Not all four legged stars were canines. In the 1950’s one of the biggest stars on the Universal lot was Francis — the talking mule.
Francis originated in the mind of a bored Army officer candidate in charge of a service publication, stationed in Hawaii. To pass the time I wrote four pages of dialogue between a second lieutenant and an Army mule, wrote David Stern.
I had no intention of writing more. But that little runt of a mule kept bothering me. With memories of (Officer’s Candidate School) fresh in my mind I thought I might rid myself of the creature by shipping him off to become a second lieutenant. Francis outwitted me. He refused to go.
The son of a newspaper publisher, Stern (under the nom de plume Peter Stirling) wrote several short stories about his amiable Army mule creation, and tied them together in a 1946 novel, Francis. Hollywood took notice with the idea that the mule might be teamed with Mickey Rooney in the first Francis feature, but the project never took off.
Instead Universal stepped in, buying the rights to the property — this time as a vehicle for Donald O’Connor as the young soldier (named Peter Stirling) who befriends our mule in 1950’s Francis. (There’s O’Connor pictured in character above with Patricia Medina).
The picture was a hit and six sequels followed: 1951’s Francis Goes To The Races, 1952’s Francis Goes to West Point, 1953’s Francis Covers the Big Town, 1954’s Francis Joins the WACS, 1955’s Francis in the Navy, and 1956’s Francis in the Haunted House.
The Haunted House, ironically, starred Mickey Rooney replacing O’Connor who is famously quoted as saying, When you’ve made six pictures and the mule still gets more fan mail than you do…
The eponymous leading character was actually portrayed by a female (named Molly), who was easy to handle. She was voiced by veteran character actor Chill Wills. To create the impression of talking, Molly was fed a piece of thread into her mouth which when gently tugged would cause our Francis to move her lips.
The character, presented as a worldly, seen-it-all mule, would only talk onscreen to the naive O’Connor character, creating all sorts of predicaments. The formula worked, and Francis joined the pantheon of big box office, four-legged creatures.