Luck of the Irish: Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Part 4

Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney makes only one mention of Darby O’Gill and the Little People — and in a footnote, at that — but it gives something like credit where it’s due, calling it “a film rich in Irish atmosphere but shot entirely in California.” Surprising as it sounds, it’s true; every frame of Darby O’Gill was shot at the Disney Studios in Burbank or about 30 miles up Highway 101 in Triunfo and Canoga Park. Much of the atmosphere commended by Barrier is to the credit of Peter Ellenshaw and the great cinematographer Winton C. Hoch; between them they were able to transmute the golden glimmer of sunny Southern California into the cloudy and cool green glow of the Emerald Isle — literally, “Irish atmosphere”.

Then there’s the cast, all of them either unfamiliar or entirely unknown, thus bearing few overt traces of Hollywood — the way, frankly, Barry Fitzgerald would have done. (Even the future Sir Sean Connery was so young at the time — he turned 29 during shooting — that he doesn’t particularly stand out from the pack even today.) Most of the actors are authentically Irish. I’ve already mentioned Albert Sharpe, Jimmy O’Dea and Kieron Moore; there were also Denis O’Dea as Father Murphy, the village priest; J.G. Devlin, Farrell Pelly and Nora O’Mahoney as Darby’s drinking companions at the Rathcullen Arms; and Jack MacGowran as Phadrig Oge, King Brian’s trusted lieutenant. The rest were either Celtic — the Scottish Connery and Janet Munro — or English of Irish ancestry, like Walter Fitzgerald as Lord Fitzpatrick. (Fitzgerald and O’Dea were both veterans of Disney’s Treasure Island, as Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesy respectively.) 

But all of this would have gone for naught if that rich Irish atmosphere hadn’t been — it always comes down to this — in Lawrence Edward Watkin’s screenplay to begin with. As Leonard Maltin says in The Disney Films (again, giving credit where it’s due), Watkin’s script “is little short of brilliant…giving voice to breezy Irish wit but also leaving room for sentimentality.” Those consultations with Drs. Delargy and O’Sullivan at the Irish Folklore Commission, and the weeks and months spent soaking up local color in Ireland, served Watkin well. To say nothing of the 11 years the idea spent simmering on a back burner while he honed his skills turning out script after script — Watkin had worked on only one picture before signing with Disney, and he wasn’t even the chief writer on that one.

One tradition of Irish folklore that Watkin most likely picked up from that Dublin commission — because it’s not mentioned in Kavanagh — says that as long as music is playing, a leprechaun can’t stop dancing; this stands Darby O’Gill in good stead when King Brian puts the come-hither on him and traps him in his mountain lair. In the first of Herminie Kavanagh’s stories, the same thing happens — she calls the spell the “comeither” — but there, Darby is held in gentle captivity for six months, finally escaping with the help of his sister-in-law, who is likewise enchanted. For a number of reasons (six months!) this would never do for the movie, so Watkin shortened Darby’s sentence to a single night. Darby offers to fiddle the Little People a tune, which sets them dancing. He fiddles faster and faster until they leap to their horses (see the end of Part 2) and gallop off into the night through a magical fissure that King Brian opens in the side of the mountain; the fissure remains open just long enough for Darby to make good his escape.

Darby scurries home, knowing that once King Brian gathers his wits he’ll be hot on Darby’s heels. Sure enough, before a minute has passed, his majesty materializes, leaping through Darby’s bolted barn door and bullyragging Darby for having abused his hospitality, tricked him, and made him a laughingstock in front of his own people. But the trip home has hatched a plan in Darby’s head; he pleads innocence, saying he only came home to get his favorite pipe. Let’s be off back to Knocknasheega, he says; we won’t even stop for a sip from this excellent jug of poteen (Irish moonshine). Wait a minute, now, says King Brian; let’s not be hasty. Darby detains the king all night drinking and making up songs until…
…the cock crows next morning, when — borrowing another bit of folklore, this time from one of Kavanagh’s stories (“The Adventures of King Brian Connors”) — King Brian’s powers desert him with the coming of daylight and he’s helpless in Darby’s power.
Darby is now entitled to three wishes. He spends the first wish to bind King Brian as his prisoner until he wishes the other two. Then he carelessly wastes his second wish, which makes him all the more cautious with his third. While Darby dithers, King Brian’s kingdom begins to fall into chaos — “I’m the one that keeps my kingdom in order, and all the unblessed spirits of the night will run wild unless you wish your wish and let me go.” He warns Darby that his lieutenant Phadrig Oge will stop at nothing to get him back, including putting the come-hither on Katie to make Darby wish her free again.

