ORIGINALLY POSTED JULY 7TH, 2010.
I know, I know, you were probably hoping for some Horse Whisperer Animal Communicator or something like that. Me, too! If I only knew how to speak Doolittle, I’d be a millionaire – or, more probably, no one would believe me. Still I wish…
Anyway, instead, I’d like to speak about those famous equines who could talk. Or, at least we thought they could talk when some of us were kids and saw the re-runs. Yup, today’s topic features Francis and Ed, the talking mule and horse, respectively.
Do you know of them?
OK, I really only have a vague memory of Francis the talking mule. I know there were a series of movies and from that came Mr. Ed.
Since I am a commercial producer (a person who produces commercials), I have a strong interest in all things filmic. And, I also am very interested in equines so what is a better topic for me than a television mule?! Well, there might be better topics but I chose equine chatterboxes for today.
First of all, there is hardly any information on Francis. I guess that long ago, they didn’t care much to preserve the history about the actual animal, just the character. Sigh. But, I did find out that Francis was actually a female mule named, appropriately if not very inventive, Molly.
There was a country wide search for a mule that could be a TV star. Molly was chosen because of her quiet demeanor. They paid $350 for her. I think that might have been a hefty price in those days. But, it turned out to be a great investment!
FRANCIS JOINS THE ARMY
The idea behind the Francis movies (starting in 1950) came from a children’s book of short stories by Walter R. Brooks, including Ed Takes the Pledge. Brooks is also known for the Freddy the Pig series of children’s novels, which feature talking animals who interact with humans. Obviously a great concept for kids who probably can communicate with the animals…
Anyway, the premise behind the initial
Francis movie was that Francis the mule befriended a not so successful Private in the Army (played by Donald O’Connor). The mule helped his hapless friend through many tight squeezes… but the comedy part was that the mule refused to let anyone else see him speak (just like Mr. Ed). However, what I don’t get is that every movie had the mule reveal himself in the end. I guess back then, “sequel” wasn’t in the forefront of their minds. This concept of already revealing the gag didn’t seem to bother them because they made 6 movies after the first one and all of them started and ended with the same premise… wasn’t anyone in the Army watching? Wasn’t the ruse up after #1? I guess not… Luckily for Molly, she had a long-term gig. (click here for You-Tube short on Francis)
HOW DID THEY DO IT?
Molly was trained by famous stunt horse trainer, Les Hilton. (Les also trained Will Roger’s horses. He went on to train Mr. Ed… Back then, I guess there was little competition in “talking horse training”….)
With Molly (Francis), to train her to “speak”, Les tied a piece of clear fishing line inside her mouth and then tugged at the line. She would want to remove it (can you blame her?) so she would move her lips and tongue. It worked. But, as you might imagine, they really never told anyone at the time how this was done…
Molly and her movies were so successful, they made millions of dollars for Universal. I’ve posted the trailer for the first movie. It is fun to compare a trailer from 1950 to one from nowadays… Anyway, the first movie was a huge success so they made 6 more. You can buy them on Amazon.
Not only were the movies huge hits, but Francis had several Dell comic books and a record album. Oh right, I forgot to mention that she/he was voiced by Chill Wills. He was a character actor of that time. (Interestingly, Chill also co-starred with Francis in one of the pictures.) The album featured Chill Wills as Francis and he was backed by the Starlighters. Can you imagine that now– Tim McGraw voices the Marley Sings soundtrack? Actually, I guess it is done all the time… but more in animation like SHREK than in live action…
I really like Donald O’Connor. However, I think he didn’t like being a part of the Francis the Talking Mule series. You see, when the Francis movie first came out, Donald was fairly unknown. The movie was such a hit, he ended up doing 6 movies with the mule. Then, he quit. He decided that the mule was more popular than he was. In fact, he is famously quoted as saying that the mule got more fan mail then he did… So, Donald had to be replaced.
The last Francis feature used Mickey Rooney as the protagonist who befriends the mule.
In this movie, they don’t really mention what happened to the Private, they just say that Francis used to live on the farm that Mickey Rooney now lives and the mule wanted to help him out due to his love for the former owner of the farm. Unfortunately, this Francis movie didn’t do as well. So, the franchise was over after the initial 7 movies.
Sadly, I could find no information about what happened to Molly after the series ended. I did learn, however, that she won a very prestigious award! Molly became the first animal to win the coveted Picture Animal Star of the Year from the American Humane Association in 1951. She also came in second place for several years running. So, one can only hope that she and her trophy lived in quiet but healthy obscurity, like many retired film stars…
On a fun note, I read that Molly had to go on a strict diet after her first movie. The poor gal gained 200 lbs because the cast and crew kept feeding her carrots and whatever else she wanted. It was said that everyone loved the mule, except for maybe Donald O’Connor who felt he was second fiddle to her fame.
MR. ED (1961)
Mr. Ed fared better than Molly. At least, we think so since Ed has much more information regarding his life after the pictures.
Ed was in real life a horse named Bamboo Harvester. Wha? Sounds like a primitive John Deere. Anyway, he was a palomino of mutt decent, probably American Saddlebred and Arabian but no one knows for sure.
