Thursday, March 17, 2011

Live Action Films: Darby O'Gill and the Little People

St. Patrick's Day is a holiday whose celebrations are predominantly focused around the very adult activity of drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages. Still, there are
aspects of the holiday that appeal to kids too - the threat of pinches if you're caught without any green clothing and, of course, the holiday's chief mascots: the bonnie wee leprechauns. I'm surprised that, unlike other major holidays, a movie or television special has never arisen as being traditional kid-viewing for St. Patrick's Day, especially since a perfect candidate already exists in Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe) is the cheerful caretaker of a wealthy landowner's estate in a small village in the Irish countryside and has it pretty good. He gets to live in the estate's fine gatehouse with his beloved daughter Katie (Janet Munro), apparently doesn't work very much, and spends most of his time down at the pub drinking and winning the admiration of his neighbors by telling tales of his encounters with leprechauns. His favorite story involves the time he captured Brian Connors (Jimmy O'Dea), the king of the leprechauns, and how he nearly won three wishes from the wee monarch before the wily scamp tricked him and escaped.

Unfortunately, that comfy life begins to unravel when Darby's employer, sensing the old fellow is getting a bit too elderly to perform his duties, decides to replace him with a strapping young lad named Michael McBride (played by a pre-Bond Sean Connery, looking at times remarkably like a kinder Gaston from Beauty and the Beast). Darby will be forced to retire, meaning his income will be halved, and he and Katie will have to move out of the nice gatehouse into a crappy shed.

Distraught, Darby comes up with a desperate plan: hunt down the king of the leprechauns and win from him the three wishes he'd lost before. After an accidental (and musical) excursion into the Leprechaun kingdom itself, Darby eventually succeeds in his goal of capturing King Brian. O'Gill is smart enough to know that one has to be very careful with wishes though, and decides not to spend his all at once. The remainder of the movie involves Darby and King Brian matching wits as O'Gill tries to keep the leprechaun captive long enough to figure out how to spend his wishes to find the best measure of happiness for himself and, more importantly, Katie.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People is a charming tale full of the good-natured fun and enjoyable corn you'd expect from a live-action Disney comedy from 1959. In its closing scenes, though, the movie smartly mixes in a few drams of both horror and pathos to keep the whole affair from being so light that it becomes inconsequential. As Darby himself smartly observes while pondering his final wish, "Human beings need bitter with the sweet. When I was a lad knee high with a sod of turf, my gradfather Podge, God be good to him, he told me there was only one man in the town who was happy altogether: the village idiot." Darby and King Brian's final exchange contains a clever twist on their first encounter, and provides the perfect
ending to their battle of wits and wills.
Alan Sharpe as the endearing Darby O'Gill.

If you track down a copy of Darby O'Gill today, it's Connery's face you'll see most prominantly featured on the packaging. That makes sense, of course, since he went on to become a huge celebrity a few years later, but don't let that fool you. Darby O'Gill is very much the central character of this story, and much of the sucess of the film rests on Sharpe's performance. Fortunately, the old codger is strong enough to carry the load. With his Irish eyes always smiling, Sharpe delivers and enormously charismatic performance. The audience cares about what happens largely because we like Darby O'Gill, and that's the result of Sharpe's winning smile at least as much as it is due to the script or direction or any other factor.

Jimmy O'Dea's King Brian in trouble.

Munro is lovely and likable as Katie. Connery isn't asked to do much more than be handsome and charming, which of course he's more than capable of handling. O'Dea is delightful as King Brian. Certainly he's a bit silly and over-the-top at times, but that seems only fitting for a leprechaun in a fairy tale story. He and Sharpe display remarkable chemistry and timing despite the fact that they were never really even looking at one another due to the demands of the special effects.

Most of those special effects hold up astonishlingly well for a movie made in 1959. I was scratching my head through most of the film, wondering how the blue screen effect of making the leprechauns appear tiny was so seamlessly achieved, when I knew movies made decades later didn't acomplish this nearly as well. Fortunately, the DVD extras provided the answer: there was no use of blue screen: instead, forced perspective was used whenever Darby and one of the leprechauns appeared together.

A lot of work went into making this casual chat look real.

This means Sharpe was positioned close to the camera while O'Dea (and the other Leprechaun actors) were positioned many feet farhter away. Sets were built for each of them to appropriate scale and carefully lined up in such a way that they'd look like a solid piece to the camera (and viewer). The actors were given fixed points offscreen to aim their eyes toward so they'd appear to be looking at one another. This all required painstaking planning and careful execution by director Robert Stevenson and effects master Peter Ellenshaw and it is to their credit that even to modern eyes, the many shots of Darby and King Brian together all still look utterly convincing.

For whom does the banshee cry?

Chroma key effects involving a wailing, floating bansee and another ethereal visitor (no spoilers about that here) haven't aged quite as well. They're not outright embrarassments, but they do look a little old-fashioned and slightly silly now.

Darby isn't a perfect movie. It's a little slow at times. Villain Pony Sugrue is pretty unmotivated in his antagonism. With only two songs, it seems like a halfhearted attempt at being a musical. Certain elements seem strangely unexplained (particuarly Darby's horse being a Pooka - did I miss the story behind that?). All in all, though, it's many charms outweigh the negatives. If you're looking to start a new St. Patrick's Day tradition besides (or in addition to) drinking too much green beer, you could do a lot worse than Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

I give it 7 out of 10 mice:

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