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Monday, May 19, 2014

Universal Mounts A Sure Thing

Francis Is Sure (Four) Footed For 1950 Grosses

Guess I'm mulish, or maybe an outright horse's ass, for not having ever watched a Francis comedy. So question to you all: Is the long-running series worthy? We had them on Charlotte's Channel 3 most Sundays, an afternoon wheel spun not only on the mule, but Ma/Pa Kettle and Abbott/Costello features. I confess further to never seeing a Kettle, then or lately. Should Greenbriar be permitted to stay open in light of such dereliction? Universal-International rode Francis hard through the 50's. There was the 1950 original and six offspring. Of course, I missed them in theatres, being too young, my age group's animal acts being Flipper, Rhino!, Clarence, The Cross-Eyed Lion, etc. These probably made Francis look like Citizen Kane by comparison. Universal used to haul their ass to theatres country-wide for live appearances. There was even a "wedding" ceremony for Francis and a femme mule conducted on stage. It is not known if consummation followed. Francis output played as singles in small houses like our Allen Theatre, which thanks to product split, got all that flowed from Universal. Bigger towns might find Francis as rear end to a newest Audie Murphy or Jeff Chandler. First of the Francis bunch, as ad-featured today, was depart from comedy gone before (unless there were previous talking mules I'm unaware of), so Universal treated the 1950 release like something very special. I'll have to assume these celebrity endorsements were on the level, names like Fred Allen, Bob Hope, Groucho, etc. not known to have been in bed with U-I at the time. I'd figure then, that each truly liked Francis, and wanted us to like him too. Universal in addition did a hard sell trailer, viewable at You Tube, with Don Wilson, assisted by Rock Hudson, interviewing preview patrons. It's an all-time classic among previews.


Blogger JAMES said...

FRANCIS and THE KETTLES were huge boxoffice in small towns playing best time. The FRANCIS drawing power was also helped by his pal, Donald O'Connor. Also helping UI pictures at the time were the great pressbook ads. UI may not have been the company of choice in the big cities but small towns loved those westerns with Audie Murphy and Tony Curtis/Piper Laurie flicks. Yvonne DeCarlo and Dorothy Malone were dream gals for the likes of Rock Hudson and Stephen McNally. Our theater even did big business with YES SIR, THAT'S MY BABY, HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL, WALKING MY BABY BACK HOME in best playing time. Couldn't sell our small town on the Bogart, Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck and such films. Those UI pictures were also the money makers for drive-ins. When the family pictures slowed down the drive-ins started closing.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I caught Francis and Ma & Pa on Saturday afternoon runs from WREC tv in Memphis, TN.
I must say I was a much bigger fan of the Ma & Pa series of movies.
If you've ever seen "The Egg and I" with Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert you've seen the birth of the Ma/Pa characters.
The IMDB page of "The Egg and I" features a poster with Ma/Pa prominently displayed and Fred and Claudette second fiddle. Probably a re-release to cash in on the Ma/Pa craze.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My vote for best line EVAH to be published on GPS:
"Universal used to haul their ass to theatres country-wide for live appearances"! Bravo! Great stuff!

Hey,John, you were a late convert to the comic genius of Bowery Boy Huntz Hall (Francis aficionado Groucho Marx once hailed Huntz as the "American Chaplin," but not in a studio display ad), so maybe there's still hope for Percy Kilbride and lower tier U-I company?

10:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, I would probably like the Francis and Kettle pics fine, as I'm a fan of Universal-International from that period. It's just a matter of sitting down to watch, as in so many movies, so little time ...

