Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Francis (1950) * * ¾

During WWII Second lieutenant Peter Stirling (Donald O'Connor) is wounded, terrified, exhausted, and lost deep behind Japanese enemy lines in Burma. He is rescued by a talking army mule who carries him seven miles to safety and becomes his best friend. Being a talking animal's friend has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, Francis is great at ferreting out enemy positions on the island and making Peter look like a war hero. On the minus side, everyone thinks Peter is insane. The cantankerous mule helps him with his romantic problems, but won't speak or show his miraculous skills to anyone else. Stirling doesn't lie about his source of information, and when he insists that the animal rescued him, he is placed in a psychiatric ward. Each time Stirling is released he accomplishes something noteworthy in hilarious situations at the instigation of Francis. And each time, he is sent back to the psycho ward when he insists on crediting the mule's amazing abilities Finally, Stirling gets General Stevens (John McIntire) to order Francis to speak, and he obeys. The mule identifies himself to the commanding general as "Francis, 123d Mule Detachment, serial number M52519."

During one of Stirling's enforced hospital stays, he is befriended by Maureen Gelder (Patricia Medina), a beautiful French refugee who pretends she was lost in the jungle. He has a crush on her, 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 Maureen being unmasked as a spy. The press is told that the absurd story was concocted in order to flush her out.

Francis: I hope to kiss a duck I can talk!

Francis is shipped back to America for further study, but his plane crashes in Kentucky. After the war, Peter searches for and finally finds him alive and well. While the film is basically a one joke movie, it has an innocence that carries it along at a good pace, and scenes such as Peter's attempts at speaking French to impress a pretty young war refugee are very funny.

FRANCIS is a black and white comedy film that launched the Francis the Talking Mule series. It is touching as well as funny. Donald O'Connor once remarked that he enjoyed this film because it gave him a chance to intermingle a little bit of drama with the comedy. Francis the mule was featured in seven movie comedies in the 1950s. The character originated in a novel by writer David Stern, and soon Universal Studios bought the rights for a film series, with Stern adapting his own script for the first entry, simply titled FRANCIS. This is a perfect family film, even amusing to the adults. If all people had as much sense as this talking mule, the world will be a much better place than its present condition.

The cast also includes: Zasu Pitts (Nurse Valerie Humpert), Ray Collins (Col. Hooker), Eduard Franz (Col. Plepper), Howland Chamberlain (Maj. Nadel), James Todd (Col. Saunders), Robert Warwick (Col. Carmichael), Frank Faylen (Sgt. Chillingbacker), Tony Curtis (Capt. Jones), Mikel Conrad (Maj. Garber), Loren Tindall (Maj. Richards), Charles Meredith (Banker Munroe), Fred Aldrich (Soldier Patient in Psychiatric Ward), Robert Anderson (Capt. Grant), Robert Blunt (Second ambulance man), Laura K. Brooks (Visitor), Roger Cole (Correspondent), Robert Conte (Photographer), Helen Dickson (Bank Customer), Richard Farmer (Marine Corps. captain), Al Ferguson (Capt. Dean), Harold Fong (Japanese soldier), Jack Gargan (Bank Employee), Tim Graham (Lt. Bremm), Sam Harris (Officer seated in Service Club), Harry Harvey (Correspondent), Jim Hayward (Capt. Norman), Judd Holdren (First ambulance man), Ted Jordan (General's Aide), Marvin Kaplan (First Medical Corps lieutenant), Joseph Kim (Japanese Lt. Taki), John Laird (Switchboard Operator), James Linn (Correspondent), Mickey McCardle (Captain Anderson), Fraser McMinn (Second Medical Corps. lieutenant), Roger Moore (Marine Corps. major), Howard Negley (Correspondent), Peter Prouse (Correspondent), Jon Riffel (Switchboard Operator), Jack Shutta (Sgt. Mller), Larry Steers (Officer at Psychiatric Hearing), Chill Wills (Francis the Talking Mule voice), and Duke York (Sgt. Poor, G2). Original music was composed by Frank Skinner and Walter Scharf. The screenplay was written by David Stern from his own 1946 novel. Arthur Lubin directed.

Donald O'Connor stars as an American soldier who gets into trouble when he insists an Army mule named Francis can speak. In its common modern meaning, a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. The distinctive voice of Francis was provided by Chill Wills. He never received billing for his vocal work, though he was featured prominently on-screen as blustery General Ben Kaye in the fourth sequel, FRANCIS JOINS THE WACS (1954). The first six movies were directed by Universal comedy veteran Arthur Lubin, a film director and producer who directed several Abbott & Costello films and created the TV series MISTER ED.

