Grade:  B+
Rated G

Nine years after Disney got into live-action filmmaking with their 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, the House of Mouse scored a modest success with their 17th live-action entry, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It wasn’t the box-office hit that The Shaggy Dog was that year, but solid enough now to appear on an list of “25 greatest films of 1959”—a list that The Shaggy Dog failed to make.

When Darby O’Gill was released, the selling point for this family fantasy-adventure was the film’s depiction of leprechauns. Now the big attraction is a very young pre-Bond Sean Connery in his first starring role in a feature film. And he sings. How’s that for a pot of gold?

Connery plays a dashing young Dublin man who finds himself in an awkward position when he is assigned by Lord Fitzpatrick to replace an old man named Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) as the caretaker for his country estate in the tiny town of Rathcullen. O’Gill is a popular man in town, even though everyone laughs at his earnest stories of leprechauns and his claim to have met their king, Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea).

A “city” fellow is a natural disruption to local rural life, but Michael McBride finds other challenges. For one thing, there’s Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), a boisterous town bully who could be the prototype for Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A big strong man who tends to brag and mock others, Pony thinks he’s the natural choice to replace O’Gill and marry Katie, the old man’s daughter. In fact, he feels entitled. Then there’s Katie (Janet Munro), a charming young woman that Michael quickly falls for, creating a classic romantic triangle. Finally there’s O’Gill himself—a charismatic and likable old man that Michael grows fond of and would prefer not to hurt. Conflicts like these create a narrative structure that manages to entertain the adults who watch with children.

The children, meanwhile, were (and will still be) captivated by Darby O’Gill’s attempts to trap and catch King Brian to take him to the pub and prove he’s not crazy or a storyteller with an overactive imagination. There’s a genie aspect to this folklore as well, for if a leprechaun is caught he must grant three wishes—wishes that the clever leprechaun tries to trick O’Gill into losing. But Disney wouldn’t be Disney without at least one dark threat, and in this film it comes in the form of a banshee that is the harbinger of death. Special effects bring it all to life, and those effects still hold up pretty well today.

The idea for the film first came from a trip Disney took to Ireland in 1947, but it wasn’t until a second 1956 trip that Disney announced he would make a film inspired by Hermine Templeton Kavanagh’s 1903 book, Darby O’Gill and the Good People. Disney, always a consummate researcher, spent three additional months studying Irish folklore at the Dublin Library and cast the film in London. Disney went to great lengths to keep the actors who played leprechauns out of the limelight, creating an aura of mystery that suggested leprechauns might be real. In fact, at beginning of the film Disney thanked “King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible.”

Critics in 1959 were charmed by the leprechauns but thought Connery was “the weakest link” (Variety), “merely tall, dark and handsome” (The New York Times). Yet, there’s also an easy warmth to his performance here that viewers seldom witnessed again after Connery was cast as James Bond just two years later—a subtle warmth that resurfaces years later when he plays father-figure to Kevin Costner in The Untouchables and father to Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People is streaming now on Disney+ and was recently released as a Disney Movie Club Blu-ray Exclusive. You don’t have to be a member to pick up a copy, as there are a number available on eBay right now. There are even a few bonus features: the complete original black-and-white Walt Disney Presents TV episode “I Captured the King of the Leprechauns,” a short feature on Connery, and a short feature on special effects.

Entire family:  Yes (but see below)
Run time:  90 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.66:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Disney/Disney Movie Club
Rated G for tobacco depictions

Language:  0/10—Nothing

Sex:  0/10—Innocent as can be

Violence:  2/10—A man is knocked unconscious, a character falls off a cliff and appears to be injured, and two men have a fistfight; while there’s no violence involved, the banshee (think Dementors) can be frightening for little children

Adult situations:  3/10—Some smoking and drinking that’s a part of the narrative; O’Gill tells his stories over beers at the pub, and drinks with King Brian; there is some drunkenness; Pat O’Brien also lights up a pipe during the Walt Disney Presents bonus episode

Takeaway:  Though it was a studio film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People is evocative of Ireland and does a fine job with Gaelic folklore; that it still holds up is a tribute to every aspect of Disney studios filmmaking