Throughout the studio’s history, Universal Pictures has delivered several successful movie franchises and lines of movies in specific genres. The studio has found success with monsters, Abbott & Costello, science fiction and film noir right up to modern day successes like the Bourne films and the Fast & the Furious franchise. Perhaps the studio’s most unusual yet successful franchise was a series of films in the 1950’s starring Donald O’Connor and a talking mule named Francis. Kino has assembled all seven films in the series for its Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 3.5/5
Francis (1950; 3.5 out of 5)
During the Burma campaign of WWII, U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor) is separated from his platoon yet is saved by a mule named Francis (voiced by Chill Wills), who can only speak to Peter. Upon being brought back to camp, his superior officers think he’s lost his mind and is placed in the psychiatric ward. However, Peter soon learns that Francis has ideas on how to win the war and tries to help out while also romancing a beautiful refugee (Patricia Medina) that has arrived in the camp.
Francis Goes to the Races (1951; 3.5 out of 5)
After being dismissed from his banking job, Peter and Francis leave town and find themselves at a nearby horse ranch. The duo come across Colonel Travers (Cecil Kellaway) and his granddaughter Frances (Piper Laurie), who are facing losing the ranch due to an unpaid debt. This leads to Peter and Francis getting involved in horse racing to help get the prize money to pay off the debt, but they also cross paths with a crime boss, who’s also trying to cash in on the Travers’ sudden good luck.
Francis Goes to West Point (1952; out 3.5 of 5)
After foiling a sabotage plot at his defense factory, Peter is rewarded with an appointment and transfer to the prestigious West Point military academy. However, Peter soon has trouble with his studies and is close to being expelled for deficiency. Enter Francis, whose happens to work there as a mascot, to help Peter with his studies; however, this leads to the next series of troubles involving the duo in matters of romance, daily military drills and even the big football game, where Francis uses his wiles to help the team win.
Francis Covers the Big Town (1953; 3.5 out of 5)
With his studies at West Point now complete, Peter and his buddy Francis make their way to New York City, where Peter gets a job with the local newspaper. Working his way up from janitorial work to copy boy, Peter soon gets a chance to get a scoop on the city’s crime underworld and break open a murder case, with Francis’ help of course. But when his encounter with gangsters soon leads to being set up for a murder charge, Peter has to rely on Francis to get him out of this latest mess and make things right.
Francis Joins the WACS (1954; 3.5 out of 5)
When Peter is called back into active duty by the Pentagon, a snafu sends him to the Women’s Army Corps rather than the Army. Upon arriving at base, he also learns that his buddy Francis has been transferred there as a guinea pig for science experiments. Both try to get out, but both Captain Jane Parker (Julie Adams) and Major Louise Simpson (Lynn Bari) have other plans, as they believe Peter can be of use to them in their upcoming camouflage drill. This leads to Peter and Francis getting mixed up in more antics on the WACS base, with Peter heading back in and out of the psychiatric ward in the process again (some things never change).
Francis in the Navy (1955; 3.5 out of 5)
Upon learning that Francis is about to be sold off in a Navy auction, Peter makes a beeline for Coronado, California to get him out. However, getting Francis out proves to be the least of his worries, as he’s quickly mistaken for Bosun Mate “Slicker” Donevan (Donald O’Connor in a dual role) and is promptly brought into the Navy base. Now in these new and unfamiliar surroundings, Peter has to survive new military training with Francis while also having to contend with Donevan’s status as a ladies’ man, which also gets him into more trouble involving Slicker’s wife Betsy (Martha Hyer).
Francis in the Haunted House (1956; 3 out of 5)
Now on his own, Francis (now voiced by Paul Frees) happens to witness strange events – including a murder – at the supposedly haunted Mac Allen Castle. Acting quickly, he contacts his new confidant David Prescott (Mickey Rooney), who also happens to be a reporter for a local newspaper. The new duo quickly investigates and discover a plot involving a gang stealing paintings and an inheritance; unfortunately for Francis, David proves to be just as bumbling as Peter was and has to save him from the crooks as well as some real ghosts.
