Dallying with Darby O'Gill

The Murfreesboro Center for the Arts showed Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) yesterday afternoon, as an early St. Patrick’s Day treat for the kiddies, complete with free popcorn. The film is a Disney special effects extravaganza, complete with leprechauns, a banshee, and a singing (definitely dubbed) Sean Connery in one of his first films (at a spry-looking 29).

I’d never seen the film, and was enchanted by its combination of:

*stereotypical Irish accents so thick my son leaned over several times to say “What are they saying?” “Can you understand it?” “I can’t figure out a word of what they’re saying”;

*the charming studio-lot Irish village, complete with friendly yet stern-when-he-needs to be village Priest in full garb; big dumb lug types hassling old alcoholics in the town tavern;

*meddling old lady (Sheelah Sugrue, played by the fabulous Estelle Winwood of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Camelot, The Producers, Murder by Death and more sitcoms and detective series on television than you can shake an old-lady stick at);

*obligatory bonnie young lass (Janet Munro) of independent yet entirely normative nature;

*delightful giddy “little people”—all somehow male—dancing their lives away in an awesome cave within a mountain;

*and grizzled, classically trained lead actor (Albert Sharpe as Darby O’Gill) that could distort his face with acrobat agility Cirque du Soleil would be proud of.

Now that’s the cynical me, of course, and there’ll be more of that momentarily. I will pause, however, to say a few truly positive words:

*the special effects stood up remarkably well to the test of time, with the banshee actually scaring my son and the blue screen work marvelous throughout;

*the relationship between Darby and Brian, the King of the Little People (Jimmy O’Dea), was incredibly rich; the two men were “worthy adversaries” and convinced the audience well of their genuine affection as well as macho one-upmanship;

And some film analysis:

Most fascinating to me was the male-male scenes. Though a fantasy and a romance story, the film is also about how men relate to other men. In addition to the aforementioned Darby-King Brian friendship, Darby also had a warmth with his employer, Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzgerald). Both relationships involved competitiveness and disagreement, illustrating how male friendships must be kept from any hint of homoerotic (or even homosocial) quality by involving conflict as well as closeness.

Similar was the tension among the younger male rivals, Connery’s Michael McBride and Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), but in this case it involved what Steve Neale (mentioned in other blog entries on male-centered films below) discusses as scenes of aggression between men that both deny yet present repressed homosexual desire—and invite the audience’s gaze upon it. As the film ends, Darby O’Gill has returned to the living from the Death Coach’s door, his daughter is well and in the arms of her beloved Michael, and all is right with the world. But we can’t end there: Michael and Darby must go to the tavern where he must prove his meddle against the bully Pony. As Michael is pummeled by Pony, Darby and the other regulars—including barmaid Molly Malloy (Nora O’Mahoney)—gawk away, cringing yet prevented by the wise Darby from intervening. Men need to have these confrontations, and we, apparently, need to watch them. Of course, in the end, Michael wins, handily, and his mother Sheelah is the only one to comfort him.

Because I can’t leave this post without a final immature swipe, I must say I found the teeth in this film hard to watch (or to look away from). Between Darby’s missing upper choppers and crooked, yellowed bottom row and Connery’s hideous cap job, I found myself marveling at how long Hollywood has been tooth-obsessed. With updates in Austin Powers and constant tooth-whitening ads alongside movie stars whose mouths seem to glow in the dark with their expensively bleached and over-polished whiteness, it was fascinating to have this film remind me that Holywood’s always insisted on ridiculously “perfect” teeth, even when it lacked the technological/medical means to have them.


kate said...

I can't comment on Darby O'Gill, haven't seen it.
But I have been caught up in your reviews of other movies. And I know that the media in all its forms shape many an opinion in the big wide world.
And with that in mind, the other night while watching Gentleman Prefer Blondes(not a title I appreciate having gorgeous dark hair myself) I thought I would try and take a critical look at it, find subtext and all that.
Not my forte. Other than Jane Russell, surrounded by the mens Olympic team(where was the women's team and why didn't they get to cross the ocean by ship?) doing callesthneics as she sang 'any one here for love?' It was a typical 50's movie that ended with the happy ever after goal of marriage. All I could see was the difference in what is considered Hollywood beauty.
Both Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe are what would be termed full figured gals. Neither of them size 0, or silicone enhanced. I did like Jane telling Marilyn as the last line of the movie, "Remember honey, it's okay to say yes on your wedding night." And Marilyn telling her prospective father-in-law, "I can be smart if I need to, but most men don't like it."
Funny how the icon of sexuality says a line that is still true today and was sadly the truth of her life.
But I consider my quest a failure because I couldn't go further than that. So when it comes to watching movies, I pretty much am looking for performances and plot holes. I'll leave the subtexts to you.
Thanks for the enlightenment.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

I agree totally on the differences in beauty norms: as a culture we always have strict norms, but they do differ over time. Both actresses are so much Larger Than Life it seems like a drag show to me when I watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, especially when Russell's character impersonates Monroe's Lorelei Lee!

Given my interests, I will add this: I love the film's emphasis on women's friendship. The women stand together despite and sometimes against (their) men, and in the end, that double wedding almost seems like a lesbian marriage with the men as witnesses! They sing to and about each other, and the camera almost excludes the men entirely in the closing tracking shot!

Now, I could go on to talk about the queerness of the Olympics team ignoring Russell as she dances around them, but then I'd have to direct you to Alexander Doty's queer reading of the whole film (which I think I'll copy and mail you with a letter today)!

Thanks for joining in! And always know I do this for pleasure!

Deborah said...

Trivia: While watching this movie, Dana Broccoli decided that Sean Connery was way the sexy. She mentioned this to her husband, Cubby, who was at the time searching for the perfect actor to play James Bond.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Great trivia, Deborah. Thanks for the detail and for engaging with my blog :)