A few days ago, out of curiosity, I looked up the old sitcom Mister Ed, expecting a little cheesy fun at best. To my surprise, I found myself laughing out loud time and again. It’s not brilliant by any means; in fact, it’s frequently pretty stupid, but it’s sweet and often hilarious.
In case you don’t know, the show involves a young couple, Wilbur and Carol Post, who buy a house that includes an old horse in the back barn. The horse, named Mister Ed, reveals to Wilbur that he can talk, but refuses to talk to anyone but Wilbur because he’s the only one worth talking to. Every week Wilbur runs into some kind of problem, often caused or complicated by the sarcastic and over-sensitive Ed, from which he has to extricate himself with what wits he has, sometimes with Ed’s help.
With a premise like that, you might think that the show depended solely on cheap jokes for its appeal. There is some of that, of course, but it’s not the main source of its humor. The humor comes from the various contrasting personalities mixed with a single ridiculous element. Wilbur’s an amiable everyman; neither especially bright nor especially dumb, trying to juggle the various complications and absurdities inherent in the situations he finds himself in. His wife Carol is a typical 50s housewife (which I, personally, do not mean as a bad thing): sweet, tolerant, occasionally prone to mild hysterics, but always able to keep her husband grounded. Then there are their older, bickering-but-genial neighbors the Addisons, Roger and Kay, who fight constantly while providing sarcastic commentary on the proceedings. Then, of course, there’s Ed himself, who, surprisingly enough, is a bit of a jerk. He likes Wilbur and Carol, but he’s needy, sarcastic, and kind of selfish. A number of episodes feature Ed feeling let out after Wilbur develops some new interest and pulling a mean trick to get attention before having to make it up to him.
The Addisons are particularly funny, played by the brilliant Larry Keating and Edna Skinner. They’re a pair of sarcastic, materialistic, but good-natured middle-aged grumps who occupy their time in genial bickering with each other, mostly over the fact that Kay is a spendthrift and Roger is a bit tight-fisted. They seem to straddle the line between genuinely disliking each other and just enjoying their sparring sessions. Their back-and-forth, and the contrast they present to the amiable young Posts involve some of the funniest bits in the series. Keating in particular gets a lot of laughs and probably accounts for the show’s success as much as anyone (it’s generally considered that the series went into decline following his untimely death midway through its run).
Wilbur and Carol, played by Alan Young (the future voice of Scrooge McDuck) and Connie Hines (who didn’t do much else, but was very lovely), are also a lot of fun. Alan Young shoulders the brunt of the show (they actually considered naming it the Alan Young show), and he was a marvelous comedian, especially in his scenes against Ed. There probably aren’t many men who could talk to a horse and make it convincing. He also gets a lot of mileage out of the scenes where he’s obliged to tell someone that Ed can talk, knowing full well he won’t be believed.
Connie Hines doesn’t have as much to do, being the more grounded wife, but she’s convincingly sweet and very pretty, and she and Young have good chemistry (early on there was a running gag of the Addisons walking in on them cuddling or kissing). Hers is the most ordinary character of the bunch, which gives the others someone to play off of, and she mostly ends up complaining that Wilbur spends more time with Ed than he does with her, though as Ed complains the reverse, Wilbur really can’t win. Still, their marriage is clearly a happy one, and Carol is perfectly able to keep Wilbur in line, if not out of trouble, and vice versa.
In addition to the humor, there is also the impressive acting from Mr. Ed himself. In addition to the ‘talking’ effect (in which he moves his lips in time to the lines), he performs such stunts as opening and closing the barn door, answering the phone, and even handing Wilbur his handkerchief. Mr. Ed (real name Bamboo Harvester) was one talented horse. He was well matched by Allan Lane, a former star of B-Westerns with a deep, lazy drawl that was the perfect voice for a horse. Lane gets a lot of funny lines, and he and Young play off each other well.
Young was certainly in a difficult position: he had to interact with two other actors, one of which was a horse, the other would be dubbed in later. The fact that Ed and Wilbur actually have great chemistry is a tribute to the skill of the performers, especially Young.
I don’t want to overstate the show; there’s nothing profound or artistically brilliant about it, it’s just a funny, goofy, amiable little show about a man and his talking horse. All the characters are basically decent people, the young couple is sweetly in love, the older couple is amusingly antagonistic, and the horse is a horse, of course of course, and takes pleasure in manipulating and teasing the humans. If you’re looking for some innocent fun, you could certainly do worse.