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The Arts
03.11.09

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Phaedra

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: Warwick Davis is cinema's go-to leprechaun.

The Wrath Of 'Chauns

Leprechauns in the movies and TV: Say hello to our little friends

By Richard von Busack


SINCE MY great-gran was a Fallon from County Cork, I'm in a unique position to point out the perils of Ireland. The manifold dangers go beyond the usual threats to the liver and the kneecaps. There are scary priests and scarier nuns. There are fogs, bogs and tainted spuds. There are maulings by savage Celtic tigers. (One chomped the hell out of my 401k, and I hadn't been teasing it or anything.)

Top on the list: those little green terrorists that have to be bought off with nightly bowls of milk. The idea of mystical itty-bitties is of Jungian universality, a belief held by everyone from the Cherokees to the Polynesians. Yet surely the leprechaun (Homo Runtus Hibernius) is the most feared on the globe.

Film and TV is full of evidence of the fear-inducing little chimeras. Among the most dismaying: Tommy Steele as Og the Leprechaun in the 1968 flop Finian's Rainbow. This film might have brought the terror of leprechaunism right to our nearby Napa Valley. Fortunately, Fred Astaire (doomed to the title role) had preferred not to risk his ankles dancing in Francis Ford Coppola's fields. This particular flop is remembered in John Candy's commercial for "Finian's Rainbow Bologna" for SCTV, which changes from a promo for greasy, shiny lunchmeat into a home invasion.

Even more dismaying: six crappy opuses in the Leprechaun series. The 1993 original film featured a sawed-off terror who later became too big to stop: Jennifer Aniston. Warwick Davis of Willow made these programmers a teeny annuity, holding his own against threats like "Burn in hell, you little green bastard!" The modern Twilight Zone of the mid-1980s staged "The Leprechaun Artist," in which an Irish prankster gives X-ray vision to a boy who wishes to see through girls' clothes. The 'chaun stole this curse from the Roger Corman movie X: Man With the X-ray Eyes.

More fondly remembered: the episode "Hoss and the Leprechauns" (Bonanza, 1963). Combining frontier humor with a soggy message of brotherhood, this episode has that bear of little brain Hoss Cartwright (Dan Blocker) discovering a quintet of 'chauns burying a strongbox of gelt.

Reports of leprechauns on the Ponderosa are discounted by the more level-headed Cartwrights. A fishy if full-size Irishman turns up in Virginia City. McCarthy he is called, and with diamond horseshoe stickpin, cane and derby, he's the image of Joyce's Blazes Boylan. His blarney ("They're a darlin' bunch of little rascals") begins a massive leprechaun hunt. They are a threat to be reckoned with, since they jump on each other's shoulders to cold-cock intruders with their makeshift shillelaghs. Unfortunately, there's a reasonable explanation for all of this—as well as a lesson to be learned at not laughing at people just because they're tiny and have high little voices. "Their money is the same size as anyone else's," says Hoss. Sometimes the shark-jumping TV episodes are the best, aren't they?

Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) is justly regarded as the Citizen Kane of leprechaun movies. Though once it was picketed for gross stage Irishisms by Cyril Cusack himself, it has stood up to a half-century very nicely. Director Jim Sheridan is introducing it this very St. Paddy's Day at the Irish Film Archive in Dublin.

This vintage family film is bound to warm the hearts of children and drunks alike. The typically sturdy direction is by Disney workhorse Robert Stevenson. The romantic lead is a raw young Sean Connery, who acquits himself nicely on a song called "My Darling Irish Girl."

Photographer Winton Hoch also did the cinematography on The Quiet Man, so Ireland (actually California) rarely looked more verdant. The times demand a hero, and twinkling Albert Sharpe is the one: Darby the Leprechaun Fighter, always on the trail of the "murthering little heathens." Posing as an aged pub-yammerer, the old man is secretly a mastermind capable of matching wits with the King Caun, Brian (Jimmy O'Dea): "5,000 years old, and he's learned a new trick every year." Such is the adversary that awaits us this March 17, and unfortunately not just in the movies: cunning, ancient and knee-high to a grasshopper.

 

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