Once upon a time, a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, Disney was just the last name of an animator with big dreams. In fact, there was a long stretch of time in our cultural history when his Christian name was always attached to his surname in our common lexicon. This is, of course, before Disney became multi-tendril conglomerate that oozed into our every fiber and every piece of our day to day like it had been created by David Bowie’s space alien-cum-CEO in The Man Who Fell To Earth. And in its pursuit for utter dominance, “Disney” has become a pejorative; a word once lovingly defined as being classily sanitized with a touch of cheerful naïveté, it eventually transmogrified itself into being identified as a specific brand of corporate monster that swallows up anything and everything unfortunate to find itself in its path.
But, indeed, there was a day when Walt Disney was synonymous with a specific and unique kind of cinematic excellence. In fact, there was a whole golden age in which Disney’s live-action outings were the kind of technical, effects-laden marvels that take up the lion’s share of the box office these days. Disney magic wasn’t something that just happened overnight but was an earned honor after proving themselves time after time with both their animated and non-animated films, all of which took advantage of the slickest and most cutting-edge technology available and produced by a team of old-school professionals.
So it is that Disney’s 1959 release, Darby O’ Gill and the Little People, adapted from a collection of stories written by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh for McClure’s in 1901 through 1902 and collected into a volume entitled Darby O’ Gill and the Good People, becomes a storybook fairy tale itself that not only continues to charm all of these years later with its simple narrative but also standing as a testament to the power Disney once had to create such indelibly beautiful and immensely pleasing moving images.
The film is the simple tale of Darby O’ Gill (Albert Sharpe), aged layabout who is better at spinning yarns down in the Rathcullen public house than tending the grounds for Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald), to whom Darby is employed. When Fitzpatrick brings on Dubliner Michael McBride (Sean Connery) to replace Darby, the titular character does everything in his power to stave off his getting put out to pasture, mostly for the benefit of his daughter, Katie (Janet Munro). The other reason for dragging his feet is in the hopes that he will be able to keep a normalcy afloat if he’s able to rook a crock of gold out of King Brian (Jimmy O’ Dea), a diminutive leprechaun with whom Darby has enjoyed a long-running battle-of-wits. There is also a semi-subplot regarding Pony (Kieron Moore), the hammer headed, large adult son of Sheelah (Estelle Winwood), antique she-bitch and rustic equivalent to Gladys Kravitz; both selfish schemers out for themselves who do nothing but create community static and wander into private residences without knocking like total assholes.
Though it’s light as a feather, there is a truly sweet, underlying sense of melancholy and sadness in Darby O’ Gill. He may be a sprite of spirit but knows that he might as well be fetching the church bell for his own death knell as the end is always closer in sight than the beginning. His constant fight to stay in the game and relevant is one that threads through the film. His termination, death, or complete disappearance is always just around the corner for the character.
And the film wisely tacks closer to the part of the story that requires visual tricks as Peter Ellinshaw’s special effects are on absolute fire. Matte paintings, forced perspective, and well-placed optical stitching are just some of the visual pleasures of the film. Less compelling is the film’s rote and predictable love story between Michael and Katie which is given just the right amount of attention and keeps the plot moving even if it’s never really convincing. The movie seems to have an innate sense of balance, knowing exactly how much time to waste in the heather with the lovebirds or how much focus to give to the Sheelah and Pony angle which serves to incite the film’s dazzling final act in which folks of a certain age will pick up some of the Disney sound effects that were recycled onto the ubiquitous Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House record that was released in 1964.
Director Robert Stevenson, an old Disney hand who had helmed and would continue to helm many of the studio’s more beloved live-action features, stays out of the way of the material and lets the Disney factory help deliver everything in an invisible style that feels wholly calculated but never cynical. After all, of all of the studios mired in a system of manufacturing product, the Walt Disney Studio was likely the most cloistered and controlled. It never really produced any auteurs as it was a perfect port for journeymen filmmakers and, in doing so, produced some incredible films. Winston Hotch’s cinematography is mostly kept tight but sells an illusion of wider vistas bursting the borders of the film’s original 1.33:1 frame.
All of the performances in the film are great but special mention goes to Albert Sharpe and Jimmy O’ Dea whose perfectly timed banter is the true pleasure of the film. They are so natural that they disappear into the still impressive special effects. Rare is a film of this vintage that can still sell its magic at a premium price. And there is no doubt that there is an ironic value in watching Sean Connery toil through a Disney film but he’s perfectly fine and charming in his efforts in playing a character the audience really isn’t supposed to care about all that much. Janet Munro is pleasant and matches him though the purity of her character asks a little too much of her as she dresses like a twelve year-old when she gets gussied up for a town dance.
It should be noted that Peter Ellenshaw’s last gig for Disney was 1979’s The Black Hole which marked the end of the kind of practical effects pioneered in Darby O’ Gill and the Little People and the other Disney films from the fifties and sixties. With 1982’s Tron, computers would come into the mix and nothing would be the same as each passing production would lose incremental amounts of handcrafted quality. And, as fun as Tron and many of the numerous films that followed are, maybe that was the first step Disney took toward the behemoth it’s become. After the post-Walt years were spent wading around in the live action mediocrity such as Gus, Million Dollar Duck, and The Shaggy D.A., it made sense that the Walt Disney Company needed a bigger and better business strategy. If it gained a cold indifference in its quest to create monster franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s a small miracle things like Darby O’ Gill and the Little People could create a sense of awe and wonder without the expense of the spirit and soul.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain