Mister Id

No, that’s not a typo, and yes, it is a reference to the 60s TV show Mister Ed. (And no, it’s not me having a dig at our cousins across ‘the ditch’ in New Zealand, either!). A couple of people  have referred to the eponymous talking horse in relation to this blog, either on Facebook or via email, which made me think about the TV show, and decide to do a little research on it, to see if it was worthy of a post in its own right.

Like many people, I watched episodes of the show as a kid when it was re-run in the 1980s. As an adult, the only thing I remembered clearly about Mister Ed was that I’d heard they used to put peanut butter on the roof of his mouth, to give him the motion of ‘talking’. Well, according to Wikipedia, it turns out that even that isn’t true, and that they used string instead, until the horse learned how to move his mouth when his trainer touched his hoof.

In the course of my internet browsing I came across an interesting article from 1997, written by Ann Shillinglaw and published in the Journal of Popular Culture, titled ‘Mister Ed was a Sexist Pig’. In it, she argues that, through the negative portrayal of women on the series, female viewers (especially young girls who might have been watching this family show) are forced to sublimate their female-ness, and instead identify with the masculine:

The show’s female-bashing is most insidious when it comes from the mouth of the endearing talking horse. Mister Ed forces girls to question their identities, and to identify with a horse in conflict against a woman [primarily Wilbur’s wife Carol]. Therefore, females are distanced from their identities as they embrace the masculine.[1]

Shillinglaw further contends that the horse is actually a representation of Wilbur (the architect with whom Ed the horse lives), arguably even his ‘id’. [2]

It’s an interesting idea. Of course, if Ed represents just another (male) character on the show, whose primary role is to be a mate, or buddy (or alter-ego), to Wilbur, then his shape doesn’t matter – he could have been a talking pig, goat, or barn-owl. For this reason, I don’t believe there’s much to be read into the fact that Ed is a horse*. Art historian Steve Baker argued in his seminal text ‘Picturing the Beast’ that all representations of animals are merely representations of humanity in a different guise. [3] This seems appropriate for the character of Mister Ed, though elsewhere on this blog I have argued that attempts to depict the animal mind can be successful. Ultimately, though, I think I believe that we can never really know the alterity of the non-human animal.

As for the real ‘Mister Ed’, he was a gelding named Bamboo Harvester, who was trained by a fellow named Les Hamilton, who also worked as an animal trainer on the Francis the talking mule movies. Bamboo Harvester was euthanised a couple of years after the show finished filming, apparently due to health problems associated with old age, aged 21. His double, a palomino named Pumpkin, continued to appear in publicity material as Mister Ed until his death in 1979.

The show’s catchy opening titles can be viewed on YouTube.

 

*Ed’s cultural predecessor was Francis the talking mule, who starred in seven films during the 1950s, each of these directed by Arthur Lubin, the same man who went on to direct the Mister Ed TV series the following decade.

 

REFERENCES:

[1] Ann Shillinglaw, ‘Mister Ed was a sexist pig’, Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 30 no. 4, 1997, p. 251

[2] ibid

[3] Steve Baker, Picturing the beast: animals, identity, and representation, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2001

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2 thoughts on “Mister Id

  1. Thanks for this post. I ca now move on in my mind and stop considering Mister Ed in terms of performance and horses. I too thought it was peanut butter! Ah, popular myths…
    I wonder if Bamboo Harvester enjoyed his stint of acting? I wonder if there is an exhibit somewhere in the world in tribute to his contribution to bovine celebrity, like the one we have for Pharlap?

    • Hi Camille,

      Thanks for your comment. In view of your reference to the blog post ‘performing the horse’ I think the character of Mister Ed is not, in fact, performing a horse at all, but is instead doing what Steve Baker claims all animal representations are, and that is ‘performing the human’. In the show, Ed plays baseball, surfs, and flies a plane. His first distinguishing feature is the fact that he talks, a particularly human (and un-horsey) thing to do!

      I don’t think that Bamboo Harvester has any sort of shrine to his equine celebrity (from what I read they pretty much didn’t tell anyone he’d died, and so most of the attention went to Pumpkin when he died, as everyone thought Pumpkin was Mister Ed), but a search on Google will reveal some virtual shrines, which is at least something.

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