movie magic believable in his interactions with the titular “little people,” even if they were actual people and not puppets or animated characters.

The real star of the movie is pure spectacle. Forced perspective isn’t something new in film – decades before Lord of the Rings made us believe in Hobbits, Orson Welles used this technique in Citizen Kane, and Darby O’Gill and the Little People uses this technique to easily convince the audience that what they’re seeing is actually a town full of leprechauns. It’s especially impressive during the slightly disturbing scene where Darby enchants the leprechauns through music as they dance all around him. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Disney family film without at least one scene or character that traumatized children all over the world. This time, it was all thanks to the Irish myth of the banshee and the cóiste bodhar (or death coach). During the film’s climax, we get a scene that has a striking resemblance to the climax of Disney’s Hercules from 40 years later, as Darby is forced to face the death coach, which brings souls to the afterlife, and the horrifying green spectre of the banshee, which appears as a glowing cloaked spirit. It’s a surreal thing to see in an otherwise crowd-pleasing and family-friendly film, but it absolutely works in selling us the horror that Darby has known for years through legend. 

Though Darby O’Gill and the Little People shows that Disney and his crew did plenty of research, it’s impossible to ignore the many Irish stereotypes. This movie justifies the content warning on Disney Plus.

The Legacy

Darby O’Gill and the Little People received mostly positive reviews when it was released in 1959. It was huge in Ireland, where Walt Disney himself attended the premiere, which brought the city of Dublin to a standstill. Even Leonard Maltin called this one of Disney’s best films, and one of the best fantasy films period. That being said, it didn’t connect with audiences the way Walt intended. It certainly did no favors for most of its cast, particularly Jimmy O’Dea, who plays King Brian in the film, but went uncredited because Walt wanted to sell the idea that there were real fairies in this film, going as far as starting the film with a message from Disney thanking King Brian and his leprechauns. O’Dea wanted to use this involvement in a Disney film to further his career and this certainly didn’t help. 

Someone who definitely did benefit from working in the film was director Robert Stevenson, who went on to helm such Disney classics as Marry Poppins in 1964 and Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971. Of course, the other person was one Sean Connery, who claims that Darby O’Gill and the Little People gave James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli the idea to hire Connery as 007.  

Though popular with critics, audiences in the US were a bit less accommodating, particularly when it came to the Irish accents, so Disney re-released the film in 1964 with many of the actors voices dubbed over. Unfortunately, this is the version that was released on home video and is now streaming on Disney Plus.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: