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Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Monday, April 29, 2013

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.
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1 comment:

Silver Screenings said...

I had to re-read the first paragraph about four times. The WHOLE MOVIE was shot in the LA area? Wow! That truly is a testament to the magic of movies.

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