Plot: Peter (Donald O’Connor) was a young soldier in trouble on the battlefield, but he was saved by an unlikely ally with a sharp mind for combat. While Peter followed the instructions of the mysterious voice he heard, he couldn’t be sure who was behind the advice, at least not at first. But soon he realized that he had been saved by Francis, a mule who happens to talk and while Peter tried to not believe his ears, he had to admit it, even to his peers. Of course, Francis refuses to talk to anyone else and no one believes Peter’s wild claim about a talking mule, so the soldier lands on psychiatric watch for his outrageous statements. But he keeps running into Francis and the mule keeps giving him valuable combat assistance, so when his superiors ask for information, he tells them about Francis again, putting him back under suspicion. Will anyone ever believe Peter or will Francis continue to be silent around anyone but him?
Entertainment Value: I have to be honest, for a movie about a talking mule, this movie was more restrained and straight forward than I expected, especially since it is often mentioned among the funniest movies ever made. I found Francis to be humorous, but not that humorous and not a consistent source of laughs. The narrative works, with the hapless soldier that no one will believe, but there’s not much done with the premise, or at least I didn’t think so. The humor comes off as dated, including some cringe inducing racial jokes, and I just expected a more wild, hilarious experience given the premise and reputation of the movie. I did have some fun with Francis however, as the mule provides some laughs and the dynamic between Francis and Peter is effective, so the humor does land and land often. But the pace runs slow and the wackiness is low, which for me, lessened the entertainment in this one. In the end, I’d rate Francis as a movie with some solid laughs, but not a film I’d place alongside the funniest movies ever made. So if you like the concept of a talking mule, you’ll probably have some fun here, even if I can’t offer a strong recommendation.
The real star of this movie and the numerous sequels to follow is of course Francis, the titular talking mule and all. I think I expected a different vibe from the character, as Francis is a pretty serious character and not the slapstick, over the top talking animals I’m more accustomed to. The mule is often the straight man to Donald O’Connor’s hapless Peter, though that dynamic seems to work well. The voice work is gruff and restrained, which again seems to be a good approach, since O’Connor often provides the comic relief, rather than the mule. And O’Connor is fun to watch here, in a light, silly performance that pushes most of the movie’s humor. His interactions with Francis are often humorous, but he plays well with most of his costars and his exchanges with military brass are also a source of entertainment. You can also catch a young Tony Curtis in a small role, a nice bonus appearance, I think. The cast here also includes Patricia Medina, John McIntire, and Robert Warwick.