Before there was Mister Ed in the 1960s, there was Francis the Talking Mule.
Francis became a celebrity in the 1950s when the character was the star of seven movies.
Although Francis was a male in the movies, he was actually played by a female named Molly. A female was selected because she was easy to handle.
Francis (Molly) was trained by Les Hilton and Will Rogers. Les Hilton would go on to train Mister Ed.
Francis the talking mule was based on a popular book by David Stern about a military man who meets a mule who can talk.
Universal Studios bought the rights for a film series, with David Stern adapting his own script for the first movie, simply titled Francis (1950). According to author Pauline Bartel, Universal paid $350 for the animal, but made millions from the film series.
The book and series focused on the exploits of Francis, an experienced Army mule, and Peter Stirling, the young soldier whom he befriends and stays with through civilian life and then back into the military. Donald's O'Connor originally played Peter Stirling and would appear in six of the films.
The seven films featuring Molly was Francis the Talking Mule are:
Francis Goes to the Races (1951)
Francis Goes to West Point (1952)
Francis Covers the Big Town (1953)
Francis Joins the WACS (1954)
Francis in the Navy (1955)
Francis in the Haunted House (1956)
As the titles indicated, each film had 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 Navy. However, only Peter Stirling, could hear Francis talk which would provide for a comedy of errors for Francis' Master.
The distinctive voice of Francis was provided by veteran character actor Chill Wills. Wills lent his deep, rough vocal texture and Western twang to the cynical and sardonic mule. As was customary at the time, Wills never received billing for his vocal work, he provided the voice in six of the films and for the one televison appearnce by Francis (Molly).
Arthur Lubin, the producer of the movies, later went on to create the Mister Ed television series.
The same technical technique of teaching Francis (Molly) to move his mouth was later used on Mister Ed. Mules are very smart animals and will do what they are asked to do as long as you are kind and gentle with them. Les Hilton used a thread fed into the animal's mouth, which when tugged, would cause Francis (Molly) to try to remove it by moving her lips.
Francis the Talking Mule (Molly) also appeared on the television show What's My Line in an episode in 1952.
Francis the Talking Mule also became a popular comic book series.
Francis (Molly) was the very first recipient of the American Humane Association Annual Patsy award in 1950 taking first place in the Motion Pictures category.
In 1952, 1954, 1955, and 1956, Francis (Molly) would take the second place Patsy award in the Motion Pictures category. In 1957, Francis (Molly) would take third place in the Motion Pictures category.
Franics (Molly) received the Patsy Award of Excellence in 1953.
Francis (Molly) won a total of seven Patsy Awards, more than any other animal actor.