A Renaissance Mule | By Tomás Q. Morín
I once wished to God—or maybe it was Zeus, so steeped in mythology was I as a kid—that I would one day be as smart as the star of the Francis the Talking Mule films from the 1950s. Francis was a globetrotting, prickly Army mule—from the 123rd Mule Detachment, serial number M52519, to be exact. Each time someone expressed astonishment that a “dumb beast” like Francis could talk, he would quip, “I hope to kiss a duck I can talk” or “What trick is there to talking? Any fool can do it.” This brash character that would suffer no fools was adapted to the screen by David Stern from a novel he conceived while serving in the Army during World War II.
While to the unobservant all mules probably look alike, nothing could be further from the truth. Like humans, some mules are short, fat, or lean; mix in a blonde, brunette, or even the rare champagne coif and you have an infinite variety. Imagine James Dean’s mug with its long, handsome jaw on the stocky body of a Marlon Brando and then add the funny bone of a Rodney Dangerfield, and you have a good picture of Francis.
While a dapper mule with a dry sense of humor is certainly unique, I would not have wanted as a kid to emulate this mule as much as I did had he also not been whip-smart. In what may be my favorite scene from all seven movies, Francis is in his stall reading (yes, you read that correctly!) when he proclaims in the twanged, gravel voice of veteran character actor Chill Wills, “The cosine of light over infinity calculates out to X. Hmm… that figures.” He was reading Einstein! In a later scene, Francis recites case law while testifying on behalf of his perennial sidekick Peter Stirling, played by dance genius Donald O’Connor of Singin’ in the Rain. Francis thus completes the arc of the simple plot of every movie in the series: the mule helps sad sack Peter get ahead, Peter gets into hot water, and Francis must reveal he can talk to bail his friend out of trouble. While Francis might at first be reluctant to reveal his secret, in the end because he is nothing if not loyal to his friend, he always comes through for Peter.
In film after film, an animal maligned in our culture as an obstinate, sterile, genetic freak inspired me, as a child, to learn, read, and play with words. Now, when I get tired of hearing language that is guarded, hesitant, and stale, I turn to these movies and am reminded what it sounds like when we bring back sass and brio.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Tomás Q. Morín is the winner of the 2012 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, for his collection A Larger Country. He is the co-editor with Mari L’Esperance of Coming Close: Poets Pay Tribute to Philip Levine as Teacher and Mentor. His poems have appeared in Threepenny Review, Slate, Boulevard, NER (32.2), and Narrative magazine. Read Morín’s NER poems “Royal Silence” and “Red Herring.”