The Frisco Kid is a solid Western comedy following an immigrant rabbi and the bank robber who befriends him along the journey.
The Frisco Kid is an appropriate companion piece to films such as Blazing Saddles and Jews of the Wild West. It’s quite a different film from the Mel Brooks comedy. While this film may be a comedy, it feels more true to the Western experience. I mean, just watch Jews of the Wild West and you’ll certainly understand where I’m coming from. It’s a film that takes the buddy comedy but puts it in the Old West while adding a bit of screwball comedy into the mix. I can’t help but appreciate the film for this reason. When you think of the best Jewish films, The Frisco Kid is close to the top. When I say Jewish, I’m talking films that are quintessentially Jewish like Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl. I’m not talking about the films that feature many Jewish actors without actually saying the word.
Following a vote from the Board of Rabbis in Poland 1850, Rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder) left for Philadelphia in route to San Francisco. In typical comedic fashion, anything that can go wrong…will go wrong. The rabbi falls in with the Diggs brothers, who he doesn’t realize are con men and they will rob him of his entire possessions with their partner, Mr. Jones