Comedy

Francis the Smart-Alec Mule

Francis (centre) mentors and belittles Donald O'Connor (left). Image: ldkjf
Francis (centre) belittles Donald O’Connor (left). Image: The Show

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.

lkdsjf askdlfj slkdjf askdljf skdfj Image: lksdjf
Don’t let Francis’ gentle demeanour fool you. Image: Universal 100th

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.

There is some wonderful casting, too. The ultra fab Zasu Pitts co-stars as a nurse in the mental health unit and, if you look closely, you’ll see a young Tony Curtis.

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.

Zasu Pitts (right) alsdkfj dskfj Image: eviltwinltd.com
Zasu Pitts thinks O’Connor has lost his marbles. Image: eviltwinltd.com

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.

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45 thoughts on “Francis the Smart-Alec Mule

  1. I have a great fondness for the first “Francis” movie in the franchise. It was the first movie to alert the younger me that John McIntire and Ray Collins could be funny. Although, the movie doesn’t really capture the insanity of the novel (a library discard discovery) to be very funny indeed. It is the type of book that had me laughing out loud on the subway, a feat usually reserved for P.G. Wodehoue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right about John Mcintyre and Ray Collins proving they could be funny. I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

      A lot of people adore the Francis movies. Universal definitely created another memorable character with this crazy mule.

      Like

  2. I watched this a ton as a child (and a random assortment of the other six), though it has now been many, many years since I’ve seen it. I am wondering now what I would think if I saw it again. I suspect the nostalgia factor would still be pretty high, though.

    You know, it took me years to be able to see Chill Wills in person and not imagine a mule.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, whenever I hear Chill Wills’ voice, I think of Francis. Perhaps not the most flattering typecasting…?

      I can see how these films would be a permanent fixture in a person’s heart if they were seen as a child. However, I had very high expectations going in, and you know how that goes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great stuff. I’ve seen a few of the Francis movies, despite attempts to avoid them like the plague.

    Apparently there was going to be a Francis film noir. but they had difficulty casting the farm fatale . . .

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I haven’t seen this one in years and years but don’t remember aching to give it a second viewing even as a kid. Thanks for reminding me? Anyway, I enjoy pans as much as kudos and your review made me smile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a real weakness for the Kettle films, mostly because of Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. The film you mentioned, Francis Joins the WACS, is not one I’ve seen but I may check it out one day. Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

      Like

  5. I enjoyed the post very much—good job! I had never seen a “Francis” film until after reading your post! I used a promotional credit on Amazon to see the film. I think this is one of the first reviews I read that didn’t necessarily recommend the film but still lured me to see it. I guess I just want to see every classic film ever made, and am always embarrassed by some of the obvious ones that I have missed after all these years.

    I, too, found it mediocre. It seems to be one of those films for the kids’ matinee—innocuous enough to keep kids interested in seeing the adventures of a talking mule over a series of years.

    One of the other comments in your blog mentioned the Ma and Pa Kettle films as being a childhood favorite. Interestingly, Universal bought the novel that introduced them in 1945, “The Egg and I”, made a hit movie where the Kettles were a big hit, and then launched the Ma and Pa Kettle series of 9 films.

    Somehow I was a sucker for the Abbott and Costello Universal series which were shown every Sunday morning when I was a kid in Pittsburgh, and when Ma and Pa Kettle came on after them, I naively turned them off ! I think I avoided it because my grandmother loved all the country-bumpkin type of tv shows (“Green Acres”, “Beverly Hillbillies”, “Petticoat Junction”, etc.), and I didn’t give the Kettles a chance.

    I understand now that I should give it a try because I have friends who say Percy Kilbride is great in this, and I have always appreciated Marjorie Main as a supporting actress in films like “Dead End”, so I’m sure I’ll like her in this.

    Thanks for adding another film to my repertoire, and making me stretch my classic movie horizons. I’ll be looking forward to your next post! 😀

    Like

    1. I have a weakness for the Kettles because I was first introduced to them in the book “The Egg and I”. I thought they were the best characters in the book, and I loved that filmmakers cast Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride in the roles.

      As for Francis, he is a beloved film character and the idea is intriguing. It’s just too bad that Francis has such an unlikeable personality (in my opinion).

      Thanks for dropping by!

      Like

  6. “Their acute sense of self-preservation is often mistaken for stubbornness.” This is kind of true for me too, but I’m not sure that solidarity with mules is enough to put this very high on the to-watch list 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I seen “Francis The Talking Mule” years ago, but this post makes me want to see it again. Thanks for the great article on it, and thanks for participating in the blogathon.

    The idea was proposed to me the other day after I vowed not to announce anymore blogathons until after August. Anyway I couldn’t resist, so I’ve announced it. I would love to invite you to join in. Here is the link below.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/announcing-the-joan-crawford-blogathon/

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This film came from a novel? A novel about a talking mule that generated six movies? Geez…
    Well, you don’t disencouraged me, but I’m now in doubt about if I’ll spend my time with this.. Maybe in respect to poor Donald O’Connor. I can’t imagine having to play a supporting character to a mule…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I thought the FRANCIS movies improved as the series progressed (well, except for the last dreadful one with Mickey Rooney replacing Donald O’Connor). FRANCIS GOES TO THE RACES may be my fave, with Francis revealing that the race horses decide among themselves who will win prior to the start of the race.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve never heard of these movies. Doesn’t sound like I need to be too sad about it, though! 🙂 I can see how people would like it if they saw it in their childhood, however. It can be the worst movie ever, and sometimes if you have seen it when you were a kid, all is forgiven. I enjoyed your post, Ruth! Thanks for the heads up.

    Liked by 1 person

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