For some, the very title The Best of Mister Ed (Volume One) is a contradiction of terms. A comedy about a talking horse, Mister Ed was part of the glut of fantasy sitcoms that flooded the airwaves during the 1960s. Nearly all of these shows -- The Munsters, Bewitched, My Favorite Martian -- worked from ideas funny enough for a one-shot program, but stretched thin over a 36-episode season. Mister Ed, incredibly, ran five full years.
The program's format is established in the funny if clumsy first episode, in which absent-minded architect Wilbur Post (Alan Young) and wife Carol (Connie Hines) purchase a home in the country from neighbor Roger Addison (Larry Keating). The home's previous tenants have left their horse behind, bequeathing it to the home's next owner. Carol wants to get rid of it, but Wilbur is delighted. Alone with the horse, he wistfully recalls how, as a young boy, he had longed for a pony. "Ah," he says. "But it's been a long time since I was a boy." "It's been a long time since I was a pony," says the horse, and the show is off and running.
The horse turns out to be Mr. Ed (played by Bamboo Harvester, and voiced by Allan "Rocky" Lane, neither of whom are credited -- Mister Ed is credited only "as himself"), who refuses to talk to anyone but Wilbur. His only explanation: "I hate skeptics." Of course, Carol and Roger think the already eccentric Wilbur is nuts when he claims Mr. Ed can speak, and by the end of the first show Wilbur decides to keep Ed's abilities under wraps.
Mister Ed was produced and directed by Arthur Lubin, a longtime director at Universal who, after having helmed many of Abbott & Costello's best films, launched the highly successful seven-film "Francis the Talking Mule" series. Mister Ed is basically a domesticated version of those movies, and therein lies its biggest problem. By plunking Mr. Ed down into a stock sitcom environment (house in the country, Mertz-like neighbors, etc.), its human star is hogtied to characters and situations the show would have done better without.
The show isn't bad when the focus is on Wilbur and Ed, their friendship, conflicts, and little adventures. But too often much of the program is given over to the generally mechanical functions of Carol and Roger (and, to a lesser extent, Roger's wife, Kay, played by Edna Skinner). Carol is a typically early 60s TV wife: perky, dutiful, overly emotional and upwardly mobile, played with charm by Hines. However, her scenes are almost entirely limited to being hurt and jealous by the amount of time Wilbur spends with Ed, giving the show an odd sort of love triangle that lasted its entire run, and the character mainly comes off as petty.
Worse is Keating's Roger Addison, a greedy, unpleasant man whose petulance is almost preferable to his cheerily manipulative social climber. Keating was a good actor decent enough on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, but his stuffy character here is simply unlikable. Keating died in the middle of the show's run and was replaced by Leon Ames. It was basically the same character with a different name, but Ames played it in a more broadly comic manner, rendering it somehow less offensive.
Both Carol and Roger spend most of their time selfishly egging Wilbur to do things that will benefit them all the while bellyaching about Wilbur's friendship with Mister Ed. In "The Horsetronaut," for instance, Roger stands to make a fortune and Carol "charge cards in five different languages" if Wilbur can land a contract to design a local shopping mall, "the biggest, a really colossal one!" To impress the would-be client, though, Roger separates Wilbur from Ed, moving the architect's office to a utilitarian high-rise downtown. Naturally this upsets them both, prompting Ed to join the race to send a horse into space. (How early-60s is that!?)
The show's saving grace is the sometimes funny, sometimes sweet relationship between Young and Mister Ed. A major star on radio and the earliest days of television, Young by the early-1960s had become typed playing soft spoken, Walter Mitty types. He's well-cast here, though the show's writers are inconsistent with the character. In the best shows Wilbur is the mild eccentric happily playing chess with his talking horse, but in other episodes, as if the program needed more irritating characters, Wilbur is curt and short-fused by the trouble Ed frequently causes. Allan Lane, best remembered as Red Ryder in a series of films made at Republic in the late-1940s, is fine as the voice of Mister Ed. His deep voice has a Western authenticity, and makes Ed's amusingly caustic dialogue occasionally quite funny.
In addition to the pilot, a couple of the other shows are worth catching. Perhaps most interesting is "Clint Eastwood Meets Mister Ed," in which the then-TV star's stallion has designs on Ed's filly. Ed decides to harass the new neighbor into moving out, and soon is making crank calls to Eastwood's home (Ed calls him a "mule head") and offending producers offering the Rawhide star movie roles. Kathleen Freeman is very funny as Eastwood's maid, and the episode also features a pre-Beverly Hillbillies Donna Douglas as Eastwood's girlfriend.
Video & Audio
Like MGM's Green Acres, Mister Ed has been attractively packaged in a colorful boxed set of 21 episodes spread over three sides. The black and white show looks sharp (one can even see the nylon strings that manipulate Ed's mouth movements) with only the opening titles suffering from cramming so many episodes per side. The mono sound is fine. Like Green Acres, Mister Ed comes with a small booklet with episode descriptions and airdates, much of which is repeated on the menu screens. There are no other extras.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.