Sixty years later, the goofy "The Mr. Ed Theme," crooned by by a talking horse stabled inside a suburban barn and a song pitcher, remains indelibly etched in the collective unconscious. "A horse is a horse of course of course" indeed!
Anyone surprised I've reviewed the song stylings of a talking horse shouldn't be. I signed up to evaluate anything on YouTube that grabs me—talking and singing quadrupeds always have. A hunky golden palomino raising his voice in song to a melody that may outlast the pyramids is perfect fodder for another installment of Old School Critiques.
You may be wondering why in March of 2021 someone with intellectual leanings has spent countless hours binge watching Mr. Ed—whose four-legged star is often derided by regular characters as a "dumb animal." Well, I've got a beastly side, too, but the main attraction is that there's infinitely more intelligence in that show's scripts than what passes for it in Congress today. After four years of keeping up with the politics of a bitterly divided nation, given a choice between more of that or working my way through two hundred fantasy-world episodes of Mr. Ed, I'll take the sitcom, thanks!
"I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. Ed. You may nuzzle the bride."
Ah, black and white = more innocent times. Western motif logo—yessiree! Love the atomic-age titles. Alan Young as Ed's confidante Wilbur Post has the exact sort of face a horse would talk to. Connie Hines, as the wife unit, is a babe-and-a-half who divides her time on the show either stomping off in a huff, jealous of all the attention Wilbur gives Mr. Ed, or arranging herself on Wilbur's lap in the shared comfort of their overstuffed tufted armchair. What's noteworthy about "Produced and Directed by Arthur Lubin" is that same Hollywood visionary also produced and directed the unforgettable Francis The Talking Mule movie series. Any man who made talking quadrupeds his life's work is a man after my own heart.
One initial impression I'm hesitant to disclose, but will anyway cause I can't shake it, is that certain verse forms written in the late fifties and early sixties strike me as having a superhuman quality, as if they couldn't have come into existence without an assist from certain stimulants, most likely Benzedrine. Now Alan Ginsburg would still have been a great poet even if didn't have any chemical help when he wrote Howl, and Bob Dylan still would have been a great songwriter even if he didn't have extra pep in his step as he finessed fifteen-verse epics like "It's All Right Ma" into shape. I'm not insinuating that taking advantage of any brain-enriching substance is cheating; artists use the tools they have at their disposal. Do I know for a fact that "bennies" were involved in the creation of the aforementioned works, or "The Mr. Ed Theme, for that matter?" In a word: no. But it wouldn't surprise me a bit—that stuff seems just too preternaturally good for a primate to concoct without brain boosters.
Take this sample from Ginsburg's Howl (which is like 1% of the poem, by the way) for example:
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
Are you catching my drift?
The Dylan stuff is a little more earthbound, but still seems supercharged:
Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn't talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony
While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer's pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death's honesty
Won't fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely
My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only
If uppers helped those long, serious themes hit even heavier, could they also help a short, happy theme feel even lighter?
Dirty Harry dances the rumba for Connie Hines while Mr. Ed patiently awaits his next take.
I can rattle off several other TV themes with lyrics that have shown real staying power over the test of time: "Hey Hey We're The Monkees" and "Rawhide" spring to mind.
A fair amount of people still appreciate, "hey hey we're the Monkees, people say we like to monkey around" or "rollin' rollin' rollin', keep them doggies rollin; rawhide." But that number pales with the amount of people who still rattle off "The Mr. Ed Theme" that one Jay Livingston cooked up in 1961 out of their heads.
The video starts off with a handsome horsehead peering out from behind his stall's shutters, about to pronounce in a signature basso profundo:
Hello, I'm Mr. Ed.
At which point Livingston takes the reins from the show's namesake and begins incanting:
A horse is a horse, of course of course
And no one can talk to a horse of course
That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed!
Right out of the gate, those lyrics are galloping along! There's so much to unpack in three quick lines:
- Look how balanced that first line is—horse and horse, course and course. Rhyming the same words twice in the same line is pure, unadulterated genius! I'm consumed with admiration! I've never used so many exclamation points!
