More than a half-century later, it’s hard to imagine a movie studio building a series of films around the exploits of a talking mule and his human sidekick.
Yet Universal, home of classic monsters and classic funny/scary movies, released seven pictures about Francis, an Army mule voiced by veteran character actor Chill Wills (in the first six) and accompanied by straight man Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor in the first six flicks).
The movies were based on a book and were sent into theaters beginning in 1950 mostly as a post-war military comedy. Francis and Peter went to West Point, joined the WACs and the Navy. Inevitably, Peter got into some kind of jam, Francis dispensed wise-cracking good advice and nobody believed that the mule could talk. Until he did.
My introduction to the series was a 1960s showing on an Indy TV station of the last film in the series, “Francis in the Haunted House,” released in 1956.
My view is no doubt skewed by the fact that this, the first in the series that I remember seeing, had a different star – Mickey Rooney – and a different voice – veteran voice actor Paul Frees – replacing Wills as the voice of Francis.
But for a kid who grew up loving not only Universal monster films, including “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” I found the mix of laughs and chills perfect.
In the movie, David Prescot (Rooney) meets Francis and, after the initial surprise at the fact this is a talking mule, they set off on an adventure. The two try to help a woman win her inheritance by staying in a supposedly haunted mansion.
In a formula that became familiar through “Scooby Do,” the haunting is being staged by crooks who want to win the mansion and Prescot is a patsy in more ways than one.
There is, however, a foe that Francis and Prescot can fight together: A ghostly knight on horseback.
It’s no doubt true that the Francis formula was more than a little tired by this point. O’Connor bailed from the series before this entry was made and was widely quoted as saying he knew it was time to go when the mule got more fan mail.
But there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in the final “Francis” movie. It’s perfect for “Abbott and Costello” fans.