As things fall out, it’s worse than that. Somehow, something — whether it’s Phadrig or one of those “unblessed spirits” — sends a pookah to possess the body of Darby’s horse Cleopatra. It’s the same spell by which King Brian first put the come-hither on Darby; this time the pookah lures Katie up to the ruins atop Knocknasheega. There it turns on her.
Like the business of leprechauns and music, the pookah is something Darby O’Gill doesn’t stop to explain, any more than the characters would need to explain it to each other. Fans of the play and movie Harvey (both of which are at some pains to explain it) might remember that a pookah is a mischievous spirit, like a goblin, taking the shape of a black horse, goat or rabbit, and capable of bringing good fortune or ill. (The word pookah may derive from the same Norse root as the English word Puck, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
In Katie’s case, the fortune brought by the pookah is decidedly ill; Darby finds her grievously injured in a fall from the summit to a ledge some yards below. As Darby kneels distraught by his daughter, he spies that most dreaded figure of Irish folklore (and, in the movie at least, the most terrible) the Banshee — wailing mournfully and running a golden comb through her long hair, just as she is described in Kavanagh’s story “The Banshee’s Comb”. Darby drives the Banshee away, but he knows it can’t be for long. In “The Banshee’s Comb”, where the ghostly harbinger of death appears not for Darby’s daughter but for his neighbor Eileen McCarthy, he knows that the Banshee appears twice at the window of the afflicted; her third appearance brings the touch of death.
And so it is for Katie. Darby and Michael McBride carry her home from the slopes of Knocknasheega, and as she lies in her bed near death, and Father Murphy prepares to administer the last rites, Darby again hears the wail of the Banshee in the yard outside his front door. This time the Banshee will not be dispersed, though Darby chases her about the yard, swinging frantically at her with a spade. Instead, she rises out of Darby’s reach and  hovers by a high window of the cottage. There she calmly raises her arm and crooks a bony, spectral finger, summoning to Earth…

…the Costa Bower, the Death Coach, with its forbidding headless driver, sent to carry departed souls to the hereafter.

“Costa Bower” is how Herminie Kavanagh spells it, and so does Watkin in his novelization. A more accurate spelling from the Gaelic is “Coiste Bodhar” — pronounced “Coash-ta Bower”, as it is in Darby O’Gill. In Kavanagh’s story, the Costa Bower carries Darby and King Brian to a rendezvous with the Banshee so Darby can return her golden comb, which he has inadvertently pilfered; on the way they have quite a pleasant conversation with the driver — or rather, with his head, which sits on the seat beside him. The coachman reminisces about his mortal life “three or four hundhred years ago”, and it comes to light that he languished and died — a suicide, perhaps, which would explain his present employment — for love of “purty” Margit Ellen O’Gill, an ancestor of Darby’s. Small world, eh?

In Watkin’s screenplay, the Costa Bower’s mission is more in line with folklore: it’s coming to convey a departed soul to its final reward. Knowing it comes for Katie, Darby tries to use his third wish to send it away, but such a thing is not within King Brian’s powers; once the Costa Bower sets out for Earth it can never return empty. Then let it take me instead, Darby cries; that’s my third wish. King Brian shakes his head ruefully; “More’s the pity. Granted.”

When the coach arrives, its headless driver (unlike in Kavanagh’s story) is not inclined to idle chat, and utters only four words: “Darby O’Gill? Get in.”

Darby O’Gill and the Little People is a veritable catalogue of Irish folklore, nearly all of it presented matter-of-factly and without explanation, as if the audience — like Darby’s listeners in the Rathcullen Arms — had been raised on these traditions and knew them in their bones. From its early scenes of good-natured competition between Darby and King Brian, the story descends into a literal life-and-death struggle with the dark forces Darby’s meddling has unleashed. At the same time, on a more earthly level, the underhanded scheming of Sheelah and Pony Sugrue bears fruit that makes Darby’s, Katie’s and Michael’s situation all the more dire. Leonard Maltin’s “little short of brilliant” appraisal of the script may be an understatement. His other appraisal is right on the money: “Darby O’Gill and the Little People is not only one of Disney’s best films, but is certainly one of the best fantasies every put on film.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of these posts, Darby O’Gill was a flop. Even as a flop it was overshadowed by Disney’s costlier and higher-profile box office disappointment of 1959, Sleeping Beauty. (Only the unexpected bonanza of The Shaggy Dog enabled the Disney Studios to turn a tidy profit that year.)

Disney may have had a point when he suggested that Darby‘s extreme Irishness was its undoing in 1959, but it made it all the more unique and remarkable. Disney’s Pinocchio, on its release in 1940, was criticized for the way it turned Carlo Collodi’s creation into a generically American boy (although anybody who tries to read that dreadful, preachy, grisly book knows that Disney did more for Collodi than Collodi ever did for him). Likewise with Mary Poppins; while I yield to no one in my admiration for Disney’s classic, admirers of P.L. Travers’ books (beginning with Travers herself) have long scorned the movie — and in any event, no one could ever mistake it for an accurate picture of Edwardian London.