- The words "horse" and "course" also appear in line two. As the human brain is attuned to hearing different words rhyme, it might be disconcerting that both the first two lines end in "course." In theory it's a problem, in reality it's a winner—this stanza has such a lilt to it, it just whizzes right by.
- Inserting "and no one can talk to a horse" in the second line sets us up for the illusion-shattering third line ...
- With "... unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed," Livingston has summarized the show's raison d'etre in one brief verse. Bravo! He didn't have to throw in "the famous" before "Mr. Ed," things would still be cantering along at a brisk clip, but doing so serves dual purposes: dazzling the crewcutted and pigtailed fifties kids tuning in to the show, while simultaneously assuring them they're doing what all the popular kids are doing.
- "That is" may be the key phrase of the song, cause the writer throws in just enough syllables to keep the cadence flowing. The third line contains another "of course" which we're still not remotely tired of, despite its third appearance in three lines!
OMG my boyhood idol, Dodgers great Sandy Koufax, schmoozing with one of the beings I most most admire.
Go right to the source and ask the horse
He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse
He's always on a steady course, talk to Mr. Ed
- Livingston had to work some other rhymes into verse two. "Source" and "endorse" are optimal choices. Wilbur knows from past experience what a valuable source of knowledge Ed (who can read) is. Ed is undoubtedly the superior problem solver, his brainstorms help Wilbur escape one jam after another—that's why Wilbur endorses his ingenious solutions—then unashamedly taking credit for them himself!
- Verse two offers yet another appearance of the word "course," this time in conjunction with the adjective "steady"—and it still isn't boring. It's true that Ed's a lot steadier than the show's daft bipeds who are always flying off the handle.
- Putting a talking horse on prime time was an inspired concept in and of itself, but the real masterstroke was portraying Mr. Ed as way smarter and more sensible than the human cast or guest stars.
Mr. Ed in Technicolor: red barn, turquoise Studebaker Lark, Golden Palomino, brown suited Wilbur, pink wife unit
People yakkity yak a streak and waste your time of day
But Mister Ed will never speak unless he has something to say
- Those two lines are, of course, (sorry) a bridge; you may not recognize them cause the theme song is abbreviated in the opening credits; the full version rolls over the end credits.
- "Yakkity yak a streak" harkens back to my previous scribblings about the possible influence of "bennies." Hey, I'd pop some too if it helped me come up with stuff like that! 999 out of 1,000 writers would have settled for "talk a streak." Too bad Benzedrine was so good it was too good; the FDA banned it around 1970.
A horse is a horse, of course, of course
And this one'll talk 'til his voice is hoarse
You never heard of a talking horse?
Well listen to this ...
I am Mister Ed
- Livingstone reprises the first sentence of verse one, but then ...
- He throws in a homophone, (two words that sound pretty much the same but have slightly different meanings and spellings) "horse/hoarse," to end the second and third lines. Can we call that a "homophonic (not homophobic!) rhyme?"
- True about "this one'll talk himself hoarse;" at any time the loquacious steed may launch into an extended monologue or soliloqoy,, flaunting his expertise on any number of current topics. I like the contraction, "one'll."
- In line three, Livingstone indulges in a little horseplay, addressing viewers directly as "you," drawing them further in, before posing a frolicsome question. He's having a little fun with the show's absurdist premise, a giveaway the producers don't take themselves too seriously.
- With "well listen to this" our theme song's about to take a little twist ...
- "... I am Mister Ed!" It's the deep hick voice of the golden palomino himself, reemerging. He can sing, too! What viewer would be nutty enough to "turn the dial" (quotes cause anyone with zero gray hair has never experienced the joy of turning a dial to change a channel) now?"
I'm blown away! The only other theme song intoned by an animal character I can think of with lyrics that can remotely hold a candle to this pièce de résistance is "The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers," from children's classic Winnie the Pooh (speaking of theme songs written under the influence of something-or-other):
The wonderful thing about tiggers
Is tiggers are wonderful things!
Their tops are made out of rubber
Their bottoms are made out of springs!
