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Retro : Benny and the Mule : MCA ADDS TWO MORE CLASSICS TO ITS VIDEO COLLECTION

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Continueing to mine memorable comedic moments in TV and film for its Home Video Comedy Classics, MCA/Universal has added The Jack Benny Program and Francis the Talking Mule to its collection.

Each video in the Jack Benny set (six videos at $15 apiece) contains two episodes of his acclaimed TV series, which aired on CBS from 1950 to 1964. The 12 shows, which include 10 that are new to video, feature the eternally 39-year-old clowning around with the likes of Raymond Burr, Johnny Carson, Peter Lorre, Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, the Smothers Brothers, Carol Burnett, Jayne Mansfield and James Stewart and his wife Gloria. Also featured are Benny’s popular comic sidekicks: Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Mel Blanc, Dennis Day, Frank Nelson and announcer Don Wilson.

Highlights of the collection include:

“Johnny Carson Guests” (1963): The former King of Late Night sings, dances, plays drums and performs card tricks to show Benny he can do more than host “The Tonight Show.”

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“The Peter Lorre-Joanie Sommers Show” (1962): Movie villain Lorre and Benny star in a sketch in which Lorre plays a mass murderer who mistakenly ends up with Benny’s face, thanks to a befuddled plastic surgeon (Mel Blanc). Of course, he soon takes over Benny’s show.

“Jack on Trial for Murder” (1961): Burr plays Perry Mason, but his defense tactics take a comedic turn when Benny goes on trial for murdering a noisy pet rooster.

“The Christmas Show” (1958) and “The Railroad Station” (1959): The best of the collection shows off Benny’s remarkable comedic timing. In the “Christmas Show,” Benny and Rochester go shopping for gifts. Of course, Benny’s renowned penny-pinching creates havoc with a hyper department store clerk (Blanc). In “Railway Station” Benny, Rochester and Don Wilson prepare for a train trip to New York, which culminates in Benny losing his compartment to an eloping couple.

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A full decade before TV audiences fell for a talking horse called Mr. Ed, crowds flocked to movie theaters to see the exploits of a talking mule named Francis. MCA/Universal offers four vintage Francis comedies on video at $15 apiece.

Chill Wills provided the voice of the wisecracking, bright, smart-aleck of an Army mule named Francis who seemed to know more about life, love and human nature than the experts.

Based on the book “Francis” by David Stern, the films featured Donald O’Connor as the mule’s sidekick. He hoofed and sang his way through “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Call Me Madam.” O’Connor played the not-so-bright Army 2nd Lt. Peter Sterling. And it just so happened that the Francis films were directed by Arthur Lubin, who went on to produce and direct “Mr. Ed.”

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Universal made seven Francis movies from 1949 to 1956. O’Connor starred in six; Mickey Rooney took over for the last effort, the forgettable “Francis in the Haunted House.”

The four Francis comedies now available are:

“Francis the Talking Mule” (1949): The first in the series finds Francis and Peter meeting behind enemy lines in the Burmese jungle. Patricia Medina is the love interest; look for a young Anthony (Tony) Curtis in a small role.

“Francis Goes to the Races” (1951): Francis and Peter help a beautiful girl (Piper Laurie) and her grandfather (Cecil Kellaway) save their racehorses from an evil gambler and his gang.

“Francis Joins the WACS” (1954): A clerical error sends Peter back to the Army, where he’s mistakenly listed as a female. Lynn Bari, Julia Adams and Mamie Van Doren co-star.

“Francis in the Navy” (1955): When Francis is appropriated by the Navy and is about to be auctioned off as surplus, Peter tries to come to his rescue. Look for Clint Eastwood, David Janssen and Martin Milner in supporting roles.

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