If I could talk with the animals, would I?

From our June 2017 issue

By Dennis Stacey – Publisher

“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.”

Have you ever wondered how they got Ed’s lips to move? I know how. Or, at least, I thought I knew.

Though Mr. Ed was long gone before my time, I certainly knew of him. He was part of my Saturday morning cartoons as a kid growing up in the 1970s, along with reruns of The Lone Ranger and My Favorite Martian.

A recent TV commercial for some a product got me thinking about Mr. Ed. In the commercial, dogs are talking to each other and their lips are moving. These days, the lip-action is done by computer-generated imagery (CGI) and there is no mystery as to how the animals “talk”. But Mr. Ed? Well, that was a million-dollar secret back in the day!

For many years during and after the show’s run, it had been generally accepted that the show’s crew members would put a bit of peanut butter on the horse’s gums to get him to animate his lips. It was this version I’d first heard 30 or so years ago.

Ed and Francis have a few things in common

I thought it to be true, however, I recently learned that version of events was wrong. Mr. Ed star Alan Young, who played Wilbur Post, stated in later interviews that he’d invented the tale.

“Al Simon and Arthur Lubin, the producers, suggested we keep the method [of making the horse appear to talk] a secret because they thought kids would be disappointed if they found out the technical details of how it was done, so I made up the peanut butter story, and everyone bought it.” Alan said.

The truth of how it was really done was, at least for me, far more interesting.

While many believed Mr. Ed was a TV-version based on the hit 1950s movies Francis the Talking Mule, the show was actually based on a short story character from the 1930s by writer, Walter R. Brooks. The TV show did have a few things in common with the Francis movies though: namely director, Arthur Lubin, and animal trainer, Les Hilton.

To create the impression that Ed was having a conversation, animal trainer Hilton initially employed a thread technique he’d used for director Lubin’s earlier Francis films. In time, however, this trick became unnecessary.

As Alan Young recalled, “It was initially done by putting a piece of nylon thread in his mouth. But Ed actually learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof. In fact, he soon learned to do it when I stopped talking during a scene! Ed was very smart.”

It’s not called ‘sheep-sense’

Few people who grew up with, or around, horses doubt their higher-than-average animal intelligence. The expression is ‘horse-sense’ after all, not ‘sheep-sense’ or ‘chicken-sense’.

Over the years, there have been many other ‘talking’ animal movies and TV shows. From the original Dr. Doolittle movie starring Rex Harrison in 1967 to the 1990s Eddie Murphy remakes.

Perhaps the enduring success of the idea of talking pets is due to our wonder of ‘what would they say’ if they really could talk. Over the years, I’ve often wondered what my dogs were thinking.

Of course, there were times when I knew exactly what they were thinking without them needing the ability to talk.
As they sit watching me eat a piece of chicken, for example, uncontrollable drool would fall from their salivating mouths. Their watering mouths and laser-like stares said it all without uttering a single word.

They know our secrets

There were times, though, when I wished they could talk to me – like when they weren’t feeling well. As our vet once remarked, “It is much easier to know an ailment when your patient can tell you.”

I’d likely have more benign questions for them too. Questions like, “Why do you always insist on rolling in smelly things?” “How many times do you need to eat grass before you realize it makes you sick?” and “What exactly about the floor registers don’t you trust?”

However, I tell myself it is probably for the best that our pets can’t speak. They do know all our secrets, after all.

While I have every confidence my dogs would never blab my secrets, I believe they’d not be above a little blackmail every now and then…especially if it meant getting their drooling lips on my piece of chicken.

But if animals could talk? Could I envision spending hours with them, talking myself hoarse? Of course, of course.

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