It's always been my theory that live-action movies made for children can be equally charming for adults if they are made right. There is really no reason a kids' film has to be boring for grown-ups, given the right script, the right director, and the right attention to detail. Yet most of the children's films I've seen in my lifetime have seemed to me insulting even to kids. That's why it's nice to be able to recommend a good Disney film of the past, a film like "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" from 1959. Not even Disney makes them like this anymore.
"Darby O'Gill" was one of Walt Disney's pet projects, and when he finally got it off the ground, he spared no expense (except using mono rather than stereo sound), especially on the special effects, necessary to make the fantasy work. The result is a engaging film for young and old, and one that holds up well with the passage of time. The movie is filled with leprechauns and banshees and talk of fairies and magic and pots of gold, the wonderful stuff of legend.
The movie is also unique in that it not only features a sterling performance by longtime Irish stage performer Albert Sharpe as the title character but an equally appealing performance by a young lad in his first big-time screen appearance, Sean Connery. Connery had done a handful of bit parts in the mid-to-late fifties, but "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" was his big break. Rumor has it that Connery went on to do other major roles, too, but that may simply be part of the actor's PR resumé. Meanwhile, Sharpe had been lured out of retirement for the Darby role and immediately afterwards slipped quietly back into retirement.
Anyway, the main character in the story is an elderly Irishman, Darby O'Gill, the longtime caretaker of a large estate owned by Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald). But Darby is not a very good caretaker. He'd rather be poaching the Lord's game himself than stopping others from doing it, and he has a positive disdain for cutting the weeds. He'd rather be down at the local pub lifting a pint and spinning tales of his adventures amongst the little people, the leprechauns, of the region. The people of the community look upon him as a harmless diversion.
Until Darby really does encounter the little people of the area. Then we recognize that his accounts of Brian (Jimmy O'Dea), King of the Leprechauns, and his continual efforts to prize three wishes from him, have been real after all. It's mischievous good fun, filled with exactly the kind of blarney we expect from a story of Irish folklore.
Uncle Walt prefaces the tale with a prologue in which he says, "My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible." It sets the right tone of tongue-in-cheek for the shenanigans to follow.
It appears that Darby and the King have been playing tricks on one another for years, Darby trying to capture the King and extract three wishes from him in return for his release, and the King continually outwitting the old man. But this time, Darby catches the King and puts him in a sack and won't let him out until his three wishes are fulfilled. How those wishes turn out is the substance of the story.
The picture is both a high adventure and an enchanting romance. Connery plays the newly appointed caretaker for the manor, replacing the aging Darby. Connery is young and handsome. Darby has an unmarried daughter, Katie (Janet Munro). She is young and beautiful. You figure it out.
The special effects are done the old-fashioned way, using optical tricks and beautiful matte paintings rather than computer technology. It works perfectly. The integration of little people and normal-sized people is flawless. The underground hall of King Brian is elaborately decorated and pleasing to the eye, as is all the rest of the sets.
There are a couple of scenes toward the end of the story featuring fearful banshees that could be pretty intense for younger children, but the rest of the movie should keep them content. The climax is sweet and sentimental and quite thrilling at the same time. It's a fine romantic fantasy.
Fickle are the fortunes of fate: While Connery went on to fame and glory, his costar, Ms. Munro, made only a few more pictures for Disney and then, as the result of several divorces, several miscarriages, and severe alcoholism, died prematurely in 1972. Happy endings are not always found in real life.
Here's an oddity. "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" was shown theatrically in a 1.75:1 widescreen ratio, but on the keep case the Disney people tell us they are issuing it on DVD "as originally filmed in 1959--fullscreen (1.33:1)." I can only presume that the original camera negative was, indeed, 1.33:1 and that it was later matted top and bottom for widescreen theatrical showing. In any case, the presentation we get on disc does not appear to be a pan-and-scan rendering, so we'll have to take Disney's word for our getting more for our money than theatergoers did so long ago.
The Technicolor shows up well, with rich realistic colors the order of the day. As always, Disney engineers found an excellent print in their vaults, with only occasional minor age flecks here and there. There is also some very light, very soft grain present, which does little to distract one's attention from the otherwise fine picture.
The sound is ordinary in the extreme. By 1959 stereo was available to filmmakers, but it wasn't often used due to budget constraints and the fact that not too many theaters were as yet equipped to play it back. Therefore, Disney chose to go with ordinary monaural for "Darby." Reproduced on disc via Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, the signals are accompanied by a small degree of noise, hiss. The soundtrack is limited in dynamics and frequency range, and voices show a slight tendency toward seeming hard and pinched. In spite of all this, voices are clearly intelligible, and the songs go down easily.
Three featurettes make up the bulk of the extras. The first is "Mr. Connery Goes to Hollywood," eight minutes long, providing some background on Connery's entrance into the big world of pictures. The second featurette is the most interesting, "Little People, Big Effects," because it takes us backstage on the special effects with the movie's supervisor of effects, Peter Ellenshaw. He explains and illustrates the two major techniques used in the film--matte painting and forced perspective. Then, there's the longest of the featurettes, "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns," forty-eight minutes, a segment of the old "Disneyland" TV show in black-and-white from 1959 promoting "Darby O'Gill." Walt Disney himself narrates the thing and takes us on an excursion to the land of fairies and leprechauns. The extras conclude with a typically measly selection of only twelve scenes from Disney; English and French spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disney waited a long time to produce "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," but when he did, it paid off. The movie is still fondly remembered by adults of a certain age today. And because it's been available on tape for some time, it is fondly thought of by any number of young people, too. It's DVD incarnation is the best we've yet had for the home, and while I would rather have seen it in its original theatrical aspect ratio, I had little trouble adjusting to its so-called "fullscreen." It's a delightful movie filled with delightful characters, delightful scenery, and delightful special effects. Yes, I'd say the film continues to delight.