Darby O’Gill seems to have been granted one stroke of Irish luck after another. It took a dozen years for Disney’s version of Herminie Kavanagh’s stories to make its way into theaters, and every delay worked to its advantage. In 1946, no doubt, Disney would have made the picture with animated leprechauns the way Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox were drawn into Song of the South (and, years later, the foxhunters and dancing penguins into Mary Poppins). Disney’s original plan to have Barry Fitzgerald play both Darby and King Brian would have meant, at the very least, process photography with its telltale seams and grain, which, however well done, would have made Disney’s boast of a cast full of real leprechauns look silly on its very face. And too, it would have given us a familiar and beloved face, a genuine star, as both characters. Most of all, the delay gave Lawrence Edward Watkin the time he needed to absorb the elusive spirit of the stories and to mold them into an economical and dramatically sound screenplay.
Unlike the more-or-less-Americanized Pinocchio and Mary Poppins, Darby O’Gill and the Little People is Irish to its very core — even more so than John Ford’s classic The Quiet Man with its complement of Ford regulars (John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond, etc.) so familiar from other pictures with other settings. It seems to me that no movie ever made so completely captures the Ireland that exists in the imagination of the world — including that of the Irish themselves — as this sweet, gentle, whimsical yarn that Lawrence Edward Watkin wrote, Peter Ellenshaw and Don DaGradi designed, and Robert Stevenson, Winton Hoch and a band of unknown Irish, Scottish and English troupers shot for Walt Disney in the San Fernando Valley during the summer and fall of 1958.


Luck of the Irish: Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Part 3

Reading the stories that Herminie Templeton (later Kavanagh) published in 1903 as Darby O’Gill and the Good People, it’s easy to understand why Walt Disney wouldn’t give up on the idea of bringing them to the screen — but it’s also easy to see why it took Lawrence Edward Watkin eleven years to fashion them into a screenplay. With titles like “The Convarsion of Father Cassidy”, “How the Fairies Came to Ireland” and “The Banshee’s Comb”, the stories are short on incident — more anecdotes that stories, really. Also, as the word “Convarsion” suggests, they are written in a (literally) pronounced Irish dialect — it takes a while to realize that “craychur” means “creature”, “sthrame” is “stream”, “imaget” is “immediate”, and so on.

But once you adjust to these idiosyncracies (especially if you can assume the accent and read the stories aloud), there’s an unassuming poetry to the tales that can sometimes take your breath away. Describing one fine morning, the narrator (it’s hinted that he’s a Kilkenny cabbie and the son of a cousin of Darby’s) says, “‘Twas one of those warm-hearted, laughing autumn days which steals for a while the bonnet and shawl of the May.” What more do we need to hear to know exactly the sort of day it was?

Another time, Darby O’Gill’s wife Bridget boasts to other wives of the village that her husband is so brave that he doesn’t fear to leave the house on Halloween Night, when “all the worruld” knows that ghosts are afoot. To prove her point (and save face), even as a fierce storm rages that very night, Bridget resolves to cajole Darby into taking “a bit of tay” to poor young Eileen McCarthy, who lies near death. At first Darby resists — “We have two separate ways of being good. Your way is to scurry round an’ do good acts. My way is to keep from doing bad ones. An who knows which way is the betther one. It isn’t for us to judge.” But when he finally agrees to go out, a relieved Bridget encourages him in this lovely passage: 


“Oh, ain’t ye the foolish darlin’ to be afeard,” smiled Bridget back at him, but she was serious, too. “Don’t you know that when one goes on an errant of marcy a score of God’s white angels with swoords in their hands march before an’ beside an’ afther him, keeping his path free from danger?” With that she pulled his face down to hers, and kissed him as she used in the old courting days.

There’s nothing puts so much high courage and clear steadfast purpose in a man’s heart, if it be properly given, as a kiss from the woman he loves. So, with the warmth of that kiss to cheer him, Darby set his face against the storm.

There are countless rough-jeweled passages like that in Mrs. Kavanagh’s prose — I laughed out loud at “One could have scraped with a knife the surprise off Darby’s face” — but you get the idea. How to preserve the delicate humor of the stories, the palpable sense of a happy home and hearth, the simple yet ardent faith, the merry yet mischievous friendship between Darby and King Brian, was what Lawrence Edward Watkin wrestled with between assignments from the day Disney hired him.

Because Darby O’Gill is rarely considered one of Disney’s major pictures, there is scant published documentation of its development and production. Two major biographies, Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man, have only two cursory mentions between them. Peter Ellenshaw’s coffee-table memoir Ellenshaw Under Glass goes into detail about his visual effects work (which I covered in Part 2), and he says that both Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi (who later shared an Oscar nomination for their Mary Poppins screenplay) worked on the script. (In the finished picture DaGradi is credited only for “Special Art Styling”, Walsh not at all. It may be that Walsh — like DaGradi, one of Disney’s most trusted lieutenants — worked uncredited on the script; it’s also possible that Ellenshaw, writing in 2003, conflated Darby O’Gill with his later work with Walsh and DaGradi on Mary Poppins.)

