Before any praise can be heaped upon the magnificent horse, we must first give due to the maligned mule.
In modern culture, it was Francis the Talking Mule who came before Mr. Ed in the talking animal genre of Hollywood. Francis (née Molly, would you believe) would not curry favor with studio bigwigs. Neigh, rather nay, it was the golden Palomino, like the hot blondes of the Hollywood Babylon, that would win out in the exciting new medium of television.
Francis and Donald O’Connor – a hoofer in his own right – were the dynamic duo in the movies before Mr. Ed and Alan Young (aka Wilbur Post) took the routine to TV in 1961.
Francis was an Army mule, 123rd Mule Detachment, who starred in seven movies, including – Let’s say it all together now –“Francis Goes to West Point.”
But it was the taller, muscular horse that would be the oat-burner of choice for TV. Mr. Ed was the only horse who ruled the airwaves from 1961 to 1966. “Wilburrrrrrr” – Ed’s architect owner, who had his office in the barn –played second fiddle to the horse. But Ed was no hapless character who relied on hijinks for laughs. He offered insight – from smoothing over matrimonial spats for his clueless owner to prank-calling neighbors, including a young Clint Eastwood.
(It’s interesting to note that “talking horse” led to “talking horsepower,” as in “My Mother the Car,” which starred Jerry Van Dyke and Ann Sothern as the voice of the car. Needless to say it lasted one season, 1965-66) and has been razzed as the worst TV show ever, although there are certainly a lot more contenders –“Joanie Loves Chachi,” “Cop Rock,” “Bethenny Ever After” or “Housewives of (insert city, state or county).”)
Alas, after Mr. Ed’s run on TV, no horse was ready to take over the reins.
Those steeds on “Bonanza,” “The Big Valley” and “The Virginian” were merely background for the human stars.
Among the major studios, Disney tried to bring the horse to a starring role in 1968 with “The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit,” starring Kurt Russell and Dean Jones. The studio tried in 1976 to resurrect the mule in the movie “Gus,” a Don Knotts vehicle that featured an animal with a penchant for kicking field goals. But Gus did not talk. We would have to wait until 2001 and leave it up to DreamWorks to bring back a talking mule in “Shrek,” with Eddie Murphy giving voice to the character Donkey. The horse was back in “Seabiscuit” (2003), showing its legs in “Secretariat” and “War Horse.”
Horses also had dramatic turns in two popular movies, in which they unfortunately met ignoble ends. In “Animal House,” Flounder fires a blank-filled gun near Neidermeyer’s horse in Dean Wormer’s office and the horse drops dead of a heart attack. Who will forget the sound of the chainsaw as the janitors attempt to move the horse the next morning – now in full rigor – through the dean’s office door?
In “The Godfather,” the untimely arrival of Hollywood producer Jack Woltz’s prized horse, Khartoum, under cover of night – and blanket – gave new meaning to the term “bed head.” And who will forget the sound of Woltz wailing into the early morning light?
Back on the tube, no one could fill Mr. Ed’s shoes, though Chestnut on CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” has taken up the challenge. The Eye Network, however, has chosen to relegate Chestnut to non-recurring status.
Our next chance of seeing horses – plural – in starring roles on TV is this month, first with the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness and then the Belmont Stakes.
Would it be too much for Disney to show up at the end of the race and ask the winning horse: “You’ve just won the Kentucky Derby. What are you going to do next?”
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll horse-talk on TV again.