Sunday, April 13, 2008

Francis the Mule

When I was a kid there were few things that I enjoyed more than a lazy Sunday afternoon, indoors out of the summer heat, enjoying a movie matinee and an occasional National Geographic documentary. Ma & Pa Kettle, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin and one-off gems such as Mad Monster Party, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Forbidden Planet, Elvis movies, and It’s a Mad, Mad World, were all among my favourites.

However, by far the most enjoyable treat among the delights that I was exposed to, was Francis the Talking Mule.

Francis was the brainchild of David Stern III, a writer and newspaper publisher who adapted his own novel about a talking US Army mule for the screen when Universal Studios purchased the development rights in 1949.

Francis appeared in six films, voiced by veteran actor Chill Wills and co-starring Donald O’Connor as Peter Sterling, the young army solider whom Francis befriends. Starting with the 1950 production Francis, the series follows the pairs adventures through various branches of the US military and entanglements, all the result of the fact that Francis would only speak to Peter; thus when Peter would confess to others of his conversations with a talking mule, he would on each occasion be sent off to the psyche ward to develop his basket weaving skills.

An original concept, and an enjoyable one at that, Francis has been copied a number of times, no more notably and shamelessly than in the television series Mr. Ed, which featured the adventures of a somewhat irritating talking horse with a voice that would grate the barnacles from even the most ancient of hulls. Perhaps the best adaptation of the concept, taking the idea to another level, was the 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon One Froggy Evening, featuring the famous singing Michigan J. Frog.

During the run of 6 films, O’Connor suggested that he was uncomfortable with his role, despite top billing, as the mule always did receive more fan mail than he did. For whatever reason, O’Connor and Wills chose not to continue into a seventh film, despite the franchise’s continued success.

A seventh and final Francis feature, Francis in the Haunted House, was produced and starred Mickey Rooney and featured the voice of Paul Frees as Francis. The change was not well received, bringing an end to Francis in film. He would continue in popularity only in comic books and today is enjoyed by new generations only in re-runs and the home movie market.

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