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Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Darby O'Gill and the Little People
Disney DVD
1959 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame (probably) / 93 min. / Street Date August 3, 2004 / 19.99
Starring Albert Sharpe, Janet Munro, Sean Connery, Jimmy O'Dea, Kieron Moore, Estelle Winwood, Jack MacGowran
Cinematography Winton C. Hoch
Special photographic effectsPeter Ellenshaw, Eustace Lycett, Peter Ellenshaw, Joshua Meador
Art Direction Carroll Clark
Film Editor Stanley Johnson
Original Music Oliver Wallace
Written by H.T. Kavanagh from the Darby O'Gill stories by Lawrence Edward Watkin
Produced by Walt Disney
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Disney's foray into live-action filming in the 1950s was an impressive 0-to-60 sprint, with some product destined for the big screen and a lot more needed to fill up the requirement for his new weekly television show. Most of the films could not afford expensive locations, but clever special effects closed the gap for studio-bound pictures. One of his biggest hits was Darby O'Gill and the Little People, a color fantasy made when many of his comedies (The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor) were still in B&W.

Darby is soaked in Irish blarney of the The Quiet Man kind. The country is seen as a throwback to older times where people are simple and quaint, an image that could only make Irish tourist officials happy. But its fantastic story has a refreshingly sharp edge, as the Darby's cagey dealings with the sly King Brian have potentially frightening results. Little 1959 kids not yet acquainted with horror films found the movie to be more banshee horror than leprechaun fun.

The present web gab centers on the framing of Disney's DVD at 1:33 full screen, which it claims was its original aspect ratio in 1959. Savant offers an opinion on that below.


Old drunkard Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe of Portrait of Jennie) is keeping some news from his daughter Katie (Janet Munro): in two weeks he's being ousted as groundskeeper and young Michael McBride (Sean Connery) will be taking over. Instead of telling her, he's doing his best to swindle a pot of gold from his leprechaun pal King Brian (Jimmy O'Shea). Their battle of wits has Darby in trouble with the local Priest, while most of his peers believe he's going senile. Only Darby knows that he's playing games that may win him a pot of gold, or a nightmarish coach ride to the land of the Dead.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People is an excellent showcase for the Disney organization's superior production capabilities. The film maintains its slightly fantastic Irish atmosphere through a combination of careful settings and matte paintings that are particularly well done, especially the nice night work. The best scenes take place at night, adding to the film's reputation as one of Disney's darker stories. Fate and magical penalties from beyond the grave haunt the happy daylight life in the counties; the basic story seems to hang on ideas taken from Fritz Lang's Destiny. For small children it can be plenty scary, with creepy Celtic ruins haunted by ghostlike Banshees (now-obvious solarized puppets) and the underground den of the Little People a mad domain of crazy dancing leprechauns.

The folklore aspect clearly appealed to Disney. Cunning Darby matches wits repeatedly with the equally sly King Brian, and the story hinges on episodes of one-upmanship where the leprechaun king keeps cheating old Darby out of his pot of gold, through loopholes in the rules of magic and suchsame. It's from old Irish folk tales but the competition has a functional resemblance to the rivalry between Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox in Song of the South.

The story depends on one of those quaint rural setups where feudal traditions seem to have been retained to the late 1800s. The best one can hope for is a job in the service of the landlord, and nobody can buck the status quo. As Sean Connery's Michael is the designated new groundskeeper, the efforts of the bitter widow Sheelah (Estelle Winwood) to secure the job for her son are useless. Fate, society and the gentry have things all worked out and those who end up out of the race should be big about it and go stew in the pub with the rest of the bitter lushes. In other word's, the basically inoffensive story won't appeal to unemployed people and I wouldn't try to show it to a group of disaffected Irish youth.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People can't be said to be Disney's first raid on the English talent pool, as he'd hired James Mason for his first CinemaScope spectacle and continued to use whatever UK talent was available (Richard Greene, Glynis Johns etc.) when doing historical movies. But in the late 50s Disney got into the star-making mold. His Mickey Mouse Club contract talent went mostly unused until people like Annette Funicello gave up and made Beach Party movies; when in doubt, he reverted to tested talent popular on television. Lucky employables like Fred MacMurray found a new life on the tube when their film careers sagged, and then became film stars again thanks to their popularity on television.

But around 1958-59 some major Disney talent searching must have been going on. The big find was Hayley Mills, who would shoot to California and stardom after being spied in the excellent thriller Tiger Bay. For Darby O'Gill and the Little People Disney's talent scouts must have been watching English genre pictures fairly closely, as that's the only place that the ambitious Sean Connery and Janet Munro could be found. Connery would soon get a makeover from Terence Young (mainly an eybrow-pruning) and become James Bond, but lovely Janet Munro had a more typical Disney destiny. Probably "discovered" in the science fiction film The Trollenberg Terror, Munro was put into Third Man on the Mountain with a similar alpine setting. She was popular enough but eventually dropped four or five years later, and returned to England. There she found that her "cutsie" Disney image didn't help in getting mature parts, a problem that dogged Hayley Mills to some degree as well.

Connery and Munro are the designated love interest, with witless Kieron Moore stuck between them as the odd Irishman out. But most of the charm is between the performers and the camera as the two stars have almost no chemistry and the romantic subplot belongs in an Irish Spring soap commercial. It's squeaky clean, for starters; Connery's McBride says something forthrightly honest and Munro's Katie shoots back a twinkly-eyed pixie smile. Since this is also her reaction when someone asks her the time of day, we simply remark on how bright and charming the pair are and move on. Sure enough, they sing light ditties and end up sitting in a horsecart together, like a good Irish couple in condescending Irish stories.

