Disney Deep-Cuts: Two Cents Film Club Finds Gold with DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (1959)

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

You never know the movies that film history is going to pivot around.

On the surface, Darby O’Gill and the Little People is exactly the kind of forgotten movie that we’re hoping to celebrate with this series, an affable little fantasy film that seemingly left very little cultural footprint on its own.

But Darby O’Gill is a film on which quite a bit of culture rests. You see, it was this film that first alerted producers to a young Scottish actor. And it watching him charm his way through the Irish countryside in this film that convinced these producers that he might be a good fit for the little spy movie they were putting together.

That spy movie? Dr. No.

That’s right, you have the Disney movie about leprechauns to thank for the first (and maybe still best?) James Bond. Go stew on that.

Sean Connery is actually a decidedly supporting character in Darby O’Gill. The true protagonist is Albert Sharpe as, you guessed it, Darby O’Gill. Darby is a classical Irish archetype, an incorrigible storyteller who can always be found at his village pub with a pint in his hand regaling his friends and neighbors with endless tales of the times he’s matched wits with the local spirits and creatures, including the wily leprechaun King Brian (Jimmy O’Dea). To hear Darby tell it, he is forever tricking his way into wealth, only to have Brian trick it right back out of his hands.

But the fun and games end when Darby’s employer decides to replace the old man as groundskeeper (seeing as how Darby is always ignoring his duties to instead hang out at a pub and gab all day) with a strapping young fellow (that’d be Connery). Determined to provide for himself and his daughter (Janet Munro), Darby schemes to play one last trick on King Brian, and finally beat the leprechaun at his own game.

Director Robert Stevenson would go on to direct Mary Poppins, and you can see the early signs of that film’s technical innovation in the blending of the titular little people (and other supernatural elements) with the full-bodied cast members.

But how does Darby O’Gill and the Little People hold up as a film? Does it still possess some of the old magic, or is it most interesting as a footnote?

Next Week’s Pick:

Next up, we’re tackling another early appearance of a young star witht he makings of greatness — Kurt Russell is Dexter Riley in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), which is not only the first of what would become a trilogy of whimsical fantasy comedies for the actor in that role, but part of an early Disney cinematic universe. Dexter lives in town of Medfield which also serves as the setting as the original “Flubber” and “Shaggy Dog” movies. As with all picks in our Disney Deep-Cuts series, it’s available to stream on Disney+.

Would you like to be a guest in the next’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Kevin Veighey:

I was introduced to this movie by my older brother, Needless to say, I was pretty intrigued, both because it had Sean Connery in it before he was James Bond (he also sings!) but also because my family is descended from Irish immigrants Also, the banshee scene is so incredibly realized, that It still holds up today in terms of the creepy atmosphere. Plus, seeing the grudging friendship between Darby and the King of the Leprechauns is so joyful and slightly vitriolic in the best possible way. Such an underrated gem of a movie.

I should also mention that I’ve told many people I know who are hardcore Disney fans of its existence, and they refuse to believe that it’s real. Hopefully, since it’s now on Disney+, people will start believing me about it… (@GoldenTalesGeek)

John Sheridan:

A great man once said, “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.” That’s how I feel about going to the movies for the first time. Ask most people and they don’t remember their first movie. They didn’t get the appeal and they never grew into it. Not movie obsessives. We know. We can see a piece of Disney schlock and have our brains rewired.

The rewiring was done for me by Darby O’Gill and the Little People. My memories of the movie itself are hazy. Haven’t seen it since the late ’70s. I remember that there was a banshee that scared the crap out of me. I remember leprechauns. I remember Sean Connery in a horse drawn cart on a dirt road at night. And I’m out. That’s about it.

But let me tell you this. A few years back, my wife and I were house hunting not too far from where I grew up. We had just seen another disappointing house and were discouraged. Driving home, we rounded a bend and time folded back upon itself. There was the movie theater I had gone to forty years earlier. Instantly, I remembered EVERYTHING. We pulled into the parking lot. The theater was closed down, but the structure remained. I told her the exact layout of the theater like I had been there last week.

Through the windows we saw the box office, just as I had described. The concessions stand. The long hallway with the doors leading into the theaters. The raised, vaulted ceiling of the lobby. It was simultaneously 1976 and 2015. I was 4 and 43. I was Dr. Manhattan. It was the single most powerful sense memory I’ve felt. Darby O’Gill and the Little People. The alpha and the omega. (@Frmertedd428)

Husain Sumra:

Darby O’Gill is such a treat. This is a film filled with something we don’t really see in movies too much nowadays: Mischief. For good reason, too, because it can be a difficult thing to pull off. It needs a deft hand that’s patient enough to lead you down a path and then smart enough to pull the rug out.

Darby O’Gill does this regularly and with an ease that’s a joy to watch. In fact, I wish there was more of that mischief to enjoy. From the initial three wishes to the drinking game, there are little moments of genius that warmed my heart.

Also, this film is a good example of a Walt Disney picture. Technically brilliant (for the time, though it holds up really well), good music, fun, and some inventive storytelling that the whole family can enjoy. This is what a Disney movie should always be.

Also, it is a joy to watch a young, pre-007 Sean Connery running around trying to charm a lady with his boyish grin. (@hsumra)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

When people say about a movie, ‘They don’t make ’em like that anymore’, normally what they mean is that a given genre has evolved or shifted, it’s component parts still present in the culture just maybe not arranged in the same way.

But Darby O’Gill truly is the kind of film that they just don’t make any more. A small-scale fantasy film with an entirely adult cast, where the supernatural element is localized and barely remarked upon. These sorts of fantasy films (really, more folklore than fantasy, but near enough) were once somewhat commonplace (just look at It’s A Wonderful Life as another example of this sort of shrugged-at magical realism) but have gone wildly out of style thanks to first the Cynicism Bomb of the 1970s, followed by fantasy becoming firmly entrenched as a genre for giant budgets and box office.

Darby O’Gill, character and film, is satisfied with being charming. Its emphasis on trickery and mischief over prophecy and swashbuckling give it a distinct personality within the fantasy film genre, and the special effects used to futz with various sizes are actually quite impressive to this day. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Peter Jackson pulled from this one in realizing how to properly depict the hobbits.

Nice little movie. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I caught this film, or more accurately its latter half or so, about 25 years ago. I loved it, though with time I forgot what exactly I had enjoyed aside from the banshee. I’m pleased to know that the film absolutely holds up, and to be reminded why it grabbed me in the first place.

The movie packs in a lot of (mostly) good-natured mischief, with the old codger Darby and his long-running feud of sorts with Brian, the king of the Leprechauns. No one had gotten around to coining “frenemy” yet, but it’s a perfect approximation of the pair, who are quite fond of each other but get on by one-upping the other with assorted tricks and hijinks — but also sharing in drinks, music, and laughs.

It’s from this rather riotous throughline that the film’s last act comes out of nowhere and packs a sublime (and clever) emotional punch that cements this as a truly great piece of filmmaking that’s not only a fun romp but also ultimately about the power of love and friendships.

Between the charming characters, old-fashioned but dazzling effects, presence of Connery as a supporting character, and just being a great yarn about great yarns, Darby O’Gill and the Little People is one of the great less heralded Disney classics that deserves a wider audience. Highly recommended. (@Austin Vashaw)

Next week’s pick:


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