Grade:  B-/C+
Not rated (would be G)

If you’re receptive to older black-and-white movies, this wonderful new Francis the Talking Mule 7 Film Collection from Kino Lorber will strike you as surprisingly entertaining. The three-disc set features all of the Francis movies that were popular in the ‘50s, with an audio commentary for each film. I’ve reviewed thousands of films since 2000, and it says something that I could binge-watch the first five of these light comedies without wanting to skip ahead or quit.

There’s a formula at work here, but it’s still fun seeing it play out:  Francis only talks to Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor), unless Peter is really in a jam. Then Francis will speak to others, reminding them that if they say anything about it to anyone he’ll remain quiet and they’ll end up in the “psych” ward with Peter, who is such a gosh-darned honest guy that he has to give credit where credit is due. Which is to say, Francis doesn’t just talk. He’s a know-it-all, whether it’s the location of the enemy, the time of a planned raid, which horses will win at the racetrack, or who killed Cock Robin. 


Like the Smithsonian Institution, “America’s attic,” there’s a surprise to be found at almost every turn. Maybe the biggest surprise is O’Connor, who’s most famous for being the third wheel to Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. As the likable Peter he plays everybody’s best friend, modeling character traits like honesty (to a fault), earnestness, humor, loyalty, decency, and dependability. He also displays a refreshing naiveté that makes him sometimes innocent or clueless but never stupid. “Did they take x-rays of your head?” “Yes Sir.” “And what did they show?” “Nothing.” O’Connor stars in all but the seventh film, which features Mickey Rooney—Universal’s first choice for the lead. But seeing them both in the role, I think Universal was fortunate that things turned out as they did. As much as the mule, O’Connor is responsible for the series’ success.

People who served in the military, fans of classic television, and children young enough to be tickled by the situations a talking mule can get into (and out of) will be especially delighted by the Francis films.

Four of the seven films have a military backdrop and were filmed with the cooperation of the Army, Navy, and Women’s Army Corps. Veterans and military enthusiasts will appreciate seeing vintage shots of military academies, bases, training, and mishaps. The word “SNAFU” is an acronym for “situation normal all f***ed up,” a description and attitude that has been used by generations of service men and women to describe the military. Veterans will smile at some of the subtle jokes about military protocols and officers, because Francis was based on a book of stories written by David Stern while he was at Officer Candidate School in Hawaii. In these stories, which were published in Esquire, he created a talking mule—a “jackass” that allowed him to use the pejorative to satirize the people in the Army who were running things. “Francis is afraid to talk. He’s worried if the Army finds out they’ll send him to officer’s candidate school.”

Francis Goes to the Races

Classic TV fans will enjoy seeing parallels between the Francis films and the popular 1961 TV sitcom Mister Ed. Although the latter was based on a series of stories from a children’s book author, the premise of an equine that only talks to one person (and therefore gets that person in and out of trouble) is the same. Arthur Lubin, who directed the first six Francis films, wanted to make a Francis TV series but couldn’t get the rights. Instead, he bought the rights to “The Talking Horse” by Walter R. Brooks and produced Mr. Ed for television. And the trainer for Molly, the mule that played Francis, was also the trainer for Bamboo Harvester, who played Mr. Ed.

A fair amount of recognizable character actors turn up in these films, including Chill Wills, who plays a general in Francis Joins the WACS and gives voice to Francis in the first six films, and Jesse White, perhaps most famous as the lonely repairman on Maytag commercials. But two other well-known actors are fun to watch in early roles:  David Janssen (three of the Francis films), who would go on to play TV’s Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, and Clint Eastwood, whose very first credited role was a sailor in Francis in the Navy and who go on to star on TV’s Rawhide and guest star on Mister Ed two years before making his first Spaghetti Western.

Francis Joins the WACs

Meanwhile, kids who have grown up with CGI talking animals might find it interesting to see how natural Francis’ mouth movements are, even if they don’t synch up with the words. Francis himself is an interesting character:  a know-it-all who can helpful while also being sarcastic, and a mischief-maker who tends to disrespect authority when authority isn’t deserving of respect. He’s a fixer, and a breaker; a team player, and a maverick. The relationship he has with Peter is also one that’s complicated. Peter never claims to “own” Francis or think of him as a pet, and Francis never thinks of Peter as his master. They’re friends who just happen to be from different species, and they aren’t inseparable. Sometimes they end up at the same place by coincidence. In other words, there’s some very subtle friendship and relationship modeling to be found here—even if people do seem to faint an awful lot when they discover a mule can talk.

Francis (1950, 91 min.)—B-/C+
Francis plays out like an origin story, showing how a second lieutenant separated from his unit in the jungles of Burma during WWII ended up in the same gully as an Army mule that carries him back to his unit. Be warned that in this entry there are a few insensitive outdated cultural expressions (“Japs,” “So solly,” “psycho”). Every time Peter is asked how he knew something (like the location of a Japanese unit or the day and time a bombing raid was coming) he tells them “Francis” . . . and ends up in the psychiatric ward of the hospital weaving a basket. (So is this where the expression “basket case” comes from??). 

