“Why did you talk to me?” “The whole thing is fantastic! I just don’t understand it!”
“Don’t try…it’s bigger than both of us.”
By Paul Mavis
Flat-out one of the funniest sitcoms of the 60s. A few years ago, Shout! Factory released Mister Ed: The Complete First Season, the sweet, charming, frequently hilarious 1960s sitcom that introduced us to one of television’s most charismatic wise-asses: the talking horse, Mr. Ed, an amalgamation of expert animal training, superb special effects trickery, and a one-of-a-kind voice interpretation by Allan “Rocky” Lane. Who wouldn’t want that smart-aleck hipster horse as their snickering best friend?
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Human co-starring is tops, too, in Mister Ed, with affable Alan Young effortlessly merging with his animal co-star’s performance to create one of the most effective TV comedy teams of the 1960s. Connie Hines is delightful as his wife (and let’s not forget gorgeous as all get out), and Larry Keating and Edna Skinner are sublime as the sophisticated, bickering next-door neighbors, the Addisons. The premise may sound stupid…but the execution is clever and light, and altogether enchanting…and most importantly, hilarious.
Young Southern Californian architect Wilbur Post (Alan Young) decides it’s time to move out of the city and into the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Buying a beautifully appointed country house with his sweet, charming wife Carol (Connie Hines) by his side, Wilbur is looking forward to converting the ramshackle barn out back into his drafting room and office. But on moving day, both he and Carol discover something in the barn that wasn’t there when they first bought the house: an equally ramshackle palomino horse. Wilbur, remembering his childhood days growing up in a house similar to this one―but without the pony he always wanted―is all for recapturing his youth and keeping the horse, something his wife Carol is against…even after Wilbur cleans and brushes the beautiful palomino.
That act of kindness on Wilbur’s part towards the horse convinces Mr. Ed to finally speak to a human, shocking Wilbur into wild-eyed incredulity (while convincing his bickering neighbors, Roger and Kay Addison, played by Larry Keating and Edna Skinner, that they sold their adjacent property to a certifiable head case). Wilbur wasn’t hearing things: Mr. Ed the horse…can really talk. And to top off that miraculous feat, Mr. Ed is also a bit of a smart-ass and very probably more intelligent than the kind but fumbling Wilbur. And that context sets up the myriad number of gags and misunderstandings that will follow in Mister Ed, because Mr. Ed, out of a combination of stubbornness and laconic, needling perversity, will only speak to Wilbur―no one else. Let the farce begin.
Before we discuss network sitcoms in the 1960s, it’s important to remember that Mister Ed didn’t start out on a network. Inspired by Walter Brooks’ talking horse short stories, the Mister Ed series began to form when comedy director Arthur Lubin (who had directed the first six Francis, the Talking Mule pics, which are very Ed-like), optioned Brooks’ stories when the networks passed on a Francis TV series. With George Burns fronting the money, a pilot was shot for Mister Ed, starring Scott McKay, but the networks passed. Still believing in the concept, Lubin and Burns shot another pilot with Alan Young and most importantly, a new voice actor for Mr. Ed (Allan Lane), and sold the show directly to first-run syndication. Over 100 independent stations bought the series in 1961, garnering ratings that often beat the A-level competition over on network stations. The ratings were so strong that CBS purchased the series for the fall 1961 season.
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I’ve never understood why Mister Ed, as well as other series from the later, so-called “fantasy period” of middle-60s network television programming, has garnered only grudging respect at times from self-serious critics and historians. Is it because the central plot element―a talking horse―is just too ridiculous to be taken seriously? Stretching that point a bit, I don’t see why that should be, when logic-straining fantasies like Harry Potter and Star Wars are regarded with almost Talmudic reverence today.
Maybe it’s because it’s a sitcom―probably the least well-regarded genre on television (next to game shows), owing to that age-old prejudice here with American critics where comedy somehow is seen as intrinsically less artistically “worthy” than drama. Maybe these critics and historians are suspicious of the experience itself. Mister Ed is a sweet, innocuous show, expertly crafted despite its lighter-than-air content, and it does make you laugh―even if you don’t want to like the concept or you’re embarrassed to like it. Maybe that bothers some critics (Pauline Kael would always go off the deep-end when she railed against a movie that somehow “manipulated” her into a personal reaction she didn’t feel was worthy of the film itself).
