Here are some Facts About Mules:
- Mules have greater endurance than horses.
- Their acute sense of self-preservation is often mistaken for stubbornness.
- They’re very smart.
Why are we learning about mules today? Because we just screened the legendary comedy Francis the Talking Mule (1950).
We’re not sure why this film is legendary, because Francis the Talking Mule is, frankly, an unspectacular movie. However, it helps to keep the above Mule Facts in mind, especially the part about mules being very smart.
In Francis the Talking Mule, Donald O’Connor plays a WWII American army lieutenant fighting in the jungles of Burma. When he becomes separated from his platoon, O’Connor stumbles upon a mule who can talk. Not only that, this mule is Grade-A Army Issue, with an encyclopedic knowledge of army regulations and an ability to forecast enemy attacks.
It’s a fortuitous meeting because O’Connor’s character is no rocket scientist and needs a pal like Francis.
However, Francis (voiced by Chill Wills) is a prickly character. He never misses an opportunity to insult O’Connor and, even though he insists on mentoring the young man, he always seems annoyed to do so.
Here’s the biggest problem: Francis has the exasperating habit of talking only to O’Connor and refuses to speak to anyone else. Naturally, this leads everyone to conclude O’Connor is crazy.
However, that is not to say the film is entirely without merit. O’Connor is credible as the hapless lieutenant fumbling his way through a bewildering situation. He makes us believe he’s actually talking to a mule, and he does a good job of acting when he needs to.
For example, when Francis predicts the base will be attacked by Japanese bombers, O’Connor alerts his superior officer and the base scrambles into Defence Mode…then waits. The men scan the empty skies while O’Connor continually glances at his watch. He has us believing he simultaneously wants – and doesn’t want – the Japanese bombers to attack.
However, it’s a relief when this movie is over, the same kind of relief you feel at the end of a dental appointment.
That’s why we’re astounded that Universal Studios went on to make six more Francis movies.
Yes, you read that right: six more Francis movies between 1951-1956, with another in production that was never released.
But we suppose a person can’t be that surprised. Universal Studios is responsible for some of the most iconic characters in American cinema, such as the square-headed Frankenstein and the sartorially superior Dracula.
So, if anyone was going to make a go of a talking mule, it would be Universal. Their Francis films also gave CBS the idea for a successful television series about a talking horse (Mister Ed) that ran from 1958-66.
Francis the Talking Mule is based on the 1946 novel by David Stern, who also wrote the screenplay. Stern first developed the idea of a talking mule during WWII, which proves the army was working him too hard.
We can’t wholeheartedly recommend this movie, but we also don’t want to discourage you. After all, it has a 67% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes, and is generally regarded as an enjoyable family film.
Francis the Talking Mule: starring Donald O’Connor, Patricia Medina, Zasu Pitts. Directed by Arthur Lubin. Written by David Stern. Universal International Pictures, 1950, B&W, 91 mins.
This post is part of the Animals in Film Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click HERE to see all the fab entries.