Mad Men is so well observed that I implicitly trusted its period details almost immediately… Except it did take me a while to accept how often the men would drink hard liquor in the middle of their work day. I understand that back then people often had some whiskey in their offices, and I know that the lunch martini used to be a thing, but being regularly hammered at work is such a foreign concept to me that it was a little hard to swallow how often Don Draper got sloshed before noon without anyone caring. However, now that I've seen Darby O'Gill and the Little People I definitely believe it a little more.
You see, Darby O'Gill is a movie from the late 50s about a caretaker on a farm in Ireland, and he loses his job because he never does any work - he's always down at the pub, telling tall tales about leprechauns instead. The landowner gives him two weeks for him and his unmarried daughter to move out, and in that two week period Darby actually manages to catch the king of the leprechauns. That means that he will be granted any three wishes he wants, and if he uses one of them on a pot of gold, why he won't have to move off the farm!
So what does Darby do with this unexpected boon? He shoves his royal prisoner into a burlap sack, takes him down to the pub and buys him shots of top shelf whiskey. It's bad when your habit is so severe you lose your job - but it's so much worse when you catch a magical creature and all you can think is "man, I should get hammered with this thing!" I can't say with any certainty what I would do if I caught a wish-granting beast, but I can definitively say that I wouldn't treat it like it was a prospective student pledging my frat.
You know how I know that the 1950s had to be full of hardcore boozers? This movie about a near homeless drunk passed as G-rated entertainment in 1959. Whichever Disney executive saw this script and thought "this promotes values kids need to know about!" and whatever censor person approved this movie for kids had to be pickled out of their minds 24/7.
Let's leave aside this film's troubling depiction of alcoholism for a second. Let's also ignore it's cringeworthy depiction of Darby's 20 year old unmarried daughter as a "hopeless spinster". Both of those aspects of the film have aged poorly, but they are also kind of forgiveable because they clearly come from an earlier time. Is there any part of the movie that holds up?
Actually, yes. The relationship between Darby and the leprechaun king references a lot of age old fables, and as such, feels timeless in a way that some of the film's other parts don't. The two of them wage a battle of wits drawn on familiar terms, where the leprechaun king is trying to force Darby to over-reach and Darby is trying to second guess the hidden costs of each wish; it's classic fairy tale stuff. The part of the movie where Darby gets trapped in the leprechaun kingdom is easily the best part of the movie, because much of the movie has a slapdash accidental quality to it, but that section is all about Darby trying to form a logical plan to get back home to his daughter. It might sound odd to say, but when the film leaves provincial Ireland behind to take us into a world of magic, the film stops feeling bizarre and starts to make sense.
I know that I said that I would put aside the alcoholism talk for awhile, but I kind of have to return to it, because there were two big red flags in that last paragraph. The first is that Darby has enough smarts to outwit a 5,000 year old trickster, but he doesn’t have enough smarts to realize that “if I capture a leprechaun I’ll be able to pay the rent” isn’t a strong long-term business strategy? The second is that when Darby returns from his time in the leprechaun kingdom his daughter is nonplussed about his absence, telling a young (and sausage eyebrowed) Sean Connery that her dad probably spent the night sleeping in a field. You have to be pretty far gone if your closest relative is resigned to your habitual use of your potato field as a bed.
Before I watched Darby O’Gill and the Little People I fully expected it to be more wholesome than the more recent Leprechaun movies, which are, after all, horror movies. In actuality, I was far less disturbed by the Leprechaun smoking weed in Leprechaun In the Hood than I was by Darby slamming down shots with the leprechaun king, because the Leprechaun knows he’s being a bad boy while Darby O’Gill is oblivious to his terrible decision making; it thinks his sweet temperament is enough to cover for his half-assed behavior, but in today's addiction-aware world, that seems delusional. Still, I suppose it could be worse: a film about an Irish Don Draper matching wits with a supernatural trickster might not be ideal children's entertainment. but at least this film isn't about an an Irish Walter White trying to take over the leprechaun king's turf by any means necessary.