For National Mule Day: Your Veterinary Guide to Francis, the Talking Mule

It’s National Mule Day (which falls annually on Tennessee Day — coincidence? I think not). My dad grew up on a Tennessee farm surrounded by mules, so I get to make that joke. At any rate, having already done posts on the vaudeville act Fink’s Mules, and on the hillbilly song “Muleskinner Blues”, today an overdue look at a cinematic franchise I have had occasion to mention on this blog a dozen times, the Francis the Talking Mule series.

I love to read things like “based on a novel by David Stern”. Francis the Talking Mule comes from a NOVEL — like Don Quixote, like Tom Jones, and Ishmael and Gatsby. The novel grew out of some short humor pieces that the army captain/author had published in magazines during World War II. Army mules were a THING of course, mostly during the 19th century, so by WWII the concept of an army mule was really a sort of intrinsic joke. A sentient mule that SPOKE, that was giving the thing a new twist. Six of the seven films were directed by Arthur Lubin for Universal, the director and the studio of Abbott and Costello it should surprise no one to learn. Lubin made many other contributions over the years, not the least of which was lifting the concept of Francis for the TV sitcom Mr. Ed. As with Universal’s Ma and Pa Kettle series, this was surefire stuff with rural audiences. The Francis series ran from 1950 to 1956, making it one of the latest of Hollywood comedy series, TV taking over where the cinematic concept had left off. The films are:

Francis (1950)

I love the enigmatically modest claim on this poster. What happened five years ago? Only five years? What’s wrong with “ever” like all the other promoters put on their posters? Anyway, I’m sure you know that Donald O’Connor starred through most of the series — this and Singing in the Rain are what he is best known for. Western star Chill Wills was the original voice of Francis. In the original film, told in flashback, O’Connor’s character is a G.I. who gets stuck behind enemy lines and rescued by Francis. When he tries to tell that to his superiors, he is treated like a lunatic, a common joke throughout the series. Also in the first film are Zasu Pitts, Ray Collins, and a young Tony Curtis.

Francis Goes to the Races (1951)

The first Francis sequel is the obligatory racetrack comedy. None other than Piper Laurie was the love interest, with Cecil Kellaway and Jesse White also in the cast.

Francis Goes to West Point (1952)

A return to military themes. This one features David Janssen in a small role. O’Connor’s co-star Lori Nelson, as it happens, was a great grandniece of General Pershing. She was also in several of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies.

Francis Covers the Big Town (1953)

O’Connor’s character gets a job as a reporter at a big city newspaper. A little harder to integrate a mule into the plot of this one, but some consider it the best in the series. Gene Lockhart is in the cast.

Francis Joins the WACS (1954)

The series wisely returned to military settings for this and the following film. Here, the inevitable WACS (women’s army corps) variation, with a number of recognizable females including Zasu Pitts (returning in her previous character) as well as Julie Adams from Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) in addition to Mamie Van Doren, Lynn Bari, Joan Shawlee, and Allison Hayes. Va va voom! Can I get a “hee haw”?!

Francis Joins the Navy (1955)

Francis jumps ship in this one, in the next logical development in the series. After all, it’s just what Abbott and Costello, the Bowery Boys and Martin and Lewis had done following their army time. If the series had continued as before, an air force comedy would no doubt have followed, but director Lubin, and stars O’Connor and Wills had gotten tired of it by this point, and moved on. But there were some welcome developments to make this one fresh: Jim Backus plays the commanding officer, Clint Eastwood is present in his first movie role, David Janssen returns (in another character) and it’s also got a young Martin Milner as well as Martha Hyer as the love interest. But as it turns out, it wasn’t quite the end….

Francis in the Haunted House (1956)

With Halloween less than a week away we are delighted to end on the obligatory spook comedy. O’Connor was fed up with the Francis movies, but as is fairly well established Mickey Rooney would show up to star in the home movies of your grandmother’s funeral. He’s here, and the not-very-rural sounding Paul Frees supplies the voice of Francis. It’s one of those “crooks and murderers make people think their hideout is haunted” comedies; Rooney’s character is once again a reporter. David Janssen returns for his THIRD thankess Francis comedy and there’s also the wonderful Richard Deacon and the always psychotic Timothy Carey. The film did not exactly light up the world, so Universal ended the series after this.

INterestingly Stern had written a novel called Francis Goes to Washington that was initially to have been the first sequel, but it was never made. My guess would be that it was considered unacceptably satirical. This was, after all, the McCarthy era. But I dunno — seems like Francis Turns Commie is basically Animal Farm.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.