That whole period of network programming from the mid-60s, when shows like The Flintstones, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, The Addams Family, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie drew big numbers of viewers (and more importantly, still draw viewers 60+ years later), is beloved by the fans who grew up watching those shows either first-hand or in reruns. Maybe that’s the problem with critical reputations for series like Mister Ed: they’re thought of as not “art,” but popular “junk TV” of Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” (that douche)―and thus, disposable (still a prejudice with some historians and critics who see an inverse ratio between a work’s popularity and its intrinsic worth).
Mister Ed is artful in the way it combines a sweet, sunny overall tone with clever, sharp, funny writing, an unforgettable character in the laconic, smart-assed Mr. Ed, and a spookily-accurate special effect (or natural ability) of Mr. Ed’s to interact with his talented human co- star, Alan Young, to create an absolutely believable scenario. You don’t have to call that “art” if you don’t want to (I believe it is), but obviously there’s something appealing here, or the show wouldn’t have garnered strong ratings when it originally aired, and it wouldn’t have remained on televisions uninterrupted for the last 60 years.
Mister Ed doesn’t make one wrong move in this first season, incorporating not only elements of fantasy, obviously (the main focus is a talking horse, after all), but also romantic sitcom elements, mingled in with screwball farce conventions. The set-up is simplicity itself, both in design and execution. Deftly incorporating the tendency for sitcom dads and husbands at this time to hang around the house, doing seemingly nothing (as all their male viewers wished they could have done), Mister Ed‘s Wilbur Post actually works at home in his barn/office. Separated from the main house, this physical set-up only adds to the comedy. Ed and Wilbur are forced to be together (at this point in the series, sometimes-lonely Ed would like Wilbur to hang out with him a little bit more than Wilbur does); the privacy gives them room to talk with each other (while providing humorous moments whenever anyone else walks in), while also providing a base of operations for Mr. Ed himself, who can talk on the phone―or listen in on the party line―or watch TV, his favorite pastime (of course).
Wilbur’s pretty wife, Carol, isn’t quite the center of jealousy she’ll become in later episodes, when she feels she’s competing with Wilbur’s attention for Mr. Ed. She operates, along with the Addisons next door, as a more traditional romantic and screwball character this first season, and although she doesn’t have a lot to do (the Addisons have at least as much screen time, if not more), her scenes with Wilbur are important counterpoints to Mr. Ed’s antics. After all, who cares if Wilbur has a talking horse if he’s single? He has to have a wife to hide that secret from, or there’s no story. As to criticism about her character’s one-note orientation (sitcom wife satisfying her husband while tending hearth and home), why can’t Carol be a farcical fantasy figure just as surely as seemingly indolent Wilbur is of the successful 60s suburban career man?
Even better are next door neighbors, the Addisons. Sophisticated, elegant, brittle, battling, acerbic in manner and tone, Roger and Kay remind me of William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man series…only without the good humor and the sex. Seemingly plucked out of some New York City social whirl and dropped down into the deserts of Southern California (the original Ed stories written by Walter Brooks, upon which Mister Ed was based, were set in New York, not California), Kay’s glamorous, grasping, money-hungry wife who calls her husband by his last name, is a perfect fit for her older, monied grump-of-a-husband Roger, who’s seen all of her tricks and then some…and isn’t buying one of them.
Trading waspish comments back and forth under withering stares, the Addisons harken back to that wonderfully caustic, prickly “supporting couple” element of American romantic and screwball comedy of the 30s and 40s, upping the laughs considerably when Mr. Ed isn’t shooting his mouth off at Wilbur (I can’t say enough about the talented Larry Keating and Edna Skinner here; they’re one of my favorite sitcom couples). Most fans, when recalling the series, think first of Ed and his outrageous gee-gawing, but I found the Carol and the Addison scenes just as clever and witty, in their own way (when Kay, dressed to the nines, comes over to Carol’s for a magazine photo shoot, Carol says, “You look beautiful, Loretta,” spoofing the clothes horse TV star, Loretta Young. Kay snaps back, “Today, Home Beautiful…tomorrow Playboy, to which Carol brightly responds, “Middle page, of course,”).
