Review: 'The Original Mr. Ed', by Walter Brooks
Walter R. Brooks (1886-1958) is remembered today as the author of the Freddy the Pig children’s books. But from 1915 through the late 1940s, he was also a prolific writer of almost 200 adult short stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Esquire. Among those short stories were the series of humorous fantasies about the talking horse Mr. Ed and his often-drunken owner Wilbur Pope. There were 23 of these between 1937 and 1945, for Liberty, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and Argosy. (Plus two more unsold stories included in the 1963 collection.) Brooks eventually stopped writing anything besides a yearly Freddy the Pig novel, illustrated by Kurt Wiese. The Freddy novels came to be eagerly anticipated annually by children’s librarians and young readers, while Brooks’ earlier magazine short stories were forgotten.
Just before Brooks’ death in August 1958, Arthur Lubin, a fledgling television producer fresh from his success as the director of most of the Francis, the Talking Mule movies for Universal Studios during the 1950s, licensed from him the rights to the Mr. Ed series as Lubin’s first TV program. There was also a connection between the Francis movies and the Mister Ed TV series in that Lubin employed the same animal trainer, Lester Hilton. It took three years, but Lubin and the Filmways Television Productions company sold the concept to sponsor Studebaker Corporation for TV syndication in January 1961, and then to CBS for network broadcast in October. Mister Ed, starring Alan Young as a bumbling young architect and a golden palomino gelding named Bamboo Harvester as the talking horse, was an extremely popular TV comedy for six seasons from 1961 through 1966, and in reruns and DVD sales since then. Brooks’ original mildly bawdy humor, emphasizing Wilbur’s and Mr. Ed’s comedic drunkenness and Ed’s earthiness, was toned down considerably for the family TV audience.
There were other changes between Brooks’ stories and the TV sitcom. Wilbur Pope became Wilbur Post. Wilbur as played by Alan Young became a successful young architect; a likeable but ineffectual nerd. The TV Wilbur was self-employed, with his office in his Southern California suburban house’s modern barn. Brooks’ Wilbur was considerably older and less loveable, living in NYC’s “bedroom community” of Mt. Kisco, NY, and was just one of several architects employed by a big NYC firm; Lamson, Camphire, Leatherbee & Wallet. (In some stories it was an advertising agency and Wilbur was an advertising account executive.) Wilbur’s lively socialite wife Carlotta, who liked to host crowded cocktail parties and invite former boyfriends to them, became sitcom meek housewife Carol, because Carlotta was felt to sound too foreign and racy for Americans.
One of the TV merchandising tie-ins was this cheap paperback collection of nine of Brooks’ Mr. Ed short stories; the only book collection of them that there ever has been. The Original Mr. Ed avoided both the first story, “The Talking Horse” in Liberty for September 18, 1937, and the last in the series, “With Teeth and Tail”, in the August 1945 Argosy. (Also “Ed Signs the Pledge”, Argosy, June 1944, which was reportedly the story that Lubin used to sell the concept to TV executives.) But the stories were as Brooks had written them with all their risqué humor. The book emphasizes this in its back-cover blurb: “The Rowdy Misadventures of TV’s Talking Horse … This is the first time Walter Brooks’ stories have appeared in book form. Here you see a side of Ed which doesn’t come through so much on television where everything has to be pretty sedate. So if you don’t like sort of raucous language and jokes a bit on the broad side, maybe this isn’t a book for you.”
According to biographer Michael Cart in his 2009 Talking Animals and Others; The Life and Work of Walter R. Brooks, Creator of Freddy the Pig, Brooks’ widow Dorothy claimed that in 1942 the Saturday Evening Post’s editors felt that Wilbur and Mr. Ed had become too drunken for a family magazine, and instructed Brooks to have them go teetotal. Brooks’ response was to move the series to Argosy, where one of his first stories satirized the temperance movement.
The TV executives may have considered this book to be merely one of a multitude of merchandising items, but Cart says that it was actually a project of Brooks’ lifelong best friend, Francis Rufus Bellamy, to get a Mr. Ed collection published, and as a benefit to get some money for Dorothy Brooks. The two also took the opportunity to get two of Brooks’ four unpublished Mr. Ed stories into print. The nine stories each have a full-page line-drawing by Bob Bugg, whose cover shows his art style.
Ed keeps a low profile at home in the Pope’s Westchester estate’s barn. He and Wilbur do most of their communing and drinking during the solitary, quiet rides they enjoy together during Carlotta’s frequent cocktail parties. The stories’ omniscent narrator is never named, but he seems as illiterate as Ed himself. Or even more so, since “Ed Has His Mind Improved” establishes that Ed is a fan of Edgar Wallace’s mysteries. Here is a sample of Brooks’ laid-back writing. In the first story in this collection, “Ed Shoots It Out”, the Pope’s neighbor’s athletic daughter decides that Wilbur’s riding style is too loose, and she takes it on herself to cinch up Ed’s riding gear:
When he had left Miss Kirby at her gate Mr. Pope steered Ed homeward. We’ll stop at Jake’s and have some beer he said. Get off and loosen that girth first said Ed. Do my eyes look funny Wilb? I can feel ‘em bulge and I don’t believe I can hold ‘em in much longer. So Mr. Pope loosened the girth. So I ain’t strictly speaking a horse at all eh? said Ed. Well if you ask me she ain’t a girl. She’s one of those sadists you hear about. O she’s all right said Mr. Pope. Yeah? said Ed. Well you keep away from her Wilb. I don’t like the way she looks at you. Hungry. Like you was a lump of sugar. (p. 2)
Ed predicts that the spoiled, predatory Wilma “Exercise never hurt anybody” Kirby has decided that she wants Wilbur, and he will just have to divorce Carlotta and marry her. Wilbur is aghast when this turns out to be true, and Carlotta nobly proclaims that she will not stand in their way. Does Wilbur really love Carlotta, or is it just that they have a comfortable relationship together? She mostly ignores him to live as he wants, whereas Wilma would “improve” him into exhaustion. Ed determines that the one thing that Wilma’s politician-father is afraid of is a big, embarrassing public scandal, so he makes it look like the Popes are about to involve him in one and he drags Wilma away. Problem solved, to Ed’s and Wilbur’s relief.