The actual mule who appeared on-screen was not a male at all, but a female named Molly, selected because she was easy to handle. According to author Pauline Bartel, Universal paid $350 for the animal, but made millions from the film series. Molly was trained by Les Hilton, a former apprentice of Will Rogers who would also go on to train Bamboo Harvester, the horse who played Mister Ed in the TV series. To create the impression that the mule was actually talking, Hilton used a thread fed into the animal's mouth, which when tugged, would cause Molly to try to remove it by moving her lips. The same technique was used for Mister Ed.

As the titles indicate, each film has a different setting or gimmick, exposing the wordly-wise mule and the naive GI to race track excitement, the world of journalism, and many branches of the military, from West Point to the WAC. The basic plots are fairly similar. Stirling, with the sage but sardonic advice of Francis gained from overhearing generals plan strategy or from discussions with other equines, triumphs over his own incompetence. However, inevitably, he is forced to reveal that his advisor was a mule, and be subject to mental analysis--sometimes more than once per movie--until the grand revelation when Francis displays his talent to individuals or to a large group. The astonishing existence of a talking mule is conveniently forgotten by the next movie, however.

FRANCIS GOES TO THE RACES (1951) is the first sequel to FRANCIS and stars Donald O'Connor, Piper Laurie, and Cecil Kellaway. As with the first film, David Stern, the author of the book which started this all off had a hand in the screenplay. Peter (Donald O'Connor) has been fired from the bank job he had in the first film, and is on the road. Francis finds a cousin of his at a horse racing ranch along the way. The two soon find themselves at the track, caught up with big races and small time crooks. Francis, who has the inside track with the racehorses, provides Peter with names of the winners before the races are run. "Does he talk?" asks Peter. "Whoever heard of a talking horse?" answers the talking mule. Peter wins a fistful of cash and uses it to buy a racehorse for the farm. Unfortunately, the mare he chooses is suffering from a lack of confidence. Fortunately, Francis is around to perk her up. When not dealing with the mare, Peter finds time to court the horse-breeder's lovely niece. Despite a pleasant performance by Piper Laurie as the romantic interest, this film is a little flat and one of the least successful.

FRANCIS GOES TO WEST POINT (1952) stars Donald O'Connor, Lori Nelson, Alice Kelley, and Gregg Palmer. This third movie deals with a young man enrolling at West Point, where he needs to be tutored by his friend, Francis the Talking Mule. Picking up the pace a bit Peter Stirling (Donald O'Connor) is now working at a nuclear plant. With a little help from Francis he manages to foil some would-be saboteurs, and in recognition of his time in Burma is offered a place at West Point to train as an army officer. Francis is the West Point football team's mascot, and manages to tag along to watch Peter slip to 687th place in a class of 687. The mule's motherly side comes through and he helps Peter through his troubles in and out of the classroom. This time around, O'Connor is allotted two lovely leading ladies, played by Lori Nelson and Alice Kelly. Two of the West Point cadets are played by future TV favorites David Janssen and James Best. One of the shortest entries, this one feels tighter and is a return to form after the slightly disappointing second film.

FRANCIS COVERS THE BIG TOWN (1952) is the fourth in a series of films about Peter and Francis the Talking Mule. Once again they are on the road, this time to the Big Apple. Peter is wondering what job would suit him. "What would I be good at?" he wonders. "Getting into trouble" Francis wisely replies. Peter ends up working for a newspaper and his greatest source of news tips is Francis, who has become friendly with all the police horses. When asked how he manages to stay abreast of the news, Peter tries to explain about Francis, and is labeled a looney-tune. But when Peter is brought to court on a homicide charge, Francis breaks his self-imposed rule of talking only to Peter and testifies on his master's behalf. With Francis' aid, Peter cracks the murder case and is graduated to star reporter. At fadeout time, Francis is seen wooing a female zebra, explaining "Don't let the striped pajamas fool ya." This sequel is harmless fun, bolstered by a good supporting cast, including Gene Lockhart as Peter's editor and Gale Gordon as a flustered District Attorney.

FRANCIS JOINS THE WACS (1954) stars Donald O'Connor, Julie Adams, and Chill Wills. Because of a bureaucratic snafu, ex-GI Peter Sterling (Donald O'Connor) is called into active duty and assigned to a WAC unit, headed by Major Simpson (Lynn Bari). It is Sterling's task to train the women to be camouflage experts, but the ladies resent his presence, assuming that Peter has been sent to discredit their unit. But with the help of Francis, the WACs manage to win the annual War Games, and to bewilder misogynistic General Kaye (Chill Wills). In one scene Sterling has to masquerade as a WAC nurse while Francis hilariously heckles everybody. Julie Adams, then billed as Julia, provides the love interest. ZaSu Pitts also appears, recreating the role she'd played in the first Francis installment, while other uniformed females include Mamie Van Doren. This sequel borrows quite a bit from the first film, and the most memorable gag involves Peter's inability to tell if one of the WACS is standing at attention or at ease.