Leaving out the fantasy element, these segments with Wilbur and Carol and the Addisons might have made a conventionally successful sitcom all on their own. However, throwing talking horse Mr. Ed into the mix elevates the show to surrealistic heights, not merely on the strength of the concept (after all, My Mother the Car—perhaps the most high “high concept” show ever attempted—didn’t work on concept alone), but through its successful execution. When discussing the success of the Mr. Ed character, you can’t really separate the actual horse (and his trainer Lester Hilton, as well as creator/director Arthur Lubin, for that matter, in “blocking” Mr. Ed) from the voice work done by “Rocky” Lane; both elements combined to create one of television’s most memorable—and hilarious—characters. In countless interviews, co-star Alan Young has given full credit to the actual horse, Bamboo Harvester (whose name was legally changed to Mr. Ed once the show started), for being a remarkably adept “actor” who seemingly interacted with Young as if he were truly “talking” with his human counterpart (and let’s not forget Young, who pulls off an impossible role—potentially being upstaged by a horse in every scene—with effortless aplomb and skill).
Regardless of what trick was employed to move Mr. Ed’s mouth—at times, it was nylon string stuck under his gums; sometimes it was trainer Hilton tickling his feet on cue; and later, Young claims Ed miraculously “learned” to mime talking whenever he, Young, finished with a line, right on cue—the trick is so simple and yet so effective that to this day, it’s almost seamlessly matched with Lane’s equally accomplished vocals. That horse is acting; I don’t care if someone was tickling his mouth with thread or not, his watchful stillness and his perfectly timed head movements make the effect absolutely convincing. Just like that dolphin in Flipper—you either have star quality or you don’t. And Mr. Ed. had that “X factor,” that certain…something.
As for “Rocky” Lane’s vocals, simply put: even with the expert marionette and other techniques used to make Mr. Ed talk, the show wouldn’t have worked without that voice. Young saw this immediately when he viewed the first unsuccessful pilot, shot back in 1952, and when they tried to audition a multitude of replacements for Lane when he proved balky at the prospect of not receiving screen credit for his work—a point he initially demanded. Luckily, Lane is given plenty of smart, sassy lines to spit out as the drawling Mr. Ed, but even the straight lines sound funny coming from the gravelly Lane.
Trying to pinpoint exactly what makes Mr. Ed funny, the closest I could come to it was he’s a mixture of smart-assed, cynical, even rebellious tomcat (Mr. Ed never hesitates to express his romantic urges), mixed with an oftentimes blubbering, whining, petulant child who wants loads of attention—all delivered in hilariously “with it,” hipster dialogue and filtered through that seemingly incongruous, honeyed-rust Western rumble of Lane’s. No wonder teenagers and kids loved Mr. Ed back in 1961—he talked their jive and he found humans (adults) just as ripe for insouciant disdain and spoofing as they did. When Mr. Ed says, “I know I was a kooky kid,” what hip kid back in 1961 didn’t get all the levels of that joke?
You can analyze it all you want, but in the end, funny is funny, and almost every well-written line “Rocky” Lane gets off, is a scream. Trying to pick a favorite is next-to-impossible, but runner-ups include Ed very seriously stating, “I also listen in at windows,” when Wilbur catches him eavesdropping again (didn’t lines like that make you think the writers had a whole other world—a much more mature world—imagined up for Mr. Ed during his off-screen time?). “This is brutal,” is a great one when Ed sees a fumbling handyman continue to screw up at the Posts’ home. But if I had to choose, it would have to be from Ed the Lover, when Wilbur asks Ed if he’d like to be a television star. Ed, incredulous, drawls back, “Television? Not me. I know Trigger—he’s a very mixed-up horse.” Classic on every level. Mister Ed may be damned with faint praise by some as a supremely silly show which still managed to be amusing at times, but it’s one of my favorite sitcoms: bright, clever, witty, and expertly staged and performed…by humans and animal alike.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.
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