We do, at least, have testimony from Walt Disney himself, in the form of his introduction to the Darby O’Gill novelization. (The intro was ghost-written, no doubt, but it’s a cinch it wouldn’t have gone to the printer until Walt approved it.) He says that it was “in 1945, I believe” that Herminie Kavanagh’s stories first came to his attention, prompting a trip to Ireland to get a feel for the land.

Disney did indeed visit Ireland and Great Britain in November 1946, and again for a longer stay from June to August ’49. His leprechaun movie might have been on his mind both those times. In ’46 he had spoken to Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper about plans for Alice in Wonderland (to be done with a live-action Alice played by little Luana Patten of Song of the South, and set in an animated Wonderland) as well as for The Little People, to be set in Ireland.

But it’s unlikely that Herminie Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill stories were foremost in his mind even then. The Disney Studio was drifting after the end of World War II — strapped for money, still recovering from the bitter trauma of a strike in the early ’40s (which Disney took very personally), and uncertain how to move forward. Of more immediate concern, no doubt, was how the cash-poor studio could make use of the millions of pounds sterling that had piled up from features and shorts playing in the U.K. during the war; money that Disney sorely needed but which, due to currency restrictions imposed by Parliament, couldn’t be taken out of the country.

Is it possible that Disney considered shooting something like Darby O’Gill in Northern Ireland, where his British pounds would be at his disposal? Probably not; in any case, those pounds wound up being pumped into Disney’s first all-live-action feature, Treasure Island (’50). Other British-shot pictures would follow: The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (’52), The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (both ’53). But nothing with leprechauns.
Between those two visits, in 1947, Disney hired Larry Watkin to adapt Kavanagh’s stories, making sure “that he too should take a leisurely sojourn through Ireland, talking with the old storytellers and absorbing the spirit of the place”. (Did Watkin make this trip while Disney was there during the summer of ’49? Maybe; the record is unclear.) Disney goes on to say that Watkin consulted with Drs. James Hamilton Delargy and Sean O’Sullivan, the director and chief archivist (respectively) of the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin. (Curiously enough, the good doctors were able to show Watkin their files on no fewer than 54 versions of the old folktale — Death trapped in an old man’s apple tree — that had inspired his novel On Borrowed Time.)
“In spite of the richness of the material,” Disney remembered, “or maybe because of its abundance, the story did not jell that year”. Other projects intervened. Watkin got sidetracked into scripting all four of Disney’s British-made features, plus several others back in the States. Disney, of course, became preoccupied with both Disneyland (the TV series) and Disneyland (the park in Anaheim). It was nearly a decade before the two men returned to what Disney called “the Irish story”. “This time,” he remembered, “it worked”.
Without venturing into the archives of the Disney Studios, I can’t know what stages Watkin went through to, as they say, “break the back” of Walt’s leprechaun picture. (I’m sure the information is somewhere in those files; the Disney people never threw anything away. Maybe I’ll get a chance to find out someday.) All I have to go on is a comparison of Mrs. Kavanagh’s original stories with the one that appears on the screen, and Larry Watkin, while retaining the names of Darby O’Gill and King Brian Connors, took a wealth of liberties.


The liberties began with the mountain location of King Brian’s underground castle. Herminie Kavanagh gave it as Slieve-na-mon (usually spelled without the hyphens), a 2,363-ft. peak in southern County Tipperary, near Clonmel. Watkin moved King Brian’s court about 22 miles southwest, to Knocknasheega in County Waterford — possibly for its less cumbersome and more poetic-sounding name. But the change didn’t stop there; here’s a view of 1,404-ft. Knocknasheega as it is in real life…

…and here’s how it appears in Darby O’Gill (courtesy of the imagination of Larry Watkin and the palette of Peter Ellenshaw), crowned with the scattered ruins of a castle so ancient nobody remembers who built it. The ruins serve a dramatic as well as picturesque purpose; they become the scene of enchantment when the leprechauns cast their come-hither spell on Darby and — later, for a different reason — his daughter Katie. As you can see, there are no such ruins on the real Knocknasheega. There are in fact two prehistoric stone cairns on the peak and slopes of Slievenamon, but there is no fairy magic imputed to them by Irish folklore and they do not figure in any of the Kavanagh stories.

Darby O’Gill’s village has no name in Kavanagh; in the movie it’s Rathcullen. After an exhaustive Internet search, I could find no village by that name, only a real estate listing for a single house on a half-acre of land “nestling between Aherla [pop. 450] & Cloughduv [pop. 300] Villages” in County Cork. (There’s also a Web site for a Rathcullen Lounge in Killarney, County Kerry, which for all I know may have taken its name from the movie.) So let’s take it as given that Rathcullen and the neighboring village of Glencove are both creations of Lawrence Edward Watkin.

