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The Frisco Kid (1979)

November 30th, 2006 · No Comments

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In Poland of 1850, recently ordained, sweet natured, ice skating rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder) – who is apparently not well liked at his yeshiva – is sent to lead a congregation in San Francisco. He arrives in Philadelphia and learns that his transport to California has encountered gold rush fever and set sail without him.

Avram is quickly robbed of everything but his clothes and Torah. He crosses paths with some farmers he mistakes for brethren, but closer inspection reveals them to be Amish. They give the rabbi train fare, and his next encounter is with kind hearted bank robber Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford).

Wandering the countryside without a clue, Avram endears himself to Tommy, who decides to take the rabbi to San Francisco, where the rabbinical council promised him a pretty bride. Whether encountering Indians, a posse, or the desperadoes who ripped him off, Avram sticks to his Orthodox teachings as he travels through the wild west.

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Directed by Robert Aldrich and written by Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, The Frisco Kid – while not a success at the box office – seems to have endeared itself to many over the years, whether kids who grew up with HBO and recall it fondly, or with those who welcome a comedy without crude jokes or profanity. If released today, this would be marketed as a family film.

While Elias had a screenwriting credit on The Jerk and Shaw had a background writing for Bill Cosby, I didn’t laugh once while watching this. Not intentionally anyway. Known for hard edged action films pitting man against the establishment, this is the only comedy Aldrich ever really attempted. He quickly proves to be an abysmal selection.

Not that this business would have been good if only Carl Reiner had directed it. The story is just a series of random episodes – Wilder and Ford fall off a cliff on their horses, Wilder and Ford captured by Injuns – and lacks any cohesion. The opening moments are set in 19th century Poland and feature old men shouting in Yiddish – without subtitles – so to say this takes a while to get going would be an understatement.

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There’s a gag where Avram refuses to ride a horse on Saturday, pointing out “It’s difficult to explain why a Jew can’t ride on a Saturday,” but that’s the only thing about Judaism he does explain. It was never clear what the rabbi’s work in America was going to entail, or what the significance of his Torah was. Pairing an orthodox Jew with a rube would have been the perfect opportunity for the filmmakers to expound on his faith, but I guess Gene Wilder will not advance my knowledge of Jewish culture.

Wilder gives a measured, sometimes charming performance, but Ford is hilariously uncomfortable here. This was before Indiana Jones made him a leading man and enabled him to pick his projects. It’s hard to tell what was more awkward for Ford, wearing a cowboy costume, or spending nights on the plains with Wilder. I’ll save the context for someone who enjoyed the film.

Other than a brief appearance by Vincent Schiavelli as a monk, the supporting cast is absent of performers who can step up and make the running time expire quicker. It’s hard to really hate the movie though; it’s bad, but it means no harm. Watch it only to see what Harrison Ford’s career might have looked like if Tom Selleck was cast in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Tags: Western

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