Walt Disney spun some lovely blarney for this classic Disney Irish movie

Darby O'Gill and the Little People is not just a wonderful Irish movie but showed Walt Disney's gift for blarney! Here's how Walt pushed this tale of leprechauns as the real thing!
Das Geheimnis Der Verwunschenen Hoehle, Darby O'Gill And The Little People
Das Geheimnis Der Verwunschenen Hoehle, Darby O'Gill And The Little People / United Archives/GettyImages

With St. Patrick's Day upon us, it's always fun to look at some Hollywood movies that play into the season. And few are as fitting as Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Yet it can be forgotten that this film worked not only as an Irish-set gem but also as one of Walt Disney's most brilliant attempts to mix reality and fantasy by trying to tell viewers that these were real leprechauns. 

First, a bit of backstory: In 1947, Walt Disney came across the writings of Herminie Templeton Kavanagh during a trip to Ireland. In particular, he enjoyed the tales of Darby O'Gill, a local handyman in the village of Rathcullen. The locals love Darby's tall tales of his clashes with King Brian, lord of the local leprechauns, unaware they're all true. 

Disney had hoped to get Barry Fitzgerald to play the dual role of Darby and King Brian with the fun motif of the pair looking so much alike. The Irish born actor would have been great for the role, an Oscar winner and already starred in another classic Irish film, The Quiet Man. Sadly, his schedule couldn't fit it in. 

Walt decided that having one actor in two roles would make an already complex film more difficult. So, instead, Albert Sharpe was cast as Darby, with Jimmy O'Dea as King Brian. As both were Irish actors, they could be authentic in selling the drama. It was notable for Sharpe, considered "The Dean of Irish actors," to come out of retirement for this role.  

As lovely as the movie looks, it has to be noted that it's not filmed anywhere near Ireland. Walt wanted to do so but the cost was too much so much of it was on backlots with California standing in for the Irish landscape. The soundstage was the largest built for a Disney movie and they utilized old-school classic tricks of forced perspective to sell the illusion of the grown Darby amid the "little people."

The rest of the cast was filled out, which included Janet Munro as Darby's daughter Katie, Estelle Winwood as an elderly widow, and to play the role of handyman Michael McBride a young Scottish actor named Sean Connery.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Sean Connery. Before he became 007, the actor was a Disney star and does indeed sing on film. That alone makes this a notable favorite. 

The plot and magic of Darby O'Gill

The film is interesting because, like the novels it's based on, it feels episodic in nature. The overall plot involves Darby being upset when Lord Fitzpatrick wants to replace him with the younger Michael. Michael and Katie's romance only adds to Darby's woes.

Darby soon is in clashes with King Brian, including escaping the leprechaun's mountain, and manages to capture Brian, who has to give Darby three wishes. As it happens, they've played this game before, as Brian always manages to trick Darby into making a fourth wish, rendering the first three invalid. 

The pair's chemistry is fantastic, clearly a friendship but enjoy crossing swords and trying to outwit each other. There's good drama leading to Katie falling ill. This sets up the most memorable moment of the film as the horrific Banshee comes to claim Katie, a sequence truly terrifying. Darby uses his third wish to take her place with Brian at his side. 

Don't worry; it ends okay for all, with Michael beating down the local bully and Darby and his family reuniting for a wonderful bit of Irish charm. 

Walt spins his blarney

Walt may have suspected that a mostly Irish tale would be a tough sell to American moviegoers. So he decided to do clever marketing by selling the idea that Brian and all the leprechauns were real. The movie even opened with a "thank you" to the "kingdom of Knocknasheega " for taking part in the filming. 

Walt went the extra step with an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney titled "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns." In it, Walt talks to the audience about how he wanted an authentic Irish film, so he went to actor Pat O'Brien and laid out plans to animate the leprechauns. O'Brien told Walt some tales and then said the only way to make it perfect was to cast real leprechauns. The joke, of course, was O'Brien was clearly playing a prank on Walt, sending him on a wild goose chase.

So Walt headed to Ireland, talking to a local scholar then met Sharpe in character as Darby. Darby helps Walt capture a leprechaun to bring King Brian and after some jostling and banter, the king agrees to appear in the picture. Walt is in fine form here, totally believable talking to a leprechaun and the way he spins the tale makes you think you're watching something magical, not just some special effects on a Burbank set. There's also how Walt (born in Missouri) tries to pass himself off as "half-Irish."

Back in Hollywood, Walt tells the tale to O'Brien, who, of course, is dubious about it until Walt presents him with a shillelagh given by King Brian. It's a nice tongue-in-cheek bit with clips from the movie, and Walt really enjoyed pushing the tale as legitimate to the press.

The movie wasn't the hit expected with Walt thinking not casting Fitzgerald cost them box office. It did earn Munro a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year. More importantly, Connery's performance caught the eye of Dana Broccoli who told her husband Albert, who was producing Dr. No. That led to Connery auditioning for James Bond and the rest is history.

The movie has attained a good following, especially in Ireland with Leonard Maltin praising it as one of the best Disney films ever. It is a gem to check out at St. Patrick's Day, and it also shows Walt's amazing showmanship, mixing fact and fiction and selling this as true to life. Leave it to Walt to put a further storytelling spin on an already tall tale, as why not mix some blarney into an Irish story?

Darby O'Gill and the Little People streaming on Disney+.