Some 45 million Americans identify themselves as Irish — odd, considering that only six million people live on the whole of Erin’s Isle — but it may help explain why so many classic movies have an Irish focus.
These days, an awful lot of those movies seem obsessed with the dark side of Ireland, its history of famine and religious strife. But faith and begorrah, it’s St. Paddy’s Day, time to celebrate the beauty of the land and the resilient, sometimes quirky nature of its people.
So pull up a TV tray, dish up that corned beef and cabbage, and enjoy any one (or all) of these Solid Green screen classics.
The Quiet Man (1950) John Wayne and John Ford were seemingly most at home on the range, à la Stagecoach and Fort Apache. But Ford had bought the rights to this story for $10 in the 1930s, and the two journeyed all the way to Ireland to make the most of their screen adaptation. Wayne plays a retired American boxer and expatriate who falls in love with Maureen O’Hara — and who wouldn’t? But before they can wed, he has to convince her ne’er-do-well brother (Victor McLaglen) to surrender the required dowry. The real star here is County Mayo — rolling green hills, stone walls and sod roofs in all their Technicolor glory.
Waking Ned Devine (1998) This is one of those small-town comedies the Brits and Irish seem so adept at turning out, peopled with oddball characters drawn together by extreme coincidences. The residents of a small Irish coastal town on the Isle of Man conspire to pretend the winner of the National Lottery — who died of shock upon learning his good fortune — is still alive, so they can collect and split the proceeds. That rascally quality of Irish legend is on delightful display here, and good luck to you in distinguishing wiry David Kelly from an actual leprechaun — particularly in the scene where he rides a motor scooter, stark naked, across the island.
In America (2003) Director Jim Sheridan’s most noted films— My Left Foot and The Name of the Father — were filmed in Ireland. But this warmhearted family drama, based on Sheridan’s own days as a struggling young writer raising his family, is set in New York City. Big Apple backdrop aside, the language of In America rings with Irish lilt, and there’s something unmistakably Gaelic about the family bonds among the parents (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) and their daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger).
Going My Way (1944) In the 1940s Hollywood developed something of an Irish fetish — especially when it came to Bing Crosby, who won an Oscar as salt-of-the-earth Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way (directed by Irishman Leo McCarey and costarring, as the befuddled senior priest, Barry Fitzgerald). Der Bingle put on the Roman collar once more in a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (with Ingrid Bergman as a fetching Sister Benedict), but it was in the first that he cast the mold of the perfect Irish priest: compassionate, world-wise and well-sung, the better to serenade his mentor with “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra.”
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Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) Nearly lost in the Walt Disney canon is this thoroughly charming tall tale of leprechauns, banshees and Pookahs. Darby is a caretaker who has one adventure after another with Ireland’s “little people,” and the breadth of folklore touched upon reflects Disney’s collaboration with the country’s Irish Folklore Commission. The special effects are awesome, and as a bonus you get to see and hear a young Sean Connery sing!
Finian’s Rainbow (1968) Fred Astaire is a roguish leprechaun of a guy in his last musical. Finian arrives in the U.S. toting a pot of gold — which, he believes, will multiply if only he can bury it in the shadow of Fort Knox. Pursuing him is a real-life leprechaun, played by Tommy Steele, who wants his pot back. (Hats off to the filmmakers, there’s not a stoner joke in sight.) Petula Clark is his daughter, the songs are by “Yip” Harbug and the 69-year-old Fred dances the hell out of “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.”
Ryan’s Daughter (1970) Director David Lean had already taken moviegoers across the sands of the Sahara ( Lawrence of Arabia), through the jungles of Asia ( Bridge on the River Kwai) and into the frozen expanse of czarist Russia ( Doctor Zhivago). In Ryan’s Daughter, he captured the power of the Irish landscape as no one ever had. There are memorable performances to spare in this story of a man (Robert Mitchum), his young wife (Sarah Miles) and the battle fatigue-stricken solder she falls in love with (Christopher Jones). But it’s the windy, stormy, rock-strewn Irish coast that is the film’s most indelible character.
Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) One of Gene Wilder’s most endearing — and overlooked parts — was as a young Dubliner who shuns upward mobility in favor of collecting horse dung and selling it for fertilizer. Margot Kidder is adorable as the visiting American who just might inspire him to aspire to something more. Dublin has never looked more inviting, and Wilder adopts an Irish brogue that’s downright melodic.
Da (1988) The screen version of Hugh Leonard’s hit Broadway play — about a New York playwright who goes to Ireland to bury his father — stays a bit stagey. But Martin Sheen and Barnard Hughes are irresistible as the bickering/loving father and son. Da is very much alive — in his son’s mind, at any rate — and the pair’s conversations sparkle in what amounts to a feature-length dialogue. Together they make enchanting company, and the Ireland locations are as homey as a hearth.
Once (2006) The film’s Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly,” became a radio standard. But you may have missed the movie itself, the story of a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) and the Czech woman (Markéta Irglova) who helps him write the best songs of his life. At its gritty heart, Once is a celebration of the music that seems to spring from every glen, bally and street corner of Old Eire. Erin go Bragh!
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