He was again trained by Les Hilton. They used the same devices as with Molly. However, Alan Young (Ed’s hapless co-star) revealed that Bamboo Harvester was so smart, he would move his lips whenever Alan quit moving his! Crew members have remarked that even between takes, when Alan was simply talking to anyone and Bamboo happened to be on stage, the horse would flap his lips after Alan quit speaking. Ha!
It is said by those who study these things, that you can view the actually progression in training of Bamboo when you view the old reels. In the beginning, you can faintly see the wire. Later, you can only see Ed flapping his lips. And, later, they say that Bamboo starts to very intently watch Alan Young’s lips for his cue to start flapping. And, happily, this intent stare at Alan’s lips made it appear that Bamboo cared what Alan was saying~
Mister Ed the horse was voiced by a lesser known cowboy star Alan “Rocky” Lane (speaking) and Sheldon Allman (singing, except his line in the theme song, which was sung by its composer, Jay Livingston.
BAMBOO AND ALAN
After reading up on Ed, it warms my heart to reveal that Alan loved that horse! He visited Bamboo for many years after the show ended. In fact, Alan was said to know the actual happenings surrounding the mystery of Ed’s death. More on that later.
Alan loved being a part of the successful Mr. Ed show. Alan played the hapless and accident prone architect, Wilbur. Alan Young was grateful and kinda knew he wasn’t the star, the horse was… Wilbur’s wife was the actress Carol Hines who also loved the chestnut gelding as did most of the cast and crew.
Shortly before Alan’s death, he revealed how they actually made Ed’s lips move in the beginning with the fishing wire. He also stated that Bamboo’s death was an accident which was never documented. According to Alan, Bamboo died while Les was away from the stable. Alan said that a stable hand saw Bamboo in distress (colic?) and gave the horse too much sedative and Bamboo died from the sedative. (Now, who is to say that he wouldn’t have potentially died from his distress…) Alan says that Bamboo’s true date of death was never reported. He also states that Les Hilton was so upset, he had Bamboo cremated and spread his ashes in an unknown but beloved destination.
PUMPKIN AND THE PRESS KIT HORSE
Bamboo had a stand-in who later became famous himself. The stand-in was a quarter horse named Pumpkin who was also trained to flap his lips. The two looked very much alike but Pumpkin was smaller with a pumpkin shape in his blaze.
Pumpkin and Bamboo
were actually very close friends and they lived together at Les’s ranch. Pumpkin went on to fame as the horse on Green Acres.
Bamboo also had a print promotion stand-in for all the tedious Photo shoots. The name of this horse is unknown, but evidently, according to Alan Young, it was the press kit stand-in who died on the day which is officially noted as the day Bamboo/Ed died. There was a big ceremony documenting the day Bamboo died but this was not actually Bamboo’s death, but the unnamed photo stand-in horse.
Most of us will remember the song. At least I do… So I wanted to print it here.
But, first a note about the song. You see, no one wanted to be associated with a talking horse television show. So, they couldn’t get anyone to sing the song except the composer, Jay Livingston. I think that is very funny! Too bad they didn’t have residuals at that time or this guy would be RICH!
Thank you for letting me muse through earlier times. Thanks for reading and enjoy the lyrics!
A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And no one can talk to a horse of course
That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.
Go right to the source and ask the horse
He’ll give you the answer that you’ll endorse.
He’s always on a steady course.
Talk to Mister Ed.
People yakkity yak a streak and waste your time of day
But Mr. Ed will never speak unless he has something to say
A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And this one’ll talk ’til his voice is hoarse.
You never heard of a talking horse?
Well listen to this: “I’m Mister Ed.”
HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!
I found you a few years back then lost track. My father worked on Mr. ED ( camera operator) and I rode around on Pirate at 7657 Coldwater Canyon. I remember all of you riding over to see you, competitions races what a fantastic place and way to grow up! i don’t remember the demise of Mr.. Ed but he was a popular topic at dinner.
Too bad these trainers never wrote a book about these amazing animals.
I’m wondering if Dixie Kemsley Pacquin might know what happened to Francis/Molly since she lived nearby? Did Molly live with Les the rest of her life like Ed & Pumpkin? Also, the article states that Alan Young divulged the secret about how Ed was trained to talk shortly before his death. Alan Young isn’t dead. As of 2013 Alan Young is 94 years old!
Thanks for the trot down memory lane! Of course I had to sing, I couldn’t help myself :)
Fun and interesting post! Thanks for doing all this research and digging up this neat old stuff. The trailer for “Francis” is a hoot! So corny and dated. It’s amazing how much things have changed.
We knew so many movie animals including Lassie owned and trained by Jack Weatherwax, Saticoy St., N.H. CA. I went to grade school with his daugher, Susan.
I really enjoyed your article on Les Hilton’s work, he was GREAT! I grew up across the street from him and Francis & Ed, on Saticoy St., North Hollywood, California. Every Sunday Less would turn Mr. Ed & his double loose in his chain linked fence to eat grass so people can come and see him. Great memories living near all the movie animals and stables.
Hi Dear, nice post, I just wondered if the mule doesn’t have something in the mouth that disturbs her and makes her do “funny” faces? Difficult to see but I kind of see like a little line that could be a string or wire. I hope not! Thanks