So are most of the characters. In the stories, Darby’s age is never mentioned, but his wife Bridget is still alive, his children (at least four of them) are still small, and the narrator often calls Darby “the lad”. Watkin made him an elderly widower with only his grown daughter Katie. While Darby’s livelihood is hardly hinted at in Kavanagh, in the movie he’s caretaker on the country estate of Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald) — “but he retired about five years ago,” says his lordship, “didn’t tell me about it.” That’s why Lord Fitzpatrick has hired Michael McBride (Sean Connery) to replace him, intending to retire Darby on half pay, with free use of a small cottage on the property for the rest of his days. Darby wheedles his lordship into letting him break the news to Katie himself, and when Lord Fitzpatrick leaves, Darby introduces Michael to Katie as a new hired hand. Darby’s scheming to keep the truth from Katie as long as possible, along with his later kidnapping of King Brian, are the twin threads that will come together at Darby O’Gill‘s ghostly climax.

Watkin also provided something Herminie Kavanagh’s stories lacked: a couple of villains. Maybe “villains” is too strong a term; these two aren’t really wicked. But both of them are up to no good. First comes old Sheelah Sugrue, the village gossip and busybody (Estelle Winwood). Watkin’s novelization says, “She was the sort of old woman who in olden days made witch-burning flourish. One look at her and you would want the custom revived.” English-born Estelle Winwood was 75 when she made Darby; she had been a professional actress since 1903 and had made her Broadway debut in 1916. This was her sixth feature film since 1933 (she preferred the stage but did a lot of TV in the ’40s and ’50s), and she would go on to become the oldest working actress — or actor, for that matter — in the world. She made her last appearance in an episode of Quincy M.E. when she was 97 and died in 1984 at the age of 101. In Darby, her meddlesome Sheelah Sugrue is the proud mother of…
Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), Rathcullen’s roisterer, bully-boy, and all-around ne’er-do-well. (The character would resurface a generation later, little changed, in the form of Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.) Pony’s mother regards him as the natural heir to Darby’s job (a job she doesn’t know Michael McBride already has), while Pony himself regards Katie O’Gill as his personal property, any other man who looks at her doing so at his own peril. Kieron Moore was another one of the authentic Irishmen in Darby‘s cast. He began his acting career as a teenager with Dublin’s Abbey Players; he was soon placed under contract by British producer Alexander Korda, who predicted great stardom for him. The stardom never quite materialized despite solid work in over 50 movies and TV series, and he retired from acting in 1974 to devote himself to social activism on behalf of the Third World. He died in 2007, age 82.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People‘s director was Robert Stevenson, who by 1959 was becoming pretty well established as the Disney Studio’s house director. Stevenson began directing in his native England in 1932, where his pictures included the 1937 British version of King Solomon’s Mines. He came to Hollywood in 1940 to direct Tom Brown’s School Days for the short-lived The Play’s the Thing unit at RKO, then worked for RKO again on Forever and a Day, the 1943 wartime morale-builder about multiple generations in an English family. After that it was over to 20th Century Fox for Jane Eyre with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, a movie that remains the yardstick for measuring subsequent adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s novel (others may be judged better, but all are compared first to Stevenson’s).
Stevenson’s first picture for Disney was Johnny Tremain in 1957, followed later that year by Old Yeller — another yardstick movie, this time for boy-and-his-dog stories. Then three episodes of Disney’s Zorro TV series, then Darby O’Gill. Stevenson would go on to direct some of Disney’s most successful live-action pictures: Kidnapped (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (’61), Son of Flubber (’63), and Walt Disney’s (and Stevenson’s) most glittering achievement, Mary Poppins (’64). After Disney’s death Stevenson would remain at the studio for The Love Bug (’68), Bedknobs and Broomsticks  (’71), and Herbie Rides Again (’74), among others. Not all of Stevenson’s pictures were estimable achievements — The Misadventures of Merlin Jones  (’64), The Monkey’s Uncle (’65) — but nearly all of them came in on time, under budget, and profitable.
In Part 4 I’ll talk about some elements of Irish folklore that appear in both Herminie Kavanagh’s stories and, distilled and transformed by Lawrence Edward Watkin’s own imagination, in the finished picture; and I’ll wind up my case for why I think Darby O’Gill and the Little People deserves to stand proudly beside Snow White, Fantasia, Mary Poppins, and just about any other Walt Disney picture you care to name.

To be concluded…


Luck of the Irish: Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Part 2

With this title card at the opening of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Walt Disney doubled down on the premise behind the broadcast of his weekly television show on May 29, 1959. (The official name of the series had changed to Walt Disney Presents in the fall of ’58, but everybody I knew still called it Disneyland.) On that episode, titled “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns”, Disney recounted to his Irish-American friend, actor Pat O’Brien, the research and negotiation behind the production of Darby O’Gill. Research in the form of a visit to Ireland to confer with scholars of Irish folklore; negotiation in the form of an arranged meeting with King Brian himself to offer him and his minions roles in the picture Disney was planning.

