Francis the Talking Mule
Only in Hollywood could a smart-talking mule save the life of a dim-witted soldier and become a star. Francis was so hugely successful upon its release in 1950 – filmed for $150,000 and making $3 million – that Universal eventually made a total of seven Francis movies.
The movies were based on the 1946 collection of short stories, “Francis” by David Stern. Stern, longtime publisher of The New Orleans Item, became a captain in the Army during World War II and wrote the Francis tales as a satire of his experiences with the Army brass. When Universal Studios bought the rights to the book for $300, Stern wrote the film adaptation.
For a simple mule, Francis certainly got around – to the jungles of Burma [Francis (1950)], the Santa Anita race track [Francis Goes to the Races (1951)], West Point [Francis Goes to West Point (1952)], and New York City [Francis Covers the Big Town (1953)]. He also joined the WACs [Francis Joins the WACS (1954)], the Navy [Francis in the Navy (1955)] and solved a murder mystery [Francis in the Haunted House (1956)]. In 1952 Francis even made an appearance on the popular game show What’s My Line? The Francis series, along with the hillbilly antics of Ma and Pa Kettle, helped to keep the financially struggling Universal-International studio afloat.
Universal knew they had a good thing going, and with the first film so popular, the studio saw no reason to innovate with subsequent releases. All the Francis films are based on the same premise: Francis, a mule from the Army’s 123rd Mule Detachment (serial number M52519), will speak only to one person – in the first six movies, a young solider named Peter Stirling; in the seventh, nephew of his former owner, David Prescott.
This shared secret is the cause of many hijinks and shenanigans wrapped around some serious business (spies, combat maneuvers, murder…) with Francis refusing to give himself away – until it becomes incredibly funny for him to reveal his true intellectual capacity. But the fact that Francis can talk is conveniently forgotten by the next movie, so the mischief begins again.
While the plot points derived from Francis’ on-screen secret are predictable, there are some behind the scenes facts that a classic movie fan will find worth uncovering.
Perhaps Francis’ biggest secret? He was a she. The role of Francis was played by Molly, a mule rumored to have had an uncredited part in one of the Ma and Pa Kettle films also popular at Universal. The choice of a female mule seems fairly straightforward: a female was considered easier to handle by trainers. But Mamie Van Doren, blonde bombshell and then-contract player at Universal, recalls a slightly different reason for the star’s gender: “Of course, Francis was really a female because the censors would not allow a mule’s c**k on screen, effectively upstaging everyone.”
The trainer for Molly was Les Hilton, a respected horse trainer in Hollywood who had been an apprentice to Will Rogers. In addition to Molly, Hilton trained horses for the 1955-56 TV series My Friend Flicka as well as a horse named Bamboo Harvester that would go on to great fame – as Mister Ed.
To make Molly “talk,” Hilton used a thread pulled through Molly’s mouth. By giving it a gentle tug, the mule would swing her head and move her lips in an attempt to dislodge it. (If you watch the films closely, you can occasionally see the thread!)
Paramount Pictures had released a series of shorts called Speaking of Animals, where animals were filmed and animated lips were added. Produced by animator Tex Avery, they inspired Universal to bring in Dave Fleischer to assist with the lip-synch issue. There are only a few instances of animation used in this manner.
The primary means of achieving lip-sync was skillful post-production editing. Holding, repeating, and over-printing key frames were some of the techniques used, and over the course of the films, editors learned how to get the right shots in production as well as the best methods for post-production editing.
The deep drawl that gave Francis his common-sense appeal was the voice of Chill Wills. As was common at the time, Wills was never given on-screen credit for his work, though Wills did actually appear in one of the films. In Francis Joins the WACs (1954), Wills played Gen. Benjamin Kaye.
Donald O’Connor was already a musical star by the time of the Francis films. He began his career in vaudeville as a dancer at an early age. He made his first film in 1937 and the following year, at age 13, played opposite Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray in Sing, You Sinners. O’Connor had some good roles through Paramount, playing Huck Finn in Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938) and Beau Geste (at age 12) in the 1939 film, but when he outgrew childhood roles and his family fell on financially difficult times, he went back to vaudeville.
In 1942 he signed a contract with Universal. There he played in the “hep and swingin’” teen-oriented Gloria Jean musicals as one of the Jivin’ Jacks and Jills, a teen dance troupe that included Universal contract player Peggy Ryan. At 18, he was drafted into the army, and his movie career ended again.
The third act of his career began in 1947. Though he was cast in some small budget musicals, for a few years it seemed O’Connor might have the same difficulty finding a niche so many other actors had with their careers interrupted by the war. Then he landed the role of Peter Stirling in Francis.
“I didn’t know there was going to be a series of Francis movies,” O’Connor said. “I thought there would only be one movie, but they were so successful that they made an absolute fortune for the studio. I ended up making one a year for six years.”
While the Francis pictures made money and certainly gave O’Connor job security, they did take time away from the veteran song and dance man’s more meaningful opportunities. His role as Cosmo Brown in MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) was one of the best in his career – indeed, the film was voted one of the greatest ever made – but that role was cut short when Universal called him back to make another Francis film. As a result, O’Connor was unable to take part in the film’s big “Broadway Melody” number.