In “The Midnight Ride of Mr. Ed”, Carlotta’s man-hating trustee Aunt Edith threatens to cut off Carlotta’s independent large allowance if she doesn’t divorce Wilbur. She refuses, but they can see that this would force Wilbur to support Carlotta in the style to which she has become accustomed, which he would be hard-pressed to do.
H’m said Ed again and then he looked at Mr. Pope and said You know Wilb I can’t ever seem to think very good when I’m thirsty. O K said Mr. Pope and he went in the house and came back with half a bottle of Scotch. Ought to be enough here to give us an idea he said. (p. 12)
The idea almost backfires and gets Wilbur committed as insane, but Ed manages to throw the suspicion on Aunt Edith in such a manner that Wilbur can blackmail her into leaving Carlotta’s trust alone.
“His Royal Harness” is one of the two “new” stories that were rejected during Brooks’ lifetime. If Cart hadn’t said so, I never would have known; it’s no better nor worse than the others. The Popes have a cousin’s family as house guests, including two little girls. Ed is usually cautious to not let anyone besides Wilbur know that he can talk, but he figures that no adult will believe two young children so he entertains them with tales of being an enchanted prince. But their mother is one of these strict modern women who won’t distinguish between fairy tales and deliberate falsehoods, and their repetitions of Ed’s stories about King Jumbo VIII and his magic kingdom get little Jean and Silvie severely punished for lying. Ed has to work his “magic” on Mrs. Hubbard to get the girls excused. Ed later amuses Wilbur with racier tales about King Hoopla XIV and his harem of concubines.
The remaining stories are “Ed Quenches an Old Flame”, “Medium Rare”, “Ed Gets a Mother Complex”, “Ed Takes the Cockeyed Initiative”, “Just a Song at Twilight”, and “Ed Takes the Brush in His Teeth”. We learn that Mr. Pope commutes by train to his office in NYC during weekdays, the Popes can afford a live-in cook, and Wilbur and Carlotta do seem to love each other after all, although she often accuses him of seeming to love his horse more than her. Through them, they are a time-capsule of late 1930s-early 1940s upper-class East Coast suburban America. Considering that these were written between 1937 and 1945, it’s surprising that there is almost nothing of Depression-era America or the Home Front during World War II about these. (In “Do Ye Ken Wilbur Pope?”, not included here, Wilbur rides Ed to Mt. Kisco’s train station instead of driving because gasoline is rationed; but the story still shows the Popes’ community’s riding to hounds.)
The Mr. Ed stories are mild fun. On the one hand, it is good that there is this collection to keep them from being forgotten, on the other it seems a shame that sixteen of them are not readily available today, and on a third these nine stories do seem to be enough – a collection of all twenty-five would grow tedious; they were never meant to all be read together. For the record, here is a complete list:
|The Talking Horse, Liberty, September 18, 1937
Horse Sense, Esquire, October 1938
Mr. Pope’s Thoroughbred, Liberty, June 10, 1939
Ed Has His Mind Improved, Liberty, October 14, 1939
Ed Shoots It Out, Liberty, June 1, 1940
The Midnight Ride of Mr. Pope, Liberty, August 3, 1940
Just a Song at Twilight, Liberty, September 21, 1940
Ed Holds a Séance, Liberty, March 1, 1941
Ed Likes to Be Beside the Seaside, Liberty, July 5, 1941
Ed Takes the Cockeyed Initiative, Liberty, September 27, 1941
Ed Gets a Mother Complex, Liberty, November 8, 1941
Mr. Pope Rides Again, The Saturday Evening Post, July 4, 1942
Bird in the Bush, The Saturday Evening Post, September 5, 1942
Dr. Atwood and Mr. Ed, The Saturday Evening Post, January 16, 1943
Do Ye Ken Wilbur Pope?, The Saturday Evening Post, June 5, 1943
Ed Quenches an Old Flame, Argosy, May 1944
Ed Signs the Pledge, Argosy, June 1944
Ed Makes Like a Horse, Argosy, August 1944
Well, Really, Mr. Pope!, Argosy, October 1944
Ed the Were Horse (a.k.a. Monster in Horse’s Clothing, Argosy, February 1945
Ed Goes Psychic (a.k.a. Such a Spiritous Horse!), Argosy, April 1945
Ed Divides and Conquers, Argosy, July 1945
With Teeth and Tail, Argosy, September 1945
His Royal Harness, only in The Original Mr. Ed
Medium Rare, only in The Original Mr. Ed