From the “scholar of Irish folklore” he consults, Disney learns  the story of how the leprechauns came to Ireland. What the man tells him is a tale straight out of Herminie Kavanagh’s book — I’ve found it nowhere else in print, so it’s likely she created it herself — and it goes like this: King Brian and his followers are fallen angels, casualties of the revolt of Satan in Heaven before the beginning of time. Too small and timid to engage in the fighting, they hid under the Golden Steps until Satan and his minions were defeated and cast into Hell. Confronting King Brian after the battle, the Archangel Gabriel told him, “An angel who won’t stand up and fight for what he knows is right may not be deserving of Hell, but he’s not fit for Heaven.” So Brian and the rest were banished to live on the Earth, but were mercifully granted leave to settle in a place of their choice. They chose what came to be known as Ireland because it was the closest thing to Heaven that they could find on Earth.

This charming legend doesn’t appear in Darby O’Gill (although Watkin found room for it in his novelization), so it was canny of Disney to include it in “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns”; it certainly made an impression on me at the time and has stayed with me all these years. Disney then goes on to recount how that Dublin scholar referred him to a “shanachie”, or storyteller, in the village of Rathcullen named Darby O’Gill, and how Darby arranged for the producer to have an audience with King Brian. At that meeting, according to Disney, his nebulous idea of making a picture about leprechauns took more definite shape, and he proposed that Darby and Brian should both appear in the picture playing themselves and telling the story of their adventures together. King Brian first dismissed the idea, but when he and Darby got into an argument over which of them would make the better “fillum actor”, Disney knew he had them.
I borrow a phrase from Leslie S. Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, to describe this episode of Walt Disney Presents. In his tome, Klinger admits that he perpetuates “the gentle fiction that Holmes and Watson really lived”. And that’s just what “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns” is — a gentle fiction. Even as a kid I recognized the episode for what it was, but once I had seen it, oxen and wainropes couldn’t have kept me away from Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

But my own reaction is neither here nor there. More to the point, Walt Disney felt free to purvey this gentle fiction, to assert that he had enlisted the aid of real leprechauns — saying so not only in a TV promo, but right there on the screen as the picture was about to begin — because he knew that he had a picture with seamless and absolutely convincing special effects. 
The man Disney assigned to spearhead those effects was Peter Ellenshaw, who had worked with Disney since his first all-live-action feature Treasure Island in 1950, and whose career with the studio would far outlive Disney himself. Ellenshaw was a matte painter — but that’s a bit like saying Chopin was a piano player. A matte painter, in those days before computer graphics, painted scenes on sheets of glass set between the camera and the subject, both to fill in the image to be photographed and to mask out elements on the set that weren’t meant to be seen. 
For example, take another look at the frame-cap at the beginning of this post, an establishing image of Darby O’Gill’s village of Rathcullen. A little over half that picture is Peter Ellenshaw’s work. As the set was built on the Disney Studio lot in Burbank, the church on the left had no roof and no steeple, the pub on the right had only half a roof and no chimney. Essentially, everything in the frame above the word “Leprechauns” — the roofs, the trees, the sky, the clouds — was painted on glass by Peter Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw had a major hand in establishing the distinctive look of Disney’s live-action movies from Treasure Island through 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, Johnny Tremain, Pollyanna and Mary Poppins (he snagged an Oscar for that one) all the way through The Black Hole (’79) and Dick Tracy (’90).