They're bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!
But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is
I'm the only one
Only as great as that one is—and it's not just a little great, it's a lot great—"Tiggers" lacks the universal appeal of an all-time blockbuster like "The Mr. Ed Theme." One reason I snuck that tidbit of semi-useful information in is that Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, oft-mentioned in the initial installment of this series, bought Cotsworth Manor and the swimming pool he was found doing the dead man's float in from the estate of Pooh author A..A. Milne!
If the buoyant strains were any less corny or any more hip, Mr. Ed wouldn't have caught fire with the public like it did. Those of you not on Medicare are unlikely to have a plenteous supply of Broadway show tunes, all the rage in the fifties and sixties, stored in your memory banks. The reason I bring them up here is that the same brass, string sections, and a percussionist or two adept at performing both showstoppers ("Oklahoma") and sillier songs ("I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair") in theaters and music halls around the nation often picked up a few extra bucks as session musicians performing incidental music and the odd theme song for TV shows. That's very likely what we have here, conducted by a musical director practiced at swiftly coming up with bits of sympathetic orchestration—just the thing for classing up low-budget TV dramas and comedies.
My favorite musical bit comes in right at 0:13, leading into verse one: it's the percussive tone of two horseshoes clanging together! Brilliant!
The Jay Livingston as main vocalist backstory is that the show's producers auditioned any number of session singers they hoped could add a pro glow to his immortal verse; only none of them sounded anywhere near wacky enough to match the show's slapstick schtick. So they stuck with Jay's demo version, reluctantly at first, until the tremendously positive response forced them to rethink ever replacing it. That noble effort's been embraced by Mr. Ed's cavalry of fans ever since.
It may have crossed your mind that producer Lubin and the great comic George Burns, the show's main financial backer and also the guy who supervised the show's writers (and the guy who made a fortune from the show's syndication), missed a trick by not assigning Ed a heavier share of the theme song's workload.
Well, it turns out that trick wasn't missed at all, it was just delayed till they sprung Mr. Ed, lead singer, on an unsuspecting public in Ed the Songwriter, Episode 12 of Season 1. Mrs. Addison's brother, a song publisher, overhears Wilbur humming a song that Ed composed in his stall, "Pretty Little Filly" (With the Ponytail). Of course Wilbur has to stand in front of Ed and pretend to sing it, cause of course horses can't speak (unless it's to Wilbur). Space prohibits a detailed probe into Sheldon Allman's inspired mini opus, but let's just say I can't imagine anyone coming up with a better song for the occasion! I've posted the entire episode below (the finished song begins at 21:54):
For all you trivia buffs out there, Mrs. Roger Addison in Mr. Ed was also Mrs. Cosmo Topper in Topper!
I especially dig the mock Beatnik trio faking the suitably zany accompaniment!
In Mister Ed's Blues, Episode 8 of Season 2, the show's brain trust once again turned to the Post family's stable of hitmakers (okay, maybe Sheldon Allman had a hoof in it, too). Kay Addison's brother reappears, desperate for another can't miss chart-topper to keep his floundering publishing company above water. Blues is all the rage, so Wilbur (via Ed) is tasked with coming up with with appropriately bluesy words and music. Once again Ed's up to the task, tapping into his natural affinity for roots and grains with "The Empty Feed Bag Blues."
Mr. Ed has been just what the horse doctor ordered for surviving the tail end of a pandemic. I never saw it the first time around, when it originally aired on CBS Sunday nights at 7 PM EST, before Lassie (a sentimental series featuring a heroic Scotch Collie) and The Ed Sullivan Show. That slot was dinner time in the Kohn household, we were still polishing off our rations of instant potatoes with instant gravy and canned vegetables before assuming our TV-watching positions for Lassie, so I never realized what I was missing.
After thrilling to this holy trinity of Mr. Ed hits, I don't envy the next biped writer/performer up for my next foray into Old School Critiques. Talk about a hard act to follow—it's gonna take something really special for any two-legged contender to exceed the lofty standards set by a superstar quadruped, the one and only Mr. Ed.