Francis the Talking Mule was a mule character who became a celebrity during the 1950s as the star of seven popular Universal-International film comedies.
Long before Mr. Ed, 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, helped his bumbling sidekick Donald O'Connor out of humorous situations in a popular series of movie comedies in the 1950s.
All told, Francis made seven features for Universal Studios between 1950 and 1956. In Francis (a.k.a Francis the Talking Mule) (1950), his screen debut, the chattering mule rescues a soldier (O'Connor) on a secret mission in Burma during World War II. 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. The final film in the Francis series was 1956's Francis in the Haunted House. Mickey Rooney took over for O'Connor in the sidekick role, while Paul Frees assumed the voice of Francis. The horror comedy had Francis frustrating some art forgers.
Tropes in the Francis series:
- A Degree in Useless: Averted in Francis. Army Intelligence goes on a recruitment drive, and one of the volunteers was a professor of philosophy at Duke University before he was drafted, which is considered a plus. (Though it's also worth noting he apparently speaks several languages of the Far East.)
- Clear Their Name: Francis has to clear Peter's name when he is accused of murder in Francis Covers the Big Town.
- Fixing the Game: In Francis Goes to the Races, Francis the Talking Mule and his sidekick Peter Sterling visit Colonel Travers and his granddaughter on their family horse farm. Peter soon finds himself involved in the world of horse racing and a crime boss and his men trying to "fix" races involving the Travers' horses.
- Girl of the Week: Peter Sterling gets involved with a different beautiful woman in every film of the series.
- Here We Go Again!: The title character mentions this by name at the tail (sorry) end of Francis, after Sterling brings his boss to see him to convince him that Francis is real. This comes after he spent the entire plot of the movie in a flashback trying to convince the Army that Francis was real.
- Identical Stranger: In Francis in the Navy, U.S. Army officer Lt. Peter Sterling gets mistaken for his lookalike in the U.S. Navy, Bosun's Mate 'Slicker' Donevan, and as a result gets promptly shipped to Donevan's base.
- Not-So-Imaginary Friend: Everyone could see Francis, but for the most part, Peter was the only one he would talk to, although it was often subverted when Francis would talk someone else when Peter was really in a jam.
- Oddball in the Series: Francis in the Haunted House, the last film of the series, was made without the involvement of series director Arthur Lubin, star Donald O'Connor, or Francis' voice actor Chill Wills. Instead it is directed by Charles Lamont, stars Mickey Rooney as new character David Prescott, and has Paul Frees providing the voice of Francis (by impersonating Wills).
- Pre-War Civilian Career: In Francis, human protagonist 2nd Lt. Sterling was a bank teller before World War II and resumed his job afterwards. The Framing Device is him explaining the story of how he met Francis to his boss.
- Sapient Steed: Francis is an intelligent, talking mule.
- "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: In Francis in the Haunted House, a gang of art forgers set up operations in a spooky old mansion on the edge of town, and use its reputation as being haunted scare away anyone who might get too close.
- Tokyo Rose: In Francis, Sterling is befriended by Maureen Gelder, a beautiful French refugee, during one of his enforced hospital stays. He grows to trust her and tells her about Francis. Later, a propaganda radio broadcast from Tokyo Rose mocks the Allies for being advised by a mule. This leads to the suspicion of Stirling or Maureen being a Japanese agent.
- Unbelievable Source Plot: The series shows what happens when somebody with this type of information source is honest about it. Francis's information is always good (because, quite frankly, who'd believe the mule standing over there understood English?), but Lt. Sterling repeatedly ends up in the psych ward after revealing his source for (for example) a Japanese bomber attack on the base.