There are some fascinating films to dive into when contemplating the early years of the many actors to play James Bond. Ian Fleming’s super-spy is truly iconic and has changed popular culture in the sixty years since he first hit movie screens. As such, it’s almost a struggle to think of these actors before they found the ultimate stardom. They are all synonymous with “Bond, James Bond”. So, as I sat down to ponder this question, one movie jumped to mind. We’re starting with the original Bond in the most “un-Bond” of settings… Disney. Take a seat kids as I take a look at Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People follows the Darby of the title (Albert Sharpe) as he engages in a good-natured scrum with King Brian of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea). At the same time though Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) is falling head-over-heels for the strapping young groundskeeper tasked with taking over for Darby (Sean Connery). Robert Stevenson directs the film from a script by Lawrence Edward Watkin.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People is (If I remember correctly) a first-time watch for yours truly. There might have been a sleepy “Vault” Disney viewing at some point in the 90s, but I digress. The movie might be from the “House of Mouse” at its most classic, but that memorable title always makes me think of only one thing…
We are of course here for one reason… Mr. “Shaken, Not Stirred” himself. Sean Connery. In fact, Connery’s mere presence makes Darby O’Gill and the Little People an interesting viewing, especially when contemplating his career in the years which followed. The Disney period of fantasy is certainly an outlier for the actor. A very drastic outlier.
Coming in 1959, Darby O’Gill and the Little People predates Connery’s first appearance as James Bond by roughly three years. He’d been working in the United Kingdom since 1954 in largely supporting roles. 1959 also saw him appearing in Tarzan’s Great Adventure. However, coming out of the Walt Disney Company, Darby O’Gill and the Little People can certainly be argued as his real arrival in Hollywood. Stardom and fame were soon to follow.
Connery’s tenure as James Bond is iconic. The actor hit the ground running in Dr. No and reached his full potential in Goldfinger. As the super-spy, Connery is cunning, violent, and chauvinistic. However, we quickly learn that we love him for it. Charisma is a heck of a quality in the hands of a good actor and he has it in spades. In fact, Connery practically explodes off the screen.
With that, it does require some mental gymnastics to picture the superest of super spies in this early Disney picture. Pussy Galore would mock him mercilessly.
All jesting aside…
As Michael McBride, Connery is of course younger, but he’s still recognizable. In fact, the film was released close enough to Dr. No that the jump between these roles is almost jarring. For much of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Connery feels like James Bond “Disney Prince Edition”. The charisma is there, he’s just so darn… boyish. Truthfully, I never thought Sean Connery could pull off boyish. He even has a music number, kids! Granted, certain sources report it is a dub job, but if it is, it’s very good dub job.
As mentioned though, Connery so recognizable as James Bond when viewing this movie in 2021. For someone like “moi” who knew him first as Ian Fleming’s iconic character, seeing him like this is just… weird. His tenure fronting the franchise completely redefined his star persona. His last (official!) outing as James Bond hit theaters in 1971 and even thirty years later, he was permanently associated with the character.
Connery unfortunately doesn’t have much to do in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. He’s essentially the juvenile male lead and his work with Janet Munro is adorable. However, as the film meanders into its third act, Connery really comes into his own. Throughout the final act, he shows flashes of the Bond he would become. (Which is equally strange in this family film). Connery seems more at home in the action of the conclusion and his charged star persona comes alive. Though, it blows one’s mind to think of this as one of the roles which brought Connery to Albert Broccoli’s attention as he worked on casting James Bond.
I am admittedly finding Darby O’Gill and the Little People a bit of a challenge to write about. Where the film really shone for me was in the use of special effects. This is seen throughout most of the movie in Darby’s interactions with the “Little People”. The sequences employ solid perspective shooting which truly stands out in this era of filmmaking. Never once does it feel cheap or schlocky. In fact, Disney fans will likely tap into a vibrant sense of nostalgia. At the same time, I also found myself sucked into the dark visuals of the third act as Darby does battle with the “Banshee” and the “Death Coach”. Each of these sequences is vibrant, visually interesting, and makes the film feel like a real work of art.
With that being said though, I definitely found Darby O’Gill and the Little People meandering in the script department. As a result, it felt much longer than its hour and thirty-minute runtime. For me, this ties into the use of the characters. Watching the film, I found myself particularly captivated by the dynamic between Connery and Janet Munro. At the same time, this film suffers from an age-old problem… not enough Estelle Winwood . The story drops some delightful moments with the brilliant character actress, but I wanted so much more. Ultimately, the performance which didn’t really catch on with me… Abert Sharpe as Darby O’Gill. This is a problem.
I’m not convinced though that this is a fault of Albert Sharpe (or the film, for that matter). There have been other incidents in Hollywood history where a movie’s reputation has grown synonymous with that of a bit-player “made good”. Just look up Jennifer Aniston and Leprechaun. Sean Connery does not play “Darby O’Gill”, yet he is the one pictured on many of the movie’s posters and covers (like the one above). The marketing wizards behind the curtain, in wanting to pounce on Connery’s stardom, have made this movie his. However, when you watch Darby O’Gill and the Little People, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
It’s fascinating to think about this picture and how it’s changed with the passage of time. Sitting here in 2021, it is virtually impossible to have the same first-time-watch experience as viewers would have in 1959. Dean Connery is not the same actor he was in 1959. While James Bond wouldn’t grace the big screen for another three years, the landmark series has gone on to retroactively affect Darby O’Gill and the Little People… and not in a good way.
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