For, April 25, 2014

When I was a kid, movies starring Francis the talking mule were among my favorites, along with the Bowery Boys, Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges, Ma and Pa Kettle, and the sci-fi and horror of the 1950s.

These were the staples at local movie theaters for discount Saturday-afternoon viewing and also on Saturday mornings at a local library.

But I got a particular kick out of Francis and his poor put-upon sidekick Peter Stirling (Donald O'Connor), who was constantly getting in and out of trouble trying to convince others that Francis was an intelligent animal that could think, reason and, of course, talk.

The later "Mr. Ed" TV series, inspired by these films, never quite did it for me, but I loved Francis.

A decade ago, Universal Pictures released "The Adventures of Francis the Talking Mule, Vol. 1," which included the first four Francis films, but "Volume 2" with the three remaining titles in the series never materialized.

I'd given up on ever seeing them again, but, out of the blue, here comes "Francis the Talking Mule Complete Collection" (1950-56, b/w), which includes all seven movies: "Francis" (1950), "Francis Goes to the Races" (1951), "Francis Goes to West Point" (1952), "Francis Covers the Big Town" (1953), "Francis Joins the WACs" (1954), "Francis in the Navy" (1955) and "Francis in the Haunted Houes" (1956). And the set is very reasonably priced. (Available on Tuesday, April 29.)

O'Connor stars in the first six films, which are all of pretty much equal weight, and they hold up pretty well as the B-movie comedy-fantasies they were intended to be. Four of the seven are military farces, one is about newspapers and another is about horseracing.

O'Connor is a very good straight man and slapstick comic, and Chill Wills' gravelly voice for Francis is just right. (Wills turns up on-camera as a military officer in "Francis Joins the WACs.")

The seventh film, "Francis in the Haunted House," stars Mickey Rooney and has cartoon-voice veteran Paul Frees taking over the mule-talking duties from Wills (Frees does a pretty good approximation of Wills' voice.) It is, as the title suggests, a horror spoof, and is considered the weakest of the franchise.


"Francis in the Navy": Donald O'Connor, center; Clint Eastwood, far left.

One fun aspect of these movies is spotting young unknown actors contracted by Universal at the time who went on to become bigger stars later, including David Janssen (in three films as different characters), Tony Curtis, Leonard Nimoy, Piper Laurie, Mamie Van Doren, Martha Hyer and Julie Adams.

And Clint Eastwood! No kidding.

Aside from O'Connor, the only actor to repeat a character is ZaSu Pitts, who played a military nurse in the first film, "Francis," and the fifth, "Francis Joins the WACs."