The real center of the film is Albert Sharpe's Darby. He's a clever guy caught between different kinds of jeopardy, struggling to make things work without help from anyone. He can't bear to tell his daughter that he's going to lose his job and he's counting on bilking King Brian for a pot of gold to make things right. Brian has the idea of getting Darby to spend eternity with the Little People, knowing he can't live long anyway. The alternative seems to be some kind of cosmic doom in the form of a coach that takes the unlucky to some hellish land beyond the living. So he's in quite a fix.

But Darby lives by his charm and his wits, and he works overtime fooling his daughter and the locals while trying to get the best of his leprechaun foe. Telling stories and tall tales, playing his fiddle and sweet-talking are what Darby knows best. He's a brave man on his own and we like him.

The movie uses all manner of optical and rear-screen effects but the most impressive illusions are those that perfect the use of forced perspective photography. Many shots show a big Darby and tiny leprechauns in the same frame with no matte line and no optical generation grain. The shots were done by carefully building sets in which the Darby area of the frame (anything he touches or occludes) is much closer to the camera than the Leprechaun area of the frame. It has to be built to scale and placed proportionally behind the Darby area. Many shots show Darby talking to King Brian, and if you look closely you'll see that a common wall or floor or setpiece (like the arm of Brian's throne) is bisected, with the King's part actually far behind Darby's part.

It's very tricky. Sometimes Darby is standing high above the floor. Shots have to be carefully lit so shadows don't disappear halfway across flat floors, and all the characters have to stay in their designated areas. Finally, the eyelines have to be carefully adjusted. Albert Sharpe and Jimmy O'Dea have to work hard on their "eye contact" when they are really more than fifteen feet away from each other, looking in opposite directions.

My old college pal Randy (Randall William) Cook was enraptured by these forced perspective tricks, which required planning and craft but paid off with an original negative image, free from grain or other optical futz. It was all done in the camera and required lots of extra lighting to achieve the necessary depth of field. Randy helped plan out shot designs for the Lord of the Rings movies that took advantage of these tricks, especially in the interiors of the Hobbit House where Ian McKellen's character interacts with Ian Holm's. Not all of those shots are digital mattes.

Actor spotting hint: The playful leprechaun Phadrig Oge is played by Jack MacGowran, of The Quiet Man, The Exorcist and The Fearless Vampire Killers (coming soon).

Disney DVD's disc of Darby O'Gill and the Little People looks very good, brightly colored and with a rich soundtrack. All that's missing is the azure blue Buena Vista logo up front, the one that always seemed to have better color than any other studio's.

The big issue this time around is the film's aspect ratio. Disney has made an effort to end-run expected fan dismay over the fact that the disc is 1:33 flat when Darby, being made in 1959 would be assumed to be at least 1:66. Disney's insert assures us that the film was originally shot at 1:33 and says that the studio released it knowing it would be chopped off in many theaters.

Saying that the film was "originally shot in 1:33" is meaningless, for virtually all American movies after 1955 were shot full frame. The matting took place during projection.  1 I believe that Disney chose the aspect ratio of 1:66 because when shown on television it would be close to the original shape of the screen. The forward-looking Disney planned from the beginning to make all his movies with an eye for future use on color television.

Also, it's smart to apply the best rule for judging how a film was "meant" to be shown: How are the credit blocks of text in the main titles laid out? Darby's fill the frame, but not as tightly as an older Academy 1:37 film. Not only that, but the wider text lines almost touch the sides of the frame, indicating the possibility that the picture has been blown up a bit in the telecine. There's still enough head and foot room above and below the credit blocks for a 1:66 matte.

During the film things often look tight on the sides, with not a lot of space top and bottom either. Many shots do indeed look composed for 1:37 and I'm willing to believe that all the matte paintings were. It's very possible that the original ratio was a compromise and that everyone wished the film could be shown 1:37.

On disc it looks fine at 1:33 even with some suspicious cropping. But as that may all be a result of normal television overscanning, I declare this issue a draw. The movie looks very good this way. I only wish Disney DVD had a better grasp on the gulf between marketing expediency and truth in advertising.

The extras are interesting indeed. Mr. Connery Goes to Hollywood has an engaging Connery interview backing up its biography. Otherwise it's Disney fluff, well written and directed. Little People, Big Effects has an excellent explanation of mattepaintings and even better-illustrated coverage of forced perspective. It also has a good demonstration of the use of mirrors in shots done with the old Metropolis Shüfftan process. I Captured the King of the Leprechauns is a Disneyland TV show that uses special effects to make it seem that Disney went to Ireland to enlist the real King Brian to be in his Darby O'Gill movie. It's in B&W and I wonder if the original was in color ... I assume it was. Darby fans will be ecstatic.

I remember when the film was new I asked my mom where all the Little People were riding to on their miniature white horses. She replied, "To go look for the Little Women." But that's another story.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Darby O'Gill and the Little People rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent but a bit shady in the aspect ratio department
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: two new featurettes and a Disney TV show (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2004


1. Standard full frame Academy ratio happens to be 1:37 .... 1:33 is the shape of a television screen. So much for the veracity of the Disney informational insert.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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