"Francis the Talking Mule"--the beautiful and talented mule that starred with Donald O'Connor in six laugh-filled, rollicking major motion pictures, then one with Mickey Rooney--was originally named MOLLY. In the films, Francis is supposed to be male (his gruff voice-over provided by famous character actor Chill Wills in 6 of the 7 films) but in reality MOLLY was of course a female. Mamie Van Doren--blonde bombshell and a contract player at Universal at the time--recalled, "Of course, Francis was really a female because the censors would not allow a mule's [slang word for male member] on screen, effectively upstaging everyone!"
The series of films was based on a novel by author David Stern. Universal Studios bought the rights to make the film series, and Stern wrote the screenplay for the first film, "Francis" (1950). The films focused on the exploits of Francis, an experienced Army mule, and Peter Stirling, the young soldier whom he befriends. Actor-dancer-comedian Donald O'Connor received top billing as Peter, but the true star and source of laughs for the audience was undoubtedly Francis. While O'Connor co-starred with Molly in the first six Francis films, Mickey Rooney appeared in the seventh and last film.
MOLLY originally hailed from Missouri, the "Show Me" state. Edward D. Frazier of Drexel, Missouri was arguably the best breeder of mules in the country, and most likely won more fair championships than any other mule breeder in history. He provided mule mascots for the National Democratic Party (it didn't hurt that he knew fellow Missourian Harry S. Truman) and anyone else who needed one of the finest mules available. His mules consistently won fair and other championships for their breeding and looks. In 1938, one of Ed's mules, Champ Clark--blue-ribbon winner at the Sedalia Fair--was sold to a fellow who shipped it to Hollywood to appear in a film titled "I'm From Missouri." In 1949, a Missouri news photographer named Jack Hackethorn apparently heard that Universal Studios was looking for a mule. He bought MOLLY from Frazier Farms for a reported $200 and convinced Universal to spring for the $450 air fare to fly her out to Hollywood for a screen test. Competing against eight other mules from across the U.S., MOLLY was selected--it is said--for her "appeal, great personality, long eyelashes and photogenic face."
On a fun note, it is said that Molly had to go on a strict diet after her first movie. The poor gal had gained 200 extra pounds because the cast and crew kept feeding her carrots and whatever else she wanted, spoiling her. It was said that everyone loved the mule, except for maybe Donald O'Connor, who felt he was second fiddle to her fame.
MOLLY, under her stage name, went on to become one of the most well-known and loved characters of mid-century America. What a Cinderella Story! She was trained in Hollywood by none other than Will Rogers, and his assistant Les Hilton. Hilton went on to be one of the most famous equine trainers in Hollywood history He also trained the TV "Flicka" (an Arabian purebred originally named Wahana (Find A Grave Memorial #92451561) that starred in the series "My Friend Flicka" with Gene Evans, Anita Louise and Johnny Washbrook), and "Mr. Ed" (a palomino named Bamboo Harvester that starred in the TV series "Mr. Ed" with actor Alan Young).
For a simple mule, Francis certainly got around—to the jungles of Burma in "Francis" (1950), the Santa Anita race track in "Francis Goes to the Races" (1951), West Point in "Francis Goes to West Point" (1952), and to New York City in "Francis Covers the Big Town" (1953). He also joined the WACs in "Francis Joins the WACS" (1954), the US Navy in "Francis in the Navy" (1955) and solved a murder mystery in "Francis in the Haunted House" (1956). In 1952 Francis even made an appearance on the popular game show "What's My Line?" The Francis series, along with the hillbilly antics of their "Ma and Pa Kettle" films, helped to keep the financially struggling Universal-International studio afloat. Molly was rumored to have had an uncredited part in one of the "Ma and Pa Kettle" films herself.
Universal knew they had a good thing going, and with the first film so popular, the studio saw no reason to innovate with subsequent releases. All the Francis films are based on the same premise: Francis, a mule from the Army's 123rd Mule Detachment (serial number M52519), will speak only to one person—in the first six movies, to a young soldier named Peter Stirling, and in the seventh, to David Prescott, nephew of his former owner.
Kids loved Francis in the early 1950s. Dell published a series of "Francis the Talking Mule" comic books, and there was also a syndicated "Francis" strip in the newspaper "funny papers" written by Frank Thomas and drawn by Cliff Rogerson.
Donald O'Connor is not known to have ever spoken ill of the mule (even though Francis was receiving more fan mail than him). Not wanting to expose the fact that Francis was actually a female, he referred publicly to Francis in the male reference. "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. Francis had three understudies, but nine out of ten times, they'd balk and he'd have to do it anyway. He was a trouper."
MOLLY won a very prestigious award during her career. In 1951, she became the very first animal to win the coveted Picture Animal Star of the Year from the American Humane Association. She also came in second place for several years running. Francis lived her later years on Les Hilton's ranch--in quiet obscurity, like so many retired film stars.
We don't know the details surround Molly's death. Les Hilton probably had her cremated and spread her ashes in an unknown but meaningful spot as he later did for Bamboo Harvester ("Mr. Ed"). If we find out Molly's birth date and/or more about her final years, we will certainly post it here.
Specifically: Date and Place Unknown
Created by: Gaz
Record added: Aug 15, 2012
Find A Grave Memorial# 95415289