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 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.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Who Is the Tall Dark Stranger There..."

...Maverick is the name. Ten months ago I wrote about Warner Home Video finally releasing Maverick: The Complete First Season on DVD. I said then that everybody in America should buy it, if only to sell enough to persuade Warner to bring out the later seasons. Well, I don't know how many Americans bought it, but it was enough to keep 'em coming; Season 2 is now out.

It's hard at this remove to appreciate what a revolutionary breath of fresh air Maverick was when it debuted in the fall of 1957. Its main character, Bret Maverick (James Garner), was a professional gambler -- as was Bret's brother Bart (Jack Kelly), introduced halfway through the first season. Before Maverick, gamblers were seldom seen as western heroes; glib, slick and dressed like a dandy, they were more often shown as shady and untrustworthy -- when they weren't outright villains and cheats. Bret and Bart never cheated at cards, but they weren't above running a con game when they figured somebody had it coming. They weren't strangers to gunplay, but neither were they trigger-happy or quick on the draw, much preferring to talk (or bluff) their way out of trouble. ("In other words," scoffs one damsel at Bart, "you're a coward!" To which Bart wheedles: "Isn't everybody?") Viewed today, the brothers look like much more conventional heroes, but only because they skewed the mold -- which also has allowed them to age more gracefully than other TV western heroes, the type of characters Stan Freberg once spoofed as "Bang Gunleigh, U.S. Marshal Fields".

Splitting the star billing -- Garner featured one week, Kelly the next, with occasional team episodes -- was another, more practical innovation. It allowed two production units to shoot simultaneously, which -- along with frequent trips to Warner Bros.' bulging library of stock footage -- meant more of the series' modest budget would appear on the home screen. Other series would employ this method too: Warners' own 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6; Universal's The Name of the Game; Bonanza over at Paramount, and so on.

Season 2 supports Garner and Kelly with the customary mix of seasoned Hollywood veterans (Lyle Talbot, John Litel, Reginald Owen, Wayne Morris, Marcel Dalio, Neil Hamilton, Barbara Jo "Vera Vague" Allen, Jimmy Lydon, Sig Ruman); guest stars from other Warner Bros. series (Richard Long, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Robert Conrad, Connie Stevens); and up-and-coming future Oscar winners (Martin Landau, Clint Eastwood, Louise Fletcher). This season also contains three of the best episodes of the entire run -- and hence three of the best hour-long TV episodes ever: "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres", in which Bret vows to get back $15,000 stolen from him by a crooked banker (John Dehner); "Gun-Shy", a hilarious deadpan spoof of Gunsmoke wherein Bret runs afoul of Marshal Mort Dooley; and "The Rivals", a clever adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy of manners transferred to the American frontier. Those last two, like many of Maverick's best episodes, were written by Marion Hargrove, who rose to fame with his wartime bestseller See Here, Private Hargrove and went on to a long and fruitful career in Hollywood. He also wrote screenplays for The Music Man, Boys' Night Out, Cash McCall and 40 Pounds of Trouble.

The Warner Bros. TV series of the 1950s and early '60s, along with Universal's later series in the '60s and '70s, were the last flowering of the Hollywood studio system before it unraveled entirely. Cleverly written, fast-paced, sharply edited, and acted by a parade of old and young pros, these episodes of Maverick stand as delightful testimony to why and how Warner Bros. dominated prime-time TV for the better part of a decade.

Check Maverick out. Meanwhile, here at Cinedrome, for my next post it's back to Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

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.


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