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Francis the Talking Mule was a mule celebrity, featured in seven movie comedies in the 1950s. The character originated in a novel by writer David Stern, and Universal Studios bought the rights for a film series, with Stern adapting his own script for the first entry, simply titled Francis.
The book and series focused on the exploits of Francis, an experienced Army mule, and Peter Stirling, 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." Donald O'Connor received top billing as Peter, but the true star was undoubtedly Francis. 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 movies 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 advisor was a mule, and be subject to mental analysis (sometimes more than once per movie!) 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 was conveniently forgotten by the next movie, however.
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. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 movie 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 movie, a standard tale of fake ghosts and gangsters, was poorly received and is widely viewed as the weakest entry in the series.
The first four Francis movies were released on Region 1 and 4 DVD as The Adventures of Francis the Talking Mule Vol. 1 in 2004. 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). 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 movie starring Francis and Divine.