For Darby O’Gill, Ellenshaw and Eustace Lycett employed special effects techniques that were simple in concept but complex and demanding in execution. The basic idea was called “forced perspective” and it boiled down to this: since the leprechauns had to appear one-quarter the size of a normal human being, the actors playing them had to be four times farther away from the camera. This shot of Darby and King Brian peeking out the window as Katie arrives home from a Saturday night dance makes a good illustration. The illusion is flawless, with Darby seemingly standing on the floor and King Brian perched beside him on the window sill. In fact, however, Albert Sharpe was standing (let’s say) five feet from the camera, while Jimmy O’Dea (along with his side of the curtains) was 15 feet behind him.
This simple idea came with a number of nuts-and-bolts challenges, both physical and photographic. In this shot, for example, the pattern on King Brian’s curtain had to be four times the size of the pattern on Darby’s. The fabric had to be thicker and stiffer so that the pleats would match. Even the leprechaun costumes had to be made of stiffer material so they would look like doll-size garments cut from a bolt of normal cloth. The set had to be flooded with light, even in a night-lit shot like this, so the camera aperture could be stopped down enough to keep both actors in focus. (Sometimes, Ellenshaw said, the set would get so hot that production would have to be shut down for the day; the battery of lights on the studio’s soundstages even triggered power failures all over Burbank.) If  humans and leprechauns had to look at each other, the actors needed separate targets to focus on so that their eyelines would match on film (the shot above of King Brian, Darby and Disney illustrates this). Props had to be built in two sizes — one to be seen with Darby, the other with the leprechauns — and they had to match exactly. Some shots required more distance between Darby and the leprechauns than the size of the soundstage itself. In those cases, the crew used the Schufftan Process, developed in the 1920s by the German cinematographer Eugen Schufftan. A mirror was set up between Darby and the camera at a 45-degree angle, with the reflective surface scraped away so Darby could be seen through the glass, while the camera also caught the reflection of the leprechauns off to the side and far behind the camera.
Every shot involving the leprechauns was storyboarded in detail, its requirements carefully calculated with mathematical precision. (These calculations, Ellenshaw said in his 2003 book Ellenshaw Under Glass: Going to the Matte for Disney, were duck soup to Lycett and director Robert Stevenson, “who was a mathematician in his own right. They were very interested in mathematics, read books on it just for pleasure!”)
For all these challenges, the modus operandi chosen by Ellenshaw and Lycett had one unsurpassable reward: It enabled human and leprechaun to appear simultaneously on a single strip of film, with no differences in film grain, no change in visual texture, no telltale blue lines that would be noticeable, however subliminally, if shots had been combined in the lab. The eye (and brain) accepts the illusion without question, and Disney’s boast that he enlisted real leprechauns in the cast passes the test — we see the evidence with our own eyes.
Have I blown Darby O’Gill‘s cover by telling you this? Not at all. Even knowing how it’s done, the trick is still magic. In the next installment I’ll get into the magic of the story itself; for now I’ll leave you with this shot. Darby is in the mountain hall of Knocknasheega, in King Brian’s throne room. He fiddles the Little People a lively tune that sets them dancing madly until, carried away, they run off and gallop back on horseback, riding in a circle around him. At this precise moment, everyone — everyone — who sees Darby O’Gill and the Little People thinks exactly the same thing: “My God, where on Earth did they get all those little tiny horses??!!” They have already accepted, on an emotional level, that these are genuine leprechauns; the only question is where they found horses to ride.
I know of no other shot in the long history of visual effects that gets such a reaction.

To be continued…


Luck of the Irish: Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Part 1

Book-coverWIn 1962, if I had known that the actor playing James Bond was the same actor who played Michael McBride in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, I might have taken the trouble to see Dr. No sooner than I did. But in all the publicity surrounding the screen debut of Ian Fleming’s secret agent, and the handsome young discovery of producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, there was scant mention (if any) of the picture Sean Connery had made for Walt Disney three years earlier. Small wonder: Darby O’Gill was a flop.
At this remove in time, it’s easy to forget how many of the movies we call “Disney Classics” were considered nothing of the kind when they were new. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a smash right enough, the top-grossing movie of all time — for a couple of years, until Gone With the Wind left it in the dust. But Pinocchio (’40) was a disappointment, Bambi (’42) was a flop, and Fantasia (’40) was a catastrophe. Only Dumbo (’41), followed by contract work for the government during World War II, kept Disney from going under altogether, and spared him the embarrassment of defaulting on the spiffy new studio he’d built with the profits from Snow White. In time, and thanks to persistent reissues every seven years, Disney’s faith in his pictures would be borne out as each one eventually found its audience. (Remember this when you hear talk about what a “bomb” Disney/Pixar’s John Carter was.)
Darby O’Gill and the Little People found its audience too…eventually…sort of. It wasn’t until 1969, a full decade after its release — and with Walt Disney nearly three years in his cremation urn — that the picture got its first reissue. There was another in 1977, but the picture still made few ripples — and certainly no splash — at the box office. After that, the studio made the ultimate surrender: they abandoned theatrical hopes for Darby and relegated it to two-part broadcasts on television.


The picture was never a flop as far as I was concerned. I loved it in 1959 when I saw it at the Stamm Theatre in Antioch, Calif. I loved it in 1960 when I read this novelization by Lawrence Edward Watkin of his own screenplay. And when it was reissued in ’69 (on a double bill with Dick Van Dyke and Edward G. Robinson in Never a Dull Moment) I went to see it almost every night it played — wondering with bemusement exactly when Sean Connery got into this movie. I contented myself with one viewing when it was reissued in ’77, but I said then what I say to this day: Darby O’Gill and the Little People is one of Walt Disney’s unsung masterpieces.

Disney himself attributed the picture’s failure to the unusually thick Irish accents of his actors, plus the fact that he was unable to make the picture as he originally planned, with Barry Fitzgerald playing the double role of Darby O’Gill and King Brian of the leprechauns. Maybe so, but personally, I think that in the long run the movie dodged a bullet. Barry Fitzgerald and softer brogues might have made Darby a bit more of a hit, but they would have made it much less of a masterpiece. (I’ve read that for some releases the dialogue was redubbed with more America-friendly voices, but if so I never saw or heard any of those prints. Thank God.)