11:02 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I can't buy the fact that Bob Hope contributed to the FRANCIS raves, unless there was a paycheck in it.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

For many of us boomers, i'm afraid MR. ED did to the FRANCIS movies what THE FLINTSTONES did to all those assorted caveman cartoons from the 30's, 40's and 50's. The overkill of a long running dare-we-say one joke TV series neutered most of the charm from the original. The sample print ad, the offbeat trailer both suggest UI was quick to jump on a couple of strong selling points. First, 'different' (well, by 1950 standards Francis was seen as down right off-the-wall) was the only way to blast audiences out of the living room and back into theaters. And the gimmick of the title character is treated as a big surprise... the coming attraction won't even let us hear what Francis sounds like! Secondly, much is made of the military angle; I bet a lot of ex-servicemen (and in 1950, there WERE a lot of ex-servicemen) thought the idea of a jackass telling off the top brass was the height of humor.

I'm sorta with Rusty... the Kettles hold up better. Unlike the Francis flicks, you can even watch them back to back and not fall into a stupor.

11:39 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Francis director Arthur Lubin (any kin to Philly film pioneer Sigmund Lubin?) had a fondness for talking animals - he also produced/directed the "Mister Ed" TV series, and directed "The Incredible Mr. Limpet."

The last entries in the Francis and Kettle series had some cast changes: "The Kettles in the Ozarks" had Parker Fennelly (Titus Moody of Fred Allen's show) pinch-hitting for Percy Kilbride, and "Francis in the Haunted House" had Mickey Rooney replacing Donald O'Connor, and Paul Frees voicing the mule instead of Chill Wills.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

That preview -- was Universal serious in comparing "Francis" to "My Man Godfrey"? I wonder what Bill Powell thought of that. It was a shocker to see Ray Collins -- I bet he gives the best performance in the picture.

I agree with Mike Cline -- I bet everyone in that ad cashed a check in order to put their name under someone else's words.

1:19 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson considers "family" films that followed Francis:

Perhaps the family-friendly Bs faded because there was no cheap fix to compete with identical television product. Westerns, private eyes and horrors could crank up the sex and violence with little or no extra money, but visibly differentiating Francis from a show like Mister Ed would take serious spending on stunts, locations, animal wranglers, etc.

There came a point where Disney seemed to monopolize that market, able to sell sitcom-scaled fare on the strength of their name alone (Exhibit A: "Misadventures of Merlin Jones"). Although I do remember a flurry of stuff in the late 60s and early 70s when smaller players rolled out imitation gimmick comedies, even unleashing a faux Love Bug.

As a boomer kid, I grasped there were essentially three kinds of kid/family films: the throwaway Disneys and such (with kid protagonists and lovable animals causing property damage); the big holiday releases, usually fantasies and/or musicals; and the earnest little good-for-you films, sometimes genuinely good but sometimes just slow and depressing.

Any film whose advertising was primarily "At last a DECENT film for DECENT people" was probably going to be awful, on a par with exploitation films that offered bad reviews and lousy receipts as proof "They" didn't want you to see The Truth.

2:30 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Another vote for Francis from reader "Ken":

Unlike you, I was the perfect age to see Francis, the Talking Mule in my local theater. Yes, it was another case of a second lead in "A" films playing the lead in a "B" series -- Donald O'Conner. But it was the voice of Francis that I loved -- and it was provided by Chill Wills, who was later to blow his own ALAMO trumpet so hard he was angrily denied an AA nomination and did no favors for Wayne's film while he was at it.

Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the talking mule, and The Bowery Boys -- Those were great days for a 15-cent Saturday matinee in the mid-50s!


3:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts sings praise for Universal's comedy franchise:


You asked if the Universal Comedy Franchises (or, as we used to call them, the Cinematic Oeuvre of Charles Lamont) of Francis tha Talking Mule and Ma and Pa Kettle are worth watching and the simple answer is heck yeah. I prefer The Kettles slightly over the Francis Comedies, but it is really more a matter of diminishing returns with the Francis series. The first one is delightful, but they do begin to wear thin as they go on. The Kettles are really helped by the comic chemistry of Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main, and though THE EGG AND I is a first-rate comedy by any standard, the actual series films begin to take on some pretty surreal plot devices and stay fun with great supporting casts as well. You realize how important Kilbride was to the series when he is replaced by Parker Fennelly, who had decent comedy chops (he had been part of Fred Allen's Alley on radio), but you just miss Kilbride in the role.