FRANCIS IN THE NAVY (1955) is the sixth and last in the Francis the Talking Mule series to be directed by Arthur Lubin and star Donald O'Connor and Chill Wills. Once more, O'Connor plays Army lieutenant Peter Sterling, who heads to a navy base when his old pal Francis is about to be auctioned off as surplus. He has to rescue Francis, but unfortunately Peter looks exactly like a sailor who steals his identity. The Navy mistakes him for his lookalike, and he has to convince them they have the wrong man. In short order, it's off to sea for both Peter and the mule. Among the able-bodied seamen in this film is a chap named Jonesy, played by a young Clint Eastwood in his second movie appearance. An eleborate slapstick finale brings this one to a rousing conclusion. Director Arthur Lubin left the Francis series after FRANCIS IN THE NAVY. Complaining that Francis the Mule was getting more fan mail than he was, Donald O'Connor also bade adios to the Francis series with this entry. The talented actor, singer, and dancer also did not want to be typecast.

FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1956) is the seventh and final entry in the series, made without any of the key creative personnel. Universal-International wasn't about to give up on this valuable property, and starred Mickey Rooney, with Charles Barton calling the shots. Likewise missing from the earlier series entries is the voice of Francis, Chill Wills. He is replaced by Paul Frees, who also narrated the film's promotional trailer. The plot and comic content is summed up by the title, as Francis and his new buddy David Prescott (Mickey Rooney) try to corral a gang of art thieves. Along the way, they get mixed up with a phony heiress (Virginia Welles), a series of murders (one of the victims is Richard Deacon) and, of course, a spooky old house. Most of the "scare" gags in FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE had been done earlier and better by Universal's own Abbott and Costello. Mickey Rooney replaced O'Connor as a new but similar character, David Prescott. Director Arthur Lubin and voice actor Chill Wills were replaced by Charles Lamont and Paul Frees, who did a credible approximation of Wills' voice. No real explanation was given or attempted as to why Francis had left Peter Stirling, or why he suddenly decides to befriend reporter Prescott. With the original elements gone, the movie, a standard tale of fake ghosts and gangsters, was poorly received and is widely viewed as the weakest entry in the series.

The first four Francis movies were released on DVD as a set. The video transfer for these films is quite good given their age and the fact that this is basically a budget release. It's not certain any restoration work has been done, and the quality does vary from film to film, but the overall result is pleasing. There is some stock war footage used in the first film which looks older and more worn than the film itself. The films are presented at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, non 16x9 enhanced, which was their original theatrical release ratio. All 4 movies are reasonably sharp, with fair shadow detail and no low level noise. In the first film at 26:16 the shadow detail, and a little later the beads of sweat on Peter as he moves through the jungle show a good level of general detail. The films are presented in their original black & white, with a nice fresh look and good gradation of grays across the scale. But the second film is a little more harsh in tonal range than the rest. There is some minor telecine wobble in the opening credits on the first film, and all of them exhibit occasional small artefacts. During the fourth film you can see some minor aliasing on the editor's tie at 34:10, which is a good example of the sort of aliasing that happens in the films, but it is infrequent. There is one piece of significant damage at 28:37. In the first film there appears to be a missing frame or two and the picture jumps. The second film has a bit more wear than the rest, but overall they are in fairly good shape for their age.

The audio transfer on these discs has sound quality acceptable for a mono track, and this sort of material would probably gain nothing from a surround remix. The only audio track on the discs is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track encoded at a bitrate of 192 Kb/s. When listening to these tracks in Dolby Digital mode a sound field where dialogue placement is indistinct, so Pro Logic mode should be chosen. Dialogue is clear at all times, with good audio sync. As the films are dialogue driven this is a good thing. The music by Frank Skinner in the first two films, uncredited in the second two, does the job without being too memorable. It is mixed at a satisfactory level compared with the rest of the audio. There is no surround activity to mention, except that dialogue is placed nicely towards the screen in Pro Logic mode. With the overall volume level adjusted to a comfortable level the dialogue was strident at times in the first two films. There is little use of the subwoofer for bass support, even during the odd explosion during the fighting scenes in the first film.

There are no extras, but there are 4 films in the set at a decent price. As this is a 7 film series, we may see some extras padding out the 3 films in Volume 2, assuming it ever is marketed. The menu is static and allows you to choose either the first or second film on each disc. You are then taken to a second menu. From this menu you can Play the film, select a Scene (each film has 18 Chapter Stops) or enable Subtitles. The Region 4 and the Region 1 versions of this DVD set appear to be identical so that there is no preference for one over the other. The video transfer is quite good for a fairly old series of films, which would probably have been fairly low budget features at the time.

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