Among long running comedy film series, Francis the Talking Mule delivers the goods more often than not on the silly premises throughout. For the first six films, the tandem of director Arthur Lubin, actor Donald O’Connor as Peter Stirling and Chill Wills voicing the eponymous Francis – often uncredited, with the notable exception of an on-screen appearance in Francis Joins the WACS – took the reins, delivering a consistent quality in terms of comedic situations; the seventh and final film in the franchise – with Charles Lamont as director (his final film), Mickey Rooney (taking over for Donald O’Connor as the lead bumbler) and Paul Frees voicing Francis – feels like a comedown in quality, despite the presence of two scene-stealers (human and animal) headlining the proceedings. While the films themselves aren’t really known for their artistic merit, they do boast some of Universal’s most notable members of the studio’s roster of crew members; the series featured contributions from screenwriter Oscar Brodney (who wrote the scripts for 3 out of the 7 films in the franchise), cinematographers Irving Glassberg, Carl E. Guthrie and George Robinson, editors Milton Carruth and Ted J. Kent, production designer Alexander Golitzen, composers Frank Skinner, Walter Scharf, Herman Stein, Irving Gertz and Henry Mancini. Among those who have crossed paths with Francis include established veterans and supporting players like Zasu Pitts (who played Valerie Humpert in two films in the series), John McIntire, Ray Collins, Robert Warwick, Frank Faylen, Cecil Kellaway, Jesse White, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, Julie Adams, Lynn Bari, Jim Backus and James Flavin, just to name a few; among those who would go on to greater heights after – though not because – appearing in the film series include Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie, David Janssen, James Best, Leonard Nimoy (in an uncredited bit in Francis Goes to West Point) and Clint Eastwood in his first credited role as “Jonesy” in Francis in the Navy. Boasting a solid roster of talent both in front of and behind the camera, the Francis the Talking Mule franchise gets plenty of mileage from its silly premises as well as a good assortment of laughs from the many situations Peter and Francis get involved in.
3D Rating: NA
The first four films in the series are presented in their original 1:37:1 aspect ratios, while Francis Joins the WACS and Francis in the Navy are presented in their original 2:00:1 aspect ratios and Francis in the Haunted House is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio for this release. Each of the transfers exhibit a faithful presentation of film grain, fine details and gray scale; there’s minimal cases of scratches, dirt, tears or other instances of print damage present. This release likely represents the best each film in the series will ever look on home video, besting all previous releases.
All seven films’ original mono soundtracks are presented on DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for this release. Dialogue, sound mixes and music scores are all presented faithfully with great clarity and fidelity with minor instances of crackling, distortion, hissing, flutter or distortion present on each track. All seven movies have likely been given their best audio presentation here on this Blu-ray set.
Special Features: 4/5
Commentaries on all 7 films – All newly recorded for this release, the history of the series – from the David Stern book that inspired the first film and its sequels to the production history for each film and bios of the many cast and crew members involved – are all covered in these commentary tracks for each film in the franchise. Among those contributing valuable information here include author/film historian Lee Gambin (Francis, Francis Joins the WACS & Francis in the Navy), film historian Eddy Von Mueller (Francis Goes to the Races & Francis in the Haunted House), Toby Roan (Francis Goes to West Point), Stephen Vagg (Francis Covers the Big Town), Staci Layne Wilson (Francis Joins the WACS) & Paul Anthony Nelson (Francis in the Navy).
Francis Goes to the Races trailer (1:03)
Francis Goes to West Point trailer (2:19)
Francis Joins the WACS trailer (0:58)
Francis in the Navy trailer (2:22)
Francis in the Haunted House trailer (2:07)
A popular and funny success for Universal in the 1950’s (not to mention a loose – though unrelated – predecessor to Mr. Ed in terms of talking quadrupeds), the Francis the Talking Mule franchise delivers on its humorous premises – more often than not – across its 7-film span. Kino has likely given all seven films in the franchise their best home video incarnation, with decent HD transfers and seven informative and insightful commentary tracks for each movie. Highly recommended and worth upgrading from previous DVD releases.
Amazon.com: Francis the Talking Mule – 7 Film Collection [Francis/Francis Goes to the Races/Francis Goes to West Point/Francis Covers the Big Town/Francis Joins the WACS/Francis in the Navy/Francis in the Haunted House]: Arthur Lubin, Charles Lamont, Donald O’Connor, Mickey Rooney, Clint Eastwood, Piper Laurie, Mamie Van Doren, Julie Adams, Martha Hyer, David Janssen, ZaSu Pitts, Tony Curtis: Movies & TV
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