Universal was in many ways the last gasp of old-time comedy as far as features were concerned from the forties onward, giving employment to some of the same folk who toiled over at Columbia on the shorts,and with Abbott and Costello, Francis, and the Kettles keeping the old traditions alive with a fair degree of financial success way into the fifties. I also liked their "Willie and Joe" films, which I wish they had continued as a longer series (they only did two I believe), but the first one, UP FRONT (1951)was a wonderful recreation of some of Bill Maudlin's best cartoons and David Wayne and Tom Ewell were perfect as Willie and Joe (in the second film, they replaced Wayne with Harvey Lembeck and it didn't work as well).

Anyhoo, give the Francis and Kettles a look, film snobs look down their noses at the fare that sold well in the rural areas these days, but seems to me these so-called rural folk had a better handle on solid entertainment than them city slickers ever did.


5:20 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Director Lubin also discovered Clint Eastwood pumping gas and put him under personal contract, loaning him to Universal for several pictures including his first credited role, in FRANCIS IN THE NAVY. Clint also played himself on an episode of "Mr. Ed.'' That said, my only personal exposure to the series was in the fifth grade, at an elementary school screening of the abysmal series finale FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE with Mickey Rooney replacing O'Connor.

5:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Somewhere I remember an interview with Arthur Lubin where he spoke of Eastwood to effect that the actor never expressed gratitude for a career Lubin had made possible.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

I prefer the Kettles to Francis. The Francis films are pretty dated & most of them have military plots. The early Kettles are fun but the later ones are pretty blah.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

We loved THE KETTLES and FRANCIS in Minto and Chipman, New Brunswick, Canada where I saw them as a kid. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN scared the yell out of me. Years later when I ran it as part of a complete Universal FRANKENSTEIN marathon the audience groaned when we got to HOUSE OF DRACULA but ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (at around 6am in the morning) had us all awake. It was then that I realized it had scared me silly as a kid (the scene where Costello tries to sit in the chair with the Frankenstein monster).

7:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader "Randy" shares some thoughts on Francis, Donald O'Connor, and the Kettles:


When I was living in Arkansas a number of years ago, a gentleman named Ray Nielsen hosted a Saturday night "classic movies" program titled "The Good Times Picture Show" on the local PBS station. After the feature, Nielsen would speak by telephone to someone connected with the picture he'd just shown. On one occasion he spoke with Donald O'Connor, who I remember being quite bitter about all those "Francis, the Talking Mule" films. After "Singin' in the Rain" for M-G-M, O'Connor believed he was set for bigger things, but Universal refused to let him go. So instead of headlining musicals at Metro, O'Connor spent the next few years playing straight man to Francis.

As to the worth of the pictures, I've honestly never seen one. Or a Ma and Pa Kettle picture, either. That's not snobbishness on my part. Lord knows I've sat through enough bad movies in my life to have little room to look down my nose at anything. I suppose it's just that neither Francis nor the Kettles have ever been able to coordinate their schedules with mine.

I enjoy your posts, as always.


11:40 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

That trailer is a total fabrication! Two of the alleged patrons are character players Bob Jellison (laughing boy) and Michael Ross (blunt-talking). I also think real moviegoers wouldn't ignore Don Wilson and walk brazenly in front of him.

John, my personal favorite Francis is FRANCIS JOINS THE WACS, which U-I promoted as the high point of the series. You might try that one (and there's always Mamie Van Doren and Julie Adams if you get bored by the mule). You should continue to avoid FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE. The Kettles have more personality than the Francis pictures, in my opinion; the scripts don't depend on a gimmick.

2:01 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Walter Lantz did a series of "Ma & Pa" cartoons around that time, based on the Kettle films.

And there was a Francis comic strip that ran in newspapers in 1953-54:

2:43 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

So, speaking of les oeuvres de Charles Lamont, you do realize that this makes two Lamont-focused posts in a row, right?

I can't wait till it's H. Bruce Humberstone week...

11:24 PM  

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