Francis the Talking Mule
Francis the Talking Mule was a mule character who became a celebrity during the 1950s as the star of seven popular Universal-International film comedies. The character originated in the 1946 novel Francis by former U.S. Army Captain David Stern III (1909–2003), son of newspaper publisher J. David Stern. After another studio turned down the property, Universal bought the rights for a film series, with Stern adapting his own script for the first entry, simply titled Francis.
From the Francis book jacket:
David Stern says: "When I joined the Army in 1943, I had been publishing a couple of newspapers. I told this to the classification interviewer, who dutifully recorded my civilian background on a large card. They say the Army always finds the job to fit the man. I was assigned as assistant on a garbage truck.
"Circumstances led me, via Officer Candidate School, to Hawaii, where I was assigned as Co-Officer-in-Charge of an Army newspaper called MIDPACIFICAN. One night I was sitting looking at a blank, unpainted wall. To pass the time I wrote four pages of dialogue between a second lieutenant and an Army mule. I had no intention of writing more. But that little runt of a mule kept bothering me. With memories of OCS fresh in my mind I thought I might rid myself of the creature by shipping him off to become a second lieutenant. Francis outwitted me. He refused to go".
Under the nom de plume of Peter Stirling, Stern wrote several short stories for Esquire about a nameless, brand-new U. S. Army 2nd lieutenant fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. Following the war, he connected three of the stories, "I Meet Francis", "Francis and the Golden", and "Francis Unmasked" into the 1946 novel Francis.
In 1948 Stern published a sequel, Francis Goes to Washington with the former lieutenant (now named Peter Sterling) running for Congress with the help of Francis. Stern gave up fiction writing to become editor of the New Orleans Item, a newspaper he purchased in 1949 and ran until 1958.
According to his autobiography, Mickey Rooney was originally considered for a United Artists Francis feature film with his company Rooney Inc optioning and then turning down the property  before Universal-International acquired the rights. Rooney took the lead after Donald O'Connor left for the final film in the series Francis in the Haunted House.
The book and film series focused on the exploits of Francis, an experienced Army mule, and Peter Stirling (played by Donald O'Connor), the young soldier whom he befriends (and stays with through civilian life and then back into the military). In the original 1950 film the mule identifies himself to the commanding general as "Francis...123rd Mule Detachment...[serial number] M52519". With a plot device like the later series Mister Ed, Francis would usually only talk to Peter, thus causing problems for his nominal "master". The first six films were directed by Universal comedy veteran Arthur Lubin, previously known for helming Abbott and Costello vehicles, who would go on to produce and direct Mister Ed for television.
As the titles indicated, each film had a different setting or gimmick, exposing the world-wise mule and the naive GI to race track excitement, the world of journalism, and many branches of the military, from West Point to the WACs to the Navy. The basic plots were fairly similar, however. Stirling, with the sage but sardonic advice of Francis (gleaned from overhearing generals plan strategy or from discussions with other equines), would triumph over his own incompetence. However, inevitably, he would be forced to reveal that his adviser was a mule, and be subject to mental analysis (sometimes more than once per film) until the grand reveal, when Francis displayed his talent (usually either to individuals, or to a large group). The astonishing existence of a talking mule, however, was conveniently forgotten by the next film.
- Francis (1950) a.k.a. Francis the Talking Mule
- Francis Goes to the Races (1951)
- Francis Goes to West Point (1952)
- Francis Covers the Big Town (1953)
- Francis Joins the WACS (1954)
- Francis in the Navy (1955)
- Francis in the Haunted House (1956)
Francis Goes to Washington, based on the 1948 novel by Stern, was meant to be the first Francis sequel, but filming was postponed as there were "too many complications" for it "to be made as things stand at the present".
Film series actors
The distinctive voice of Francis was provided by veteran character actor Chill Wills, who lent his deep, rough vocal texture and Western twang to the cynical and sardonic mule. As was customary at the time, Wills never received billing for his vocal work, though he was featured prominently on-screen as blustery General Ben Kaye in the fourth entry, Francis Joins the WACS.
The actual mule who appeared on-screen was not a male at all, but a female named Molly, selected because she was easy to handle. She was purchased from Jake and Jenny Frazier in Drexel, Missouri. According to author Pauline Bartel, Universal paid $350 for the animal, but made millions from the film series. Molly was trained by Les Hilton, a former apprentice of Will Rogers, who would also go on to train Bamboo Harvester, the horse who played Mister Ed. To create the impression that the mule was actually talking, Hilton used a thread fed into the animal's mouth, which when tugged, would cause Molly to try to remove it by moving her lips (the same technique used for Mister Ed).
The seventh and final entry in the series, Francis in the Haunted House, was made without any of the key creative personnel. Leonard Maltin, in most editions of his Movie Guide, says O'Connor quit, quoting the actor, "When you've made six pictures and the mule still gets more fan mail than you do...." Mickey Rooney, who according to his autobiography was originally considered for a United Artists "Francis" movie before Universal bought the rights, replaced O'Connor as a new but similar character, David Prescott. Director Lubin and Chill Wills were also absent, replaced respectively by Charles Lamont and voice actor Paul Frees, who did a close approximation of Wills' voice. The film did not attempt any real explanation as to why Francis had left Peter Stirling. Francis explains that he decided to befriend reporter Prescott because he once lived on a farm owned by Prescott's uncle and wanted to protect his nephew out of respect for the deceased. With the original elements gone, the film became a standard tale of fake ghosts and gangsters, was poorly received, and is widely viewed as the weakest entry in the series.
Francis also made a brief cameo, in animated form and voiced by Marvin Miller, in the UPA cartoon short How Now Boing Boing (1954), starring Gerald McBoing Boing. David Stern and Frank Thomas scripted a 1952-53 syndicated comic strip, Francis, the Famous Talking Mule, illustrated by Cliff Rogerson, who also drew the gag panel, Tee Vee Laffs (1957–85). 17 issues of "Francis the Famous Talking Mule" were published as part of Dell`s "Four Color Comics" series from 1951–60, illustrated by, alternately, David Gantz and Don Gunn. Francis is said to have provided the inspiration for the title of rock band The Mars Volta's second album, Frances the Mute. Many years later, offbeat director John Waters joked about making a film starring Francis and Divine.
The original film, Francis (1950) was released in 1978 as one of the first-ever titles in the new LaserDisc format, DiscoVision Catalog #22-003. It was later re-issued in May 1994 on LaserDisc by MCA/Universal Home Video (Catalog #: 42024) as part of an Encore Edition Double Feature with Francis Goes to the Races (1951).
The first two Francis films were released again in 2004 by Universal Pictures on Region 1 and Region 4 DVD, along with the next two in the series, as The Adventures of Francis the Talking Mule Vol. 1. Several years later, Universal released all 7 Francis films as a set on three Region 1 and Region 4 DVDs, Francis The Talking Mule: The Complete Collection.
- Farrar, Straus And Co.; 1st edition (1946)
- Erickson, Hal (2012). Military Comedy Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography of Hollywood Releases Since 1918. McFarland. pp. 119–120.
- p.199 Lertzman, Richard A. & Birnes, William J. The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney Simon and Schuster, 20 Oct 2015
- "Looking At Hollywood: Bette Davis in Joyous Mood Over Work on New Picture" Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 13 Mar 1950: b14.
- Drama: Hugh Marlowe Romantic Rival of Milland; Wald, Krasna to Seek Talent Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 29 May 1951: A7.
- Bartel, Pauline. Amazing Animal Actors. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1997. 0878339744