Francis Goes to the Races (1951, 88 min.)—B-
What do you do with a mule that knows everything? You involve him with bookmakers and tough guys trying to make money off of a mule who can talk to horses and find out who’s really favored to win a race. In this entry, Peter and Francis look up their old Colonel and meet his granddaughter (Piper Laurie) on the family horse ranch. When they discover the ranch is behind in loan payments, they head for the racetrack to get the money. Fans of I Dream of Jeannie, another TV series based on an unusual “friend” that makes others think the man is crazy, will recognize Hayden Rorke, who played Dr. Bellows in that series.

Francis in the Navy

Francis Goes to West Point (1952, 81 min.)—C+
I don’t understand why someone who served as a US Army second lieutenant in the war and already went to OCS would want or need to go to West Point, but that’s the premise here. Peter deals with hazing and makes two friends, while Francis turns up as a replacement for a mascot. With a mix-up involving a pregnant relative and marriage, this one simply doesn’t have the same level of antics or Gordian Knot cleverness as some of the other entries.

Francis Covers the Big Town (1953, 86 min.)—B-
The franchise got back on track by riffing on the popular hard-boiled news reporter crime beat films. All that military training landed Peter a copy boy job, and Francis has his mule-ears to the ground and learns gossip from stabled police horses—getting the scoop on things the department wanted to keep under wraps. As a result, the pair gets involved with gangsters and murder.

Francis Joins the WACS (1954, 95 min.)—B-/C+
Battle-of-the-sexes story revolves around Peter having to join the WACS because of a clerical error, while Francis joins him and tries to help behind the scenes again. Some of the jokes? When Peter’s presence is questioned, an officer explains, “Washington sent him.” “George or Martha?” comes the reply. With another actor besides O’Connor this premise may have taken a turn onto Creepy Lane, but his innocence makes it all work. Fans of Private Benjamin may appreciate the main premise:  the women have to prove themselves in a training exercise involving camouflage, or else they’re in danger of being relegated to “the typewriters” where a general (Wills) thinks they belong. Some think Peter is there as the general’s spy, and of course Francis, as he does in the other films, says something that riles people and puts the blame on an innocent. Example: in a fairly pro-women film, Francis says to a commanding officer “Need any help, Toots?” when Peter is the only other human in the room . . . and she has no idea the mule can talk.

Francis in the Navy (1955, 80 min.)—C+/C
Jim Backus (Mr. Howell in Gilligan’s Island and the voice of Mr. Magoo) turns up in this one, along with Martha Hyer and Janssen. It’s clear that the popularity of the movies was tied in part to America’s military branches, and some may like seeing the meek and mild-mannered O’Connor play a doppelganger who’s a tough guy and ladies man. But the real interest here isn’t the inexplicable premise that or the premise that Peter had a lifelong dream to join the Navy after already going to West Point. It’s that this film was Eastwood’s first credited role, and it’s not just a brief walk-on. First roles are flat-out fun to watch.

Francis in the Haunted House

Francis in the Haunted House (1956, 80 min.)—C/C+
Rooney isn’t bad as bumbling reporter David Prescott (hey, at least they didn’t introduce him as Peter), but his character doesn’t have the same layered complexity as O’Connor’s, and his range isn’t as varied. This last installment tries to put Francis and his pal in the same sort of haunted house situations that made films like The Ghost Breakers and The Cat and the Canary popular. The only thing is, director Charles Lamont doesn’t spotlight the potential jump scares and exploit the setting to the same degree. Francis happens to see a couple of guys roll a boulder onto a car below, then gets David to tell the police. After that, they get involved with a Scooby-Doo! style ghost and a gang of crooks who are looting the mansion. Kids may like this one more than the adults—and maybe, with military satire no longer in play, that was the intended audience.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time: 601 min. Black & White
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1 (first five), 2.00:1 (Navy), 1.85:1 (Haunted House)
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  C+ (commentary tracks)
Trailer (poor quality–not HD like the films in this collection)
Amazon link
Not rated (would be G for some rude language)

Language:  3/10—“Jackass” and “ass” are milked for multiple laughs in all the films, but nothing jumps out other than that

Sex:  3/10—A woman obviously refers to her shapeliness when she says the soldiers will be gone when she leaves so he can escape; other scenes draw attention to women’s fully clothed chests or show people in nightwear; some innocent kissing as well

Violence:  3/10—In war scenes guns are fired and soldiers fall down; characters get punched; nothing graphic shown with any killings or murders, just manhandling

Adult situations:  3/10—Smaller children may find the haunted house features momentarily scary, but they’re really on a par with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Takeaway:  As I said, these films were surprisingly entertaining . . . and enjoyable, too, because of Kino Lorber’s newly remastered 2K presentations