Thursday, March 14, 2013

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day with "Darby O'Gill and the Little People"

In the picturesque Irish village of Rathcullen, old codger Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe) spends more time in the pub talking about leprechauns than tending to the estate of Lord Fitzpatrick. So, it's no surprise when the landowner decides it's time to replace Darby with the younger Michael McBride (Sean Connery). Darby's retirement benefits are generous: half-pay, a house with no rent, and a two-week notice for moving from his current abode. The hardest part for Darby will be breaking the news to his spunky, hard-working daughter Katie (Janet Munro), who has already caught Michael's eye.

As he ponders how to tell Katie, Darby falls down a well on Fairy Mountain and awakes in the home of the leprechauns. It's not his first encounter with King Brian (Jimmy O'Dea), the little people's leader. Several years earlier, the crafty Brian outfoxed Darby by granting a fourth wish that then negated the first three. This time around, Darby turns the tables. He manages to escape from Fairy Mountain, capture King Brian, and earn three wishes. But what to wish for?

A little Disney humor: Walt thanks the
leprechauns in the opening credits.
Made in 1959, this colorful Disney fantasy has aged as well as a 5,000-year-old leprechaun (like King Brian). The film has charm to spare, thanks largely to veteran performers Sharpe and O'Dea. Walt Disney handpicked Sharpe for the lead role after watching the actor in a stage version of Finian's Rainbow a decade earlier. Sharpe only made a handful of films, though his resume included two other engaging fantasies: Brigadoon and You Never Can Tell with Dick Powell. His co-star, Jimmy O'Dea, was an unknown in Hollywood, having spent most of his acting career in the Irish theater where he was known for playing the working-class Mrs. Biddy Mulligan.

Sean Connery as Michael McBride.
The scenes between Sharpe and O'Dea dominate the first hour of Darby O'Gill, with Cleopatra the horse being the only other character to garner significant screen time. As a result, the final half-hour has too much plot: a romance blossoming between Michael and Katie; a lug named Pony causing trouble; and a banshee almost killing Katie. Still, the loose ends are wrapped up nicely; this is a family film after all.

Janet Munro as Katie.
Sean Connery, still three years before his Bond debut, has little to do. He does get to sing a duet with Janet Munro (in a DVD featurette, Connery calls his singing debut "an earth-shattering experience"). Darby O'Gill was the first of three Disney pictures for Munro, the other two being Swiss Family Robinson and Third Man on the Mountain. She oozes sweetness and tones down the sex appeal displayed in her finest film, the first-rate The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Munro's film career was sadly short-lived and she died in 1972 at age 38 of a heart attack. Her career highlight was a 1963 BAFTA (the "British Oscar") Best Actress nomination for Walk in the Shadow, co-starring Patrick McGoohan (another Disney veteran).

The buildings and mountain in the distance were painted on a matte.
While Sharpe and the rest of the cast breathe life into the characters, it's Disney special effects wizard Peter Ellenshaw that makes Darby O'Gill and the Little People a magical visual experience. Ellenshaw gained fame as a matte artist working as an assistant on films such as Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. A matte is a partially-painted piece of glass placed in front of a motion picture camera that inserts new "objects" in the frame. Most of the town of Rathcullen is a painting done by Ellenshaw that blends into the sets built in the backlot of Disney's Hollywood studio (it's so convincing I thought the movie was filmed in Ireland).

To "create" the leprechauns, Ellenshaw used forced perspective, a technique in which two objects--which appear to be adjacent to one another--are actually separated by a significant distance. They are carefully aligned so that when filmed, the near object looks much larger than the far object. The trick is making the different sets, color, and lighting match seamlessly. Special effects master Ray Harryhausen used this same technique in his fantasy The Three Worlds of Gulliver. More recently, forced perspective was used to make the hobbits look smaller in Peter Jackson's films.

Benefiting from a couple of charismatic veteran actors and Peter Ellenshaw's movie magic, Darby O'Gill and the Little People makes for a diverting viewing experience for any occasion. That said, it seems like like a perfect pick for St. Paddy's Day, don't you think?

13 comments:

  1. Growing up, it became a tradition in our house to watch this movie every St. Patrick's Day. And as a child, I always believed that Leprechauns were real, citing this film in my head as proof (since, after all, Disney thanks them in the opening credits). I'm disappointed to learn, however, that this was not filmed in Ireland....one of my favorite parts of this film was always the scenery, and I loved to imagine travelling there myself someday.

    Still, this is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I can guarantee that I'll be watching it again this St. Patrick's Day :)

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    1. Walt Disney also devoted an episode of his TV series to trying to convince the King of the Leprechauns to be in his movie. It's a great marketing ploy!

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  2. I suppose this is your St. Patty's day entry, Rick. My favorite part of this is the Banshee--and looking at Connery.

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    1. The banshee reminded me a little of the Id monster in FORBIDDEN PLANET--which was also done by the Disney guys.

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  3. We watched this movie all the time as kids! I always wondered what happened to Janet Munro but never knew. How sad.

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    1. She could be sweet, sexy, or both at the same time. I always enjoy her performances.

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  4. Sure and it's the wee folk ye be writing about this St. Patty's Day, Rick! I've never seen a leprechaun but find your review to be very magical. The information about the use of matte and forced perspective might earn ye a pot of gold. A tip o' the hat and top o' the morning to ye!

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    1. Ah, Toto, you sound like you have a wee bit of Irish in you :>) You know, both Sean and Janet hailed from Scotland originally!

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  5. I'll need plenty of Irish Coffee to bolster my spirits after a run in with the banshee.

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  6. My other St. Pat's day fav is The Luck of the Irish with the biggest leprechaun on film in the form of Cecil Kellaway, no less. Since I do not own this one, Darby is a fine alternative! Love the spooky bits. Ms. Munro is in one my "guilTy pleasure" movies: THE CRAWLING EYE!!!!!!

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  7. Well, I didn't know about the technique of using forced perspective. Very clever.

    Happy St. Paddy's Day to you and yours!

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  8. Rick, Having spent some time on the Disney Lot and knowing how small it is(4 sound stages and almost no backlot)I knew you had to be mistaken. The interiors were shot on the Burbank lot , the exteriors "On Location"at the Roland V. Lee Ranch in Canoga Park, CA. (Strangers On A Train, Night Of The Hunter and many others were shot there) and The Albertson Ranch In Triunfo, CA.

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    1. Paul, if you check out the featurette with the DVD, you'll see that the backlot buildings aren't even completed (e.g., only partial roofs). Much of the town is a matte painting.

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