Why Darby O'Gill Still Matters
That's Disney's Darby O' Gill and the Little People --- Leprechauns, in case you weren't aware. In case you tuned in late, Darby's an old Irish storyteller who loves to tell a few good tales of his many adventures challenging the 5000-year-old, 21-inch-tall intellectual gladiator par excellence, His Majesty, King Brian Connors of Knocknasheega. Darby's daughter Katie, meanwhile, is not exactly in the mood to fall in love. When first we look in on the O'Gills' place, Lord Fitzpatrick has arrived to deliver the news that Darby is to be replaced as the resident caretaker at the Fitzpatrick estate. Unwilling to break Katie's heart with this news, Darby explains to her that the man who would take his place, one Michael McBride by name, is just assisting Darby with the housework. Michael, of course, would rather that Darby just tell Katie the truth.
But Darby doesn't. Learning from Father Murphy, the town priest, that their village has been blessed with the gift of a brand new church bell, the old coot offers to bring the object back to town the next morning, free of charge. Later that same evening, while on his way to retrieve his faithful horse, he discovers that it's the ghostly Pookah horse ---- and at that point, the real magic begins!
As King Brian reveals to Darby, the Knocknasheegans have brought him to their world as a favor of sorts, giving him the chance to flee from the obviously disappointing retirement he must ultimately confront Katie with back upstairs. Those Leprechauns dwelling under King Brian's rule, as you all know, have the power to grant you the traditional three wishes --- just don't plan on wishing a fourth wish, because that negates the three that you wished before. Anyway, this spectacular effort, the first really great Disney fantasy from director Robert Stevenson, continues to leave a mark on its many fans all over the world who know most, if not necessarily all, the great secrets as to how to handle a Leprechaun. We smile at Darby's many foibles and follies, undoubtedly, but even as we laugh, we learn something. What makes a great St. Patrick's Day movie, folks, is its ability to wield a sense of fantasy while at the same time astounding the audience with an unending whimsy. This is why Walt had the good sense to include these words in the film's opening credits: "My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious cooperation made this picture possible."
There are a great many things to know about Darby O'Gill as a movie, too: It's a good thing that Walt cast Jimmy O'Dea for the role of King Brian, because it was, and still is, a milestone. For this Dublin-born veteran of the Abbey Theatre, this would be the second and last of the only three appearances he would ever make during this, the era of sound on film. The first such appearance took place 2 years previously, when The Abbey Theatre was cast by director John Ford in a trilogy of Irish vignettes entitled The Rising of the Moon, for which O'Dea was cast in the role of porter Paddy Morrisey. There would be one more film role for this native of County Clare: that of Tim the Postman, in 1961's Johnny Nobody. Between 1922 and 1949, Jimmy O'Dea's other film credits were largely silent films; Ireland's film industry was then in its infancy. Jimmy O'Dea returned to his beloved Dublin, where he died in January 1965.
The Disneyland Series episode "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns," with special guest Pat O'Brien, involved new sequences, featuring Albert Sharpe as Darby and Jimmy O'Dea as King Brian. The 49-minute episode was the only time that both actors would ever appear on television, making its being featured on the Darby DVD even more of a milestone. Robert Stevenson's Disney fantasies --- Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again, The Gnome-Mobile, Blackbeard's Ghost, The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber --- these are all ranked among the screen's best-loved, best-known comedy/fantasies. But for great Irish blarney, bouncing Leprechauns, a spectacular dance sequence, and even a good ol' honest donnybrook, nothing stands in the way of Darby O'Gill and the Little People! Indeed, for some time, now, I have long wished that the folks at ye olde Mouse Factory would do a Darby remake --- one for the High School Musical generation. Think of it: Leprechauns as party animals! (And not simply on St. Patrick's Day per se, either!) True, The Disney Channel has made a few original movies about Leprechauns in our day, but it still has not yet completely made a straightforward remake of Darby O'Gill. I should like to be able to see that most of all! Anyway, for more Disney classic films and other impressions as to why they matter, please log onto UltimateDisney.com.