Darby O’Gill and the Little People

Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) movie poster

(1959) dir. Robert Stevens
viewed: 09/02/06

I hadn’t seen this movie, I think, since summer camp 1980 or something.  I had moderately favorable memories of it, and when I was checking out the library’s DVD offerings of kids movies, I thought I would try it out.  Not being an animated children’s film, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go over with my son, but it went over without a hitch.  I tried “marketing” it to him by telling him that it was all set in Ireland (we’d been to Dublin for the first time last month) and tried to give him some hook for following in.  It didn’t really matter.  He seemed to enjoy it pretty well.

The film itself is not bad, rather rousingly amusing but riding high on the performances of Albert Sharpe as Darby O’Gill and Jimmy O’Dea as Brian Connors, king of the Leprechauns.  Sean Connery appears in a somewhat stiff, but charmingly youthful form as the strapping hero and the incredibly lovely Janet Munro as O’Gill’s daughter, Katie.  She has a richly charming smile and is vaguely like a clean-cut Irish Björk in her spritely cuteness.

Directed by Robert Stevens, who helmed a myriad of Disney’s live-action features (including Old Yeller (1957), Mary Poppins (1964), and That Darn Cat! (1965) just to name a few), the film has the right amount of spunk and humor and makes for good fun.  This is, like Stevens’ other Disney features, among the best of their live-action output during the late 1950’s and 1960’s.

It is literally a “Disney” vision of Ireland.  And what that means, usually, is that it’s some strange Americanized fantasy of collective kitsch assumed on the surface, played out in a light and appreicative manner, not meant to mock, while somehow creating an utter caricature at the same time.  And what was perhaps the most-fascinating thing was an additional piece on the disc that must have come from the Disneyland T.V. series, in which in lovey black-and-white, we are shown Walt Disney himself “researching” his film (and promoting it) by speaking with an Irish friend who gives him some history and mythology and then how Walt travels (on an Irish jet liner no less) to Ireland to meet with the king of the Leprechauns to convince him to appear in his movie.  I actually didn’t make it entirely through this featurette because it took many scenes from the movie that I had just watched and played them out in full.  But it was highly amusing and well-produced and gave in some ways great insight to the way that the film was meant to seem to American audiences of the time.

It also brings to mind how significant of a filmmaker Walt Disney himself was, though almost entirely at the level of producer or executive.  His visions are very much enforced throughout the work of his studio during his heyday, tied into his high aesthetic values and his complete immersion in Americana.  Because these days, “Disney” is no longer a man, but a huge corporation, it becomes easier and easier to blame so much of the garbage that the studio produces (not just movies, but psychotically wastefully branded everythings) and its marketing that gender specifies to sickening proportions, and while there are significant elements of all of that that date back to the man himself, he was a significant and interesting filmmaker, artist, and entertainer.

I read a book some years back, Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, which aside from delving into his purported role as an CIA informer during the McCarthy era and such, also spent a significant portion devoted to analyzing the major films of his studio as personal works and their meaning tied back to Disney’s life.  Strangely, those notions have stuck with me over the years.  And all I can say as that with Disney stuff, for me, there is definitely enjoyment, particularly with films of the studio’s earlier years, but also there is a lot of contextualization about the films, the studio, the industry, the corporation, and the man, and his many often exploited workers over the years.

And yet, this is still fun.

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