“I used to think of it as a bring-down,” he recalled. “I’d make a film like There’s No Business Like Show Business, then have to go back and work with a jackass.”
That a Francis film caused him to miss out on part of Singing’ in the Rain foreshadowed something worse to come. O’Connor was set to do White Christmas at Paramount Studios, which would have again paired him with Bing Crosby as well as Call Me Madam co-star, dancer Vera-Ellen, but O’Connor got sick. Doctors had a difficult time determining the cause of his illness, and O’Connor became quite ill. Eventually they discovered it was something called “Q Fever” – a tick-borne illness most commonly seen in cattle. O’Connor could only have gotten it from Francis or one of the mule’s stand-ins.
“The studio waited six months, but when I came out of the hospital I was so weakened by antibiotics I just had to tell them to go ahead without me. I was terribly disappointed. And Danny Kaye [who replaced him in the film] made twice the money I would have gotten and he got a piece of the picture. You can see the movements used look like something I would have done.”
After 1954, O’Connor was through. He clearly had a love/hate relationship with the Francis films, and at different points in his life had different views about the experience. Later in life O’Connor quipped, “After three pictures Francis started getting more fan mail than I did and I said, ‘This can’t happen.'” More than likely, O’Connor wanted the opportunity to focus on musicals, and he realized that couldn’t happen if Universal could call him back at any time to do a Francis film.
“I also didn’t want to be at Universal anymore. I volunteered to do Francis in the Navy if I could get out of my contract. So I did that, and I was released from Universal.”
But always a professional and a gentleman, O’Connor never spoke ill of the mule himself. “Francis never attempted to hurt me in any way or step on me, even when I would walk behind him and hold on to his tail. He was the most docile animal I’ve ever worked with. Francis had three understudies, but nine out of ten times, they’d balk and he’d have to do it anyway. He was a trouper.”
Though animals are unable to receive Academy Awards, Francis was indeed such a professional and able spokesmule that he received the American Humane Society’s first PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) Award in 1951 and placed in that award category from 1952-57.
The first six films were directed by Arthur Lubin, who helped make Universal a success through the Abbott and Costello films. Lubin proved again that he was quite adept at making financially successful low-budget B-pictures. The seventh and final film was directed by Charles Lamont, who made several of the Abbott and Costello monster films and most of the Ma and Pa Kettle series.
Francis in the Haunted House is the “forgotten” Francis film, mostly overshadowed by the six O’Connor/Wills pictures – possibly for good reason. In his autobiography, “Life is too Short,” Mickey Rooney is frank about his experience with the film: “In that year , I made three turkeys, The Bold and the Brave, Francis in the Haunted House, and Magnificent Roughnecks. Nobody remembers them. I hardly remember them.”
For this last film, Rooney played reporter David Prescott, while Paul Frees was the voice of Francis. No attempt is made to explain what happened to Peter Stirling; the backstory given is that Prescott is the nephew of Francis’ former owner.
When Francis is witness to a murder, and it looks like Prescott could be next, the mule steps in to save Prescott and help him solve the mystery. With a combination of lackluster writing and gags that had been done before (and better) by Abbott and Costello, even Universal realized that it was time to put Francis out to pasture [Years later Rooney and Frees worked together again on the children’s holiday classic, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)].
No one is quite sure what happened to Molly after the Francis series was over. In all likelihood, she spent the remainder of her days with trainer Hilton, although O’Connor once quipped that “Francis retired from motion pictures and went into politics.” History shows us that, in Hollywood, anything is possible.
Part of the fun of watching the Francis movies today is spotting the Universal contract players in bit parts before they became stars. Starlets in particular were cycled through the films; Julie Adams, Allison Hayes, Piper Laurie and Mamie Van Doren all had roles in Francis pictures.
Left to right: Tony Curtis, Leonard Nemoy, Clint Eastwood, David Janssen
Look for Tony Curtis next to the jeep in Francis, and a very young Leonard Nimoy as Cadet Football Player #52 in Francis Goes to West Point. Before he was fired for having an Adam’s apple that was too big, Clint Eastwood had a small part in Francis Joins the WACS and a larger one in Francis in the Navy. Besides O’Connor and Molly, David Janssen was in the most Francis movies, playing parts in no less than three films before he went on to become Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.
Just as Ma and Pa Kettle were the precursor to the Beverly Hillbillies, Francis was clearly the precursor to Mr. Ed. Director Arthur Lubin and trainer Les Hilton both worked together on the CBS TV series Mr. Ed, which began in 1961and ran for six seasons.
None of the Francis movies are Oscar material, but they are ridiculously fun. It’s a nice series of films to share with the family, but don’t watch them all at once; too much Francis and you might find yourself less than impressed with human achievement and more inclined to seek advice from your pets. As Francis said, “What trick is there to talking? Any fool can do it.”
Victoria Balloon is a writer, classic film enthusiast and pop-culture pundit. In addition to knitting small appliances, Victoria is currently involved in helping to bring back the Matinee At The Bijou TV series in an HD sequel to be hosted by Debbie Reynolds.