I have no idea what drew me to watch Francis in the Navy this afternoon. Whilst out shopping I came upon a DVD copy in a $5 bin – and debated internally whether or not to follow my impulse and buy it. In my childhood and teenage years I can remember watching at least some of the Francis films on TV; so I was aware of the film series. What I couldn’t remember was whether or not I had seen this film. My justification for this ‘impulse buy’ continued – I can include it as part of my on-going investigation into American Drama in the 1950s, as well as not having a copy of any of the Francis films this would make and excellent addition to my private collection, particularly in regards to American Comedy, etc. I bought it. Little did I realize that I had bought a real little gem of a film, that subsequently led to a number of different discoveries; such as – this is the first film credit for Clint Eastwood who makes a number of appearances as one of the US Navy sailors involved in the plot, appearing alongside with featured players and ‘stars’, Donald O’Connor, Martha Hyer, and Jim Backus. Also – discovering more about the director, Arthur Lubin (1898-1995) whose life and body of work, now largely forgotten, was quite exceptional and successful.
Francis The Talking Mule was a popular American film series, comprising seven films starting with Francis (1950) and ending with Francis in the Haunted House (1956). The series starred Donald O’Connor a wonderful and energetic American comedian who is probably best known for his hilarious performance in Singin’ in The Rain (1952), with Chill Wills memorably providing the voice for ‘Francis’, in what is distinctly an Afro-American accent – language, rhythm and pitch; Wills was ‘white’.
The relationship between ‘Francis’ and his human, ‘Peter Sterling’ (played by Donald O’Connor) operates like and old American vaudeville act, not dissimilar to the Abbott and Costello; at one stage they even call each other ‘mate’. In the same vintage as Bert Williams‘ persona, Francis is the wise and wisecracking old sage who helps his incompetent human survive the challenges of life in a number of different scenarios. These comic scenarios follow conventional forms and means of ‘classical’ comedy, such as ‘mistaken identity’, slapstick humour (plenty of pratfalls etc), and quick witty dialogue dominated by wise-cracks. Furthermore, following contemporary comparisons, the films of Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers, the situation of each film is summed up in the title of the respective films, such as Francis in the Navy (1955). The similarity between the Francis and the Abbott and Costello film series is understandable. They shared a director, ARTHUR LUBIN.
First and foremost, to enjoy any of the Francis films you need to be a fan of Donald O’Connor. I am – ever since I first saw Singin’ in the Rain. The vitality and inventive expressiveness of Donald O’Connor’s comic persona gives a boost to any of the many films in which he performed. This particular comic zanni persona, a modern-day Harelquino, is encapsulated in his work, such as in Singin’ in The Rain with his brilliant performance of the song Make ‘Em Laugh; and also in Francis in the Navy. The basic comic scenario for this film is ‘mistaken identity’, with Donald O’Connor playing dual roles, Lieutenant Peter Sterling (in the US Army), and his ‘doppelganger’ Bosun’s Mate ‘Slicker’ Donovan (in the US Navy); complicated by Francis being sold to the Navy. In one scene involving both characters there is the ‘classic’ fake ‘mirror’ comic scenario, with the ‘Slicker’ character mimicing what the the Peter Sterling character does in order to avoid detection etc. It is a short scene that doesn’t necessarily advance the plot, but it is an example of style of American Hollywood comedy that sadly is no longer really present in modern film comedies, one where the ‘star’ comedian does a particular ‘classic’ act; in this case the fake ‘mirror’ act. O’Connor is fantastic in this scene; with his characteristic quickness and physical agility and inventive expressiveness. There is also Donald O’Connor’s version of the ‘classic’ mimicry ‘boxing match’ scenario, made famous by Chaplin, whereby his Peter Sterling character has to pretend to be an expert boxer – and he is not – so has to fake it. Hilarious!
I think, however, it can be acknowledged that comic genius’ that these artists may be, nonetheless, they needed a director to help bring out the best in them. Taking into account the relatively large number of films they respectively did together it would seem that Donald O’Connor, as well as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, had a very productive and successful collaboration with their director, Arthur Lubin.
Arthur Lubin is a fascinating Hollywood director. As a young man he was considered quite a radical – being arrested for ‘obscenity’ in Los Angeles in 1925 for putting on a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (1924). He was, however, in his main film-making days in the 1940s and 1950s considered a stable and reliable ‘studio director’, particularly of B-Grade comedies. Even though Rubin had a desire to do more than just the comedies, nonetheless, his particular skill was in successfully harnessing and directing comic masters – not an easy feat. Major films that Lubin made include, the first ‘musical’ film version of The Phantom of the Opera (1943) with Nelson Eddy and Claude Rains, and Rhubard (1951), a truly wonderful American ‘screwball’ comedy about a cat who inherits a professional base-ball team. Cat-lovers – watch it; it’s terrific!
The Francis the Talking Mule film series sits in the background of the early 1950s in the USA. Whilst there are a number of ‘Cold War’ references, notably both US Army and Navy being involved in a kind of ‘war games’, nonetheless, it is not a major feature – a statement in itself.
Writing this post won’t stop the cultural amnesia associated with all of this, but it does give it a pause, and maybe encourage you to watch some of these films.