And as for Barry Fitzgerald…Well, all due respect to the dear man, but by 1958, as Darby went into production, he was a real star, more identified with Hollywood than with Ireland. Fitzgerald turned Disney down because he felt too old to play either Darby or King Brian — ironic, then that the role of Darby went to Disney’s second choice, Albert Sharpe, who was three years older. Disney had seen Sharpe on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow in 1947, about the time he (Disney) discovered H.T. Kavanagh’s book Darby O’Gill and the Good People
For King Brian, Disney settled on Jimmy O’Dea, a popular Dublin comedian who performed in both English and Gaelic. O’Dea had appeared in a handful of movies since 1926, and one Irish-American picture, John Ford’s The Rising of the Moon (1957), while Sharpe had played small roles in a smattering of Hollywood movies: Up in Central Park (’48) with Deanna Durbin, Royal Wedding (’51) with Fred Astaire, and Brigadoon (’53) with Gene Kelly, among others. When Disney came calling, Sharpe was retired from acting and living on a pension in working-class Belfast. Both he and O’Dea, despite long stage experience, were largely unfamiliar faces, and their performances give Darby O’Gill an aura of authenticity it could never have had with Barry Fitzgerald playing both roles.
Walt Disney’s two young discoveries for Darby O’Gill were Sean Connery as the young man come to take Darby’s place as caretaker on Lord Fitzpatrick’s country estate, and Janet Munro as Darby’s spirited daughter Katie. Of Connery — almost incredibly young and handsome here — hardly anything need be said. But it’s worth mentioning that when Albert Broccoli’s wife Dana saw Darby she told her husband he could stop looking: “Well, that is James Bond!” More than half a century on, after an Oscar, a knighthood, and five more actors playing Bond, Dana Broccoli’s judgment still stands, and all because she saw Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Walt Disney deserves more credit for setting Sean Connery on his road to world treasure-hood than he usually gets.
At the time, 24-year-old Janet Munro seemed like the safer bet for long-term stardom. “Miss Munro, a delight to behold,” said Variety’s reviewer, “may be at the threshold of a glamorous career.” The daughter of Scottish music hall artist Alex Munro (a stage name for both; the family name was Horsburgh), Janet had, like Connery, compiled a worthy resume in British television, and like him, was making her American screen debut. Disney signed her to a five-picture contract and she appeared in Third Man on the Mountain (’59), Swiss Family Robinson (’60) and The Horsemasters (’61; shown on Disney’s TV show in the States, released to theaters in Europe) before her contract was dropped (the reason is a little vague). The glamorous career forecast by Variety failed to materialize, though she worked steadily through the 1960s amid an onslaught of personal and health problems. She died of chronic heart disease (compounded, alas, by alcoholism) in 1972 at the age of 38.
Back in 1947, Disney had hired Lawrence Edward Watkin to adapt the Darby O’Gill stories into a screenplay. Watkin was the author of On Borrowed Time, a fantasy novel about an old man who traps Death in his backyard apple tree. The novel was adapted into a successful play by Paul Osborn and a 1939 movie starring Lionel Barrymore and Cedric Hardwicke. It would be 12 years before Watkin’s efforts on Kavanagh’s stories saw the light of a projector lamp; in the meantime, he did some of his best work on some of Disney’s best live-action pictures: Treasure Island (’50), The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (’52), The Sword and the Rose (’53), The Great Locomotive Chase (’56), The Light in the Forest (’58).
The H.T. Kavanagh mentioned in Darby O’Gill‘s credits was born Herminie McGibney in 1861. She first published her stories in McClure’s Magazine in 1901-02, then in book form in 1903, using her first married name, Herminie Templeton. Abandoned by her husband in 1893 and finally widowed by 1907, she married Judge Marcus Kavanagh of Chicago in 1908; subsequent editions of her books bore the name Herminie Templeton Kavanagh. The Darby O’Gill imagined by Mrs. Kavanagh differs greatly from the one played by Albert Sharpe. In the stories Darby is younger, with a wife still living and more than just Katie among his offspring (Kavanagh never says exactly, but it’s clear that Darby and Bridget O’Gill have at least four children). The story Watkin concocted for the movie was entirely his own invention, though it incorporated many of Kavanagh’s details of Irish folklore and matched the stories’ spirit exactly. The movie’s credits say “Written by Lawrence Edward Watkin, Suggested by H.T. Kavanagh’s ‘Darby O’Gill’ Stories”, and that’s the simple truth of it.
I’ll have more to say about Darby O’Gill and the Little People in Part 2. I wanted to get at least this first part up in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

To be continued…