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Francis the Talking Mule

Francis the Talking Mule

Long before Mr. Ed (see entry under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4), the talking horse who ruled America's TV screens, another talking animal won over audiences with his sassy comebacks and helpful demeanor. Francis the Talking Mule, usually voiced by actor Chill Wills (1902–1978), helped his bumbling sidekick Donald O'Connor (1925–) out of humorous situations in a popular series of movie comedies in the 1940s and 1950s.

The last forty years of the twentieth century saw an increase in the number of "talking animal" movies and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) shows, from the talkative horse Mr. Ed, who ruled the stable on CBS in the 1960s, to Babe, the chatty pig who starred in his own Oscar-nominated film in 1995. Comedian Eddie Murphy (1961–) dealt with a whole host of talking animals in his Dr. Dolittle movies. However, none of this form of entertainment would have been possible without the trail blazed by Francis, the first live-action talking animal in Hollywood (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2). Critics dismissed the comedies as silly, but audiences responded—and a new comedy genre (category) was born.

All told, Francis made seven features for Universal Studios between 1949 and 1956. In Francis (1949), his screen debut, the chattering mule rescues a soldier (O'Connor) on a secret mission in Burma (the country now known as Myanmar) during World War II (1939–45). The second feature, Francis Goes to the Races (1951), involved him in shenanigans at a horse track. Francis Goes to West Point (1952) was a collegiate comedy with an exciting climax set at the annual Army-Navy football game. Francis Covers the Big Town (1953) depicted O'Connor as a newspaperman saved from a murder charge by a heroic Francis. Francis Joins the WACs (1954) had O'Connor rejoin the military, with the babbling burro in tow. The next year's Francis in the Navy was O'Connor's last film in the series, a seafaring romp that also featured a young Clint Eastwood (1930–). The final film in the Francis series was 1956's Francis in the Haunted House. Mickey Rooney (1920–) took over for O'Connor in the sidekick role, while Paul Frees (1920–1986) assumed the voice of Francis. The horror comedy had Francis frustrating some art forgers.

So how did Francis "talk"? Years later, it was revealed that technicians actually pulled threads attached to the animal's mouth to make his lips move. The voice-over was later synchronized (perfectly timed) to Francis' lip movements. It was a simple trick, but the illusion it created kept audiences roaring with laughter for the better part of a decade.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

For More Information

Brode, Douglas. Films of the Fifties. New York: Carol Publishing, 1979.

Edelson, Edward. Great Animals of the Movies. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.

Rothel, David. Great Show Business Animals. San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1980.

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