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

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

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.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

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

In 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.

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