Sean Connery turns 90 today. Though we haven’t seen him on the big screen in 17 years, since “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” he’s popped up here and there since: cheering on Andy Murray at tennis championships and lending his voice in support of Scotland’s independence push in 2014.
Connery was never the kind of actor to chase past successes; his multiple attempts at leaving the James Bond franchise prove that. So even if there’s a twinge of sadness he hasn’t graced the screen in so very long, there is at least comfort to be found in a career of continual quality. How many other actors can you say made good movies in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s? No, we’re not counting “Extraordinary Gentlemen” for the 2000s; that would be Gus Van Sant’s inward-looking “Finding Forrester,” which many of us prefer to think of as Connery’s swan song.
What’s the ‘50s film, you ask? You can watch it right now on Disney+. It’s a strange fantasy adventure called “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a deep immersion in Irish folklore and culture directed by future “Mary Poppins” helmer Robert Stevenson. Connery doesn’t have a lot to do, but at 28-years-old his starpower is undeniable. In fact, it’s hard to think of another more handsome guy in any Disney live action movie after this for who knows how long. Sex appeal has typically not been a requirement for Disney stardom. When Connery made this movie, he was under contract to 20th Century Fox, which lent him out to Disney as a one-off. It was a hit, a genuine special effects extravaganza, and for many Americans the first they had ever seen the future 007.
Connery’s early days are almost mythical. There’s a story often told about his impoverished 20s that says he was so poor he couldn’t pay to have heat in his Edinburgh flat, but so good looking it didn’t matter since he brought a different woman home each night to keep warm. That certainly has the whiff of a tall tale about it. What we do know is that he came from as working-class poor a background as anyone destined for global moviestardom ever: his mother was a cleaning woman, his father a factory worker and truck driver.
Connery himself joined the Royal Navy at 16 before being drummed out at 19 on account of a duodenal ulcer. Various odd jobs followed: mail carrier, milkman, even coffin polisher (yes, apparently a real job). In his early 20s he got into bodybuilding and placed third in the 1953 Mr. Universe competition. At that event he learned that the touring U.K. production of “South Pacific” was looking for actors in its chorus; he landed a gig as a singing Seabee, and then got promoted to one of the more prominent roles. A flurry of small parts in film and TV followed.
The most important of these early roles had to be the MGM adventure film “Action of the Tiger,” directed by Terence Young, the filmmaker behind the first three James Bond movies and on whom Connery clearly made an impression. (This was a guy so good-looking, it didn’t even matter that by the time he first donned Bond’s tux at 32 he was already wearing a hairpiece.)
And then “Another Time, Another Place” for Paramount, in which Connery had a supporting role opposite Lana Turner. The actress’s gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato became hysterically jealous of this handsome Scot, and when he started causing problems on the London set, Turner called Scotland Yard and tried to have Stompanato deported. Instead, the gangster showed up on set pointing a gun at Connery, which didn’t seem to dissuade the 27-year-old actor at all. He charged Stompanato, grabbed the gun out of his hand, and twisted his wrist. The police indeed then forced the thug to board a plane back to America.
It was around this time Walt Disney began casting in London for “Darby O’Gill.” He had wanted to make a movie about Celtic mythology since the ’40s when he had a treatment for a never-realized live-action/animation hybrid called “Three Wishes.” Disney never wore his Irish heritage as conspicuously as some. His father, Elias, born in Ontario, was himself the son of Irish immigrants to Canada.
Perhaps it’s because he and his father had such a fraught relationship — Elias was a socialist and ardent supporter of Eugene V. Debs, while his son was anything but, opposed even to his studio becoming a union shop in the early ‘40s — that he didn’t feel tremendous connection to his Irish heritage. But the magic and folklore and mythology… all that he connected to. And before that casting session in early 1958 in which he chose Connery as the romantic lead for young Janet Munro, he spent three months in Ireland researching Celtic legend.
“Darby O’Gill” is the kind of movie that would never be made today because it’s really just an endlessly talky showdown between 73-year-old Albert Sharpe as the title character and 59-year-old Jimmy O’Dea as King Brian, leader of the leprechauns. This is a dense script, lively on wit and wordplay, with key moments of special effects wizardry befitting a tale of folkloric magic. Darby once met King Brian years before and got him to grant him three wishes: a crock of gold was one, of course. But then he made the mistake of making a fourth wish, which you simply never do when making requests of a leprechaun. A fourth wish will negate the previous three. Now Darby’s caught King Brian again, putting him in a sack over his back until he can think of the three best wishes to wish this time. Connery is the young gamekeeper who’s just taken over Darby’s job — against his will — but is romancing the old man’s daughter. It meant something to Connery too since his paternal grandfather’s parents had in fact emigrated to Scotland from Ireland in the mid 1800s.
If this plot sounds a bit like “Aladdin,” released 33 years later, you’re not wrong. It’s the same bit of Disney-style exploitation of a unique culture in service of atmosphere. And it features a similar resolution: only when Darby realizes he should use his relationship to magic in a way that benefits others does he win the day. Because evil forces are indeed afoot: there’s a banshee in the area (honestly not looking much less sophisticated than the Nazgul in “Lord of the Rings” 42 years later) and Death’s Coachman insists upon taking a passenger. The most impressive effects, however, are with the leprechauns. Using the same forced-perspective tricks Peter Jackson used for his hobbits, Jimmy O’Dea, always filmed in full-length long shot, all the better to surround him with overly large set objects to make him lake small, appears like a wee sprite indeed.
It’s not surprising that The New York Times’ A.H. Weiler wrote off Connery’s performance here as him being “merely tall, dark, and handsome.” It’s not his movie, even if he makes a striking impression. How interesting it would be if a movie with a septuagenarian lead getting drunk and trading clever limericks with a leprechaun made bank at the box-office for Disney today. But Connery does have one unique moment where he actually sings to his lady love Munro. It’s a song called “Pretty Irish Girl.” There’s some question about whether or not he’s actually dubbed here. Give it a listen. It certainly sounds like him, especially given its questionable competence.
Within three years Connery would become an international icon of generic Britishness as Bond. But Disney helped put his name in lights by letting him explore his Celtic heritage onscreen a bit first.
Click to the next page for the archive of new releases to Disney+ from previous months.
More from IndieWire
- How Can You Watch Disney's 'Mulan' September 4? It's a Two-Step Process
- 'The Vanished' Leads New VOD Releases, but the Top 10 Charts Agreed on Little Else
Best of IndieWire
- NYFF 2020 Adds New Films from Sofia Coppola, Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, and More
- The 20 Highest Grossing Indies of 2020 (A Running List)
- New Movies: Release Calendar for August 21, Plus Where to Watch the Latest Films