Francis the Talking Mule saves the day

Universal Studios, founded in 1912, is the oldest continuous movie studio operating in the United States. All studios make prestige pictures but they survive due in part to franchise films.

In the first few decades after sound Universal would parlay success, while staving off bankruptcy, through popular movies headlined by various stars like Deanna Durbin, Abbott & Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle. Universal Horror, which has never lost its luster through the sheen of such monstrous creations as Frankenstein, Dracula, Invisible Man and Wolfman was constantly rotating these creatures in various features, introducing the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the ’50s.

Flash forward to 2022 and Universal is rocking the franchise tree for fruit big and slim with titles like “Halloween Ends,” “Firestarter,” and “Jurassic World Dominion.”

In 1950 when Bud and Lou and Ma and Pa were showing diminishing returns a new hero emerged to boost the bottom line – Francis the Talking Mule.

A newly released blu-ray edition of the seven Francis the Talking Mule films from Kino Lorber Studio Classics shows the trajectory of the film franchise. You start out with a huge hit, make some more of the same, and flame out with different actors replacing the original stars who demand more money as the series spends less and less for each installment.

“Francis” was the 11th highest grossing film of 1950, and under the expert direction of Arthur Lubin established a wise cracking talking mule and his often clueless partner Donald O’Connor. Francis was voiced by Chill Wills and their collaboration would extend through the best six of the Francis movies. The final film had Paul Frees voicing the hybrid of donkey and horse and Mickey Rooney as the comic foil. Rooney had been one of the first choices to play the original lead.

Lubin delivered the initial six films of the Francis series keeping a loose sense of continuity that could shift to any branch of the military serivce while revolving around the friendship of Army officer Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor) and a talking mule he meets in an origin story set during WWII.

Lubin was quite the diverse studio director with credits that ranged from comedy (A & C) to fantasy (“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”) to film noir like the amnesia twisted “Impact.”

Lubin wanted to license the Francis short stories for a television project but couldn’t obtain the rights. That how Lubin later helmed the popular television series evolved from short stories that chronicled the misadventures of Mister Ed, also like Francis originally written as magazine filler. Many similar factoids pop up in the commentary tracks for each film, each track recorded solo or in tandem with no less than six different film scholars and historians who inform on everything from shooting schedules and budgets to star trajectory.

One interesting tidbit has O’Connor, whose popularity after 1952’s “Singin’ In The Rain” skyrocketed, having to drop out of the 1950s other most popular musical “White Christmas” after contracting an animal virus.

FRANCIS

The series started as a WWII service comedy where O’Connor meets Francis in the jungles of Burma. While talking equines usually doesn’t talk to anybody except the protagonist in the Francis movies eventually Francis spills the beans to the disbelievers, which only makes the film funnier.

FRANCIS GOES TO THE RACES

The sequel provides solid humor that takes place at a local race track. Veteran O’Connor gets a job at a horse breeding farm and uses his inside information from Francis to spoil racketeers attempts to muscle their way into the business. Piper Laurie co-stars.

FRANCIS GOES TO WEST POINT

Early career appearances from supporting actors like David Janssen (who’s in three Francis films), James Best and Leonard Nimoy. Military service comedies were a specialty of Lubin and he defined the genre with the early A & C movies like “In the Navy” and “Buck Privates.” Somehow Stirling finds himself as a cadet at West Point. The film includes coverage of an actual Army Navy football game.

FRANCIS COVERS THE BIG TOWN

The best of the Francis films if we’re talking pure laughs. Yvette Duguay who began as a child actress and had worked with Lubin brings an early version of the pixie girlfriend to the series. Stirling is breaking in as a crime reporter for the big city’s main newspaper. His big tips comes from Francis who works along side with police horses.

Francis actually takes the stand and testifies in the film’s penultimate scene during a murder trial.

FRANCIS JOINS THE WACS

Francis and O’Connor join the Woman’s Army Corp. Julia Adams and Mamie Von Doren are WACs and Chill Wills (voice of Francis) plays a general. 

Parts of this fifth installment of the Francis franchise favor O’Connor and his misadventures rather than Francis.

FRANCIS IN THE NAVY

The second best of the Francis films mainly because of the appearance of a handful of actors on the rise, namely Clint Eastwood in his debut role. Jim Backus, Martin Milner, and David Janssen have substantial supporting turns. Eastwood was actually signed to a contract with Lubin who was also his agent early in his career.

Stirling gets confused with a lookalike Navy stud and finds himself serving on the high seas. Francis commandeers a AAV7 Amphibious Assault Vehicle at one point. Above average trick photography has O’Connor playing twin roles.

FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE

Without O’Connor or Lubin at the helm the last film doesn’t have the magic of some of the earlier Francis films with the mule and his new protege getting caught up in a murder mystery at a spooky mansion. Rooney goes through the motions like a pro yet it’s easy to see the nail through the heart that this less-than-average programmer delivered to the series.

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