PLUS: RYAN WOOD TAKES FLIGHT; LALWA MAY LEADS THE WAY; WHAT THE JUDGES ARE TELLING YOU; REBECCA WEBBER & ZAC’S PARA DEBUT; OUR EQUINE QUARANTINE SYTEM; AGE NO BARRIER FOR OTT VETERAN; AUSSIES REIGN AT MOUNTED GAMES; THE JOY OF RAISING FOALS & FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE.
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A Few Words
FROM THE PUBLISHERS
PELOTON BUILDS ON ROAD TO PARIS
BY HEATH RYAN
STELLA & BUG SEIZE THE MOMENT
BY BRIDGET MURPHY
TOP MARKS ALL ROUND AT THE NATIONALS
BY ROGER FITZHARDINGE
RYAN WOOD TAKES FLIGHT
BY ADELE SEVERS
Off the Track
AGE NO BARRIER TO ROY’S RESURRECTION
BY ADELE SEVERS
FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE
BY SUZY JARRATT
THE JOY OF RAISING FOALS
BY DR KERRY MACK
LALWA MAY LEADS THE WAY
BY SUSANNA RODELL
REBECCA & ZAC, POWERFUL PARTNERS
BY ADELE SEVERS
WHAT THE JUDGE IS TELLING YOU
BY ROGER FITZHARDINGE
KEEPING OUR COUNTRY FREE OF DISEASE
BY DR MAXINE BRAIN
AUSSIES REIGN AT WORLDS DOWN UNDER
BY EQ LIFE
Image by Everett Collection Inc./Alamy Stock Photo.
They are brighter than donkeys, not at all stubborn, live to 50 and can kick sideways. George Washington saw the value in mules. In 1785 the first had come from Spain on October 26 and America’s earliest leader began breeding them in Virginia.
Very much later, the country’s 40th president, formerly a second-rate actor named Reagan, declared the date to officially be known as National Mule Day. That was in 1985.
Back in the 1950s a mule named Francis was enjoying international fame – up on movie screens. Originally a book called Francis by David Stern, a former US army captain, Universal Studios bought the rights for a talking mule film series. And bought the mule for $350.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan declared 26 October 'National Mule Day'. Image supplied.
What most cinemagoers didn’t know was that Francis was actually a female. Her name was Molly and she’d been purchased because of her easy-going temperament. She was green but reasonably tractable and her trainer, Les Hilton, taught her several tricks such as climbing stairs, untying a rope with her teeth and winking on cue. However, she blatantly refused to sit and had to be doubled by another trick mule.
'Francis The Talking Mule' DVD cover. Image supplied.
“The mule was more popular … and got more fan mail.”
To make her “talk” the trainer designed a bridle with a heavy thread running under her top lip. When the thread was pulled, she wiggled her lips.
Francis spoke with a deep, rough western twang which was provided by actor Chill Wills. His name never appeared in the credits, which was customary at that time. He worked on all but the last of the series.
As did the leading man, Donald O’Connor, who played Peter Sterling, a WWII army lieutenant fighting in the jungles of Burma. When he becomes separated from his platoon, he stumbles upon a mule who can talk, has a vast knowledge of army regulations and an ability to forecast enemy attacks.
The series was a vehicle for young actors like Tony Curtis (‘Francis’ 1950), Clint Eastwood (‘Francis Joins the WACS’ 1954 and ‘Francis in the Navy’ 1955), David Janssen and Leonard Nimoy (‘Francis Goes to West Point’ 1952).
At the time of his being cast O’Connor was a little-known song and dance man who’d been in a few B-grade films. He was originally from a vaudeville family in Chicago – his father had been a strongman and mother, Effie, a circus bareback rider.
The movie, Francis, was such a hit, he ended up doing six pictures with Molly. During the making of one of the series, filming was postponed because O’Connor became sick and doctors had difficulty diagnosing the illness. Eventually they discovered it was something called Q Fever, a tick-borne illness most commonly seen in cattle. The actor had caught it from the mule or one of the stand-ins.
Donald O’Connor played WWII army lieutenant Peter Sterling. Image supplied.
After Francisin the Navy, O’Connor quit. The actor decided that the mule was more popular than he was and got more fan mail. “I didn’t want to be at Universal anymore. I volunteered to do Francis in the Navy if I could get out of my contract. I did that and was released.”
Publicly he never spoke ill of his co-star. “Francis never attempted to hurt me in any way or step on me, even when I would walk behind him and hold on to his tail. He was the most docile animal I’ve ever worked with. There were three understudies, but nine out of 10 times they’d baulk, and he’d have to do the scene anyway. He was a trouper.”
“He was the most docile animal I’ve ever worked with.”
Donald O’Connor (Peter Sterling) and Molly (Francis) with Patricia Medina (Maureen Gelder). Image supplied.
“The mule also received the first ever PATSY award…”
Molly gained so much weight between the first and second picture the studio ordered the mule to lose 200 pounds (91kg). Her feed was reduced, and she was taken around the Hollywood Hills on long trotting trips behind a station wagon. She also had a steam room custom made for her.
Silver Screenings notes that “Universal Studios was responsible for some of the most iconic characters in American cinema, such as the square-headed Frankenstein and the sartorially superior Dracula. So, if anyone was going to make a go of a talking mule it would be Universal. Their Francis films also gave CBS the idea for a successful television series about a talking horse (Mister Ed) that ran from 1958-66.”
Mickey Rooney was cast in Francis in the Haunted House, which was to be the last of the series. The chemistry between the two stars wasn’t right and the movie flopped. Cinemagoers weren’t impressed and neither was the new leading man.
Rooney wrote in his autobiography: “In 1956 I made three turkeys, The Bold and the Brave, Francis in the Haunted House, and Magnificent Roughnecks. Nobody remembers them. I hardly remember them.”
As well as receiving loving accolades from the public the mule also received the first ever PATSY award. Beginning in 1951, the Picture Animal Top Star of the Year award honoured outstanding animal actors in film (an awards category of television animal actors was added in 1958). The inaugural PATSY ceremony was hosted by Ronald Reagan, mentioned earlier, with Jimmy Stewart presenting the prize, similar to a Golden Globe. These awards ended in 1986.
It is unsure what happened to Molly when the series finished. O’Connor joked that “Francis retired from motion pictures and went into politics!” But in all likelihood, she spent the remainder of her days on the property of trainer Les Hilton. He probably had her cremated and spread her ashes in an unknown but meaningful spot, as he later did for Mister Ed.
The Francis films (Universal Pictures 1950-56) are available on DVD and streaming services. Next month, The Harder They Fall (2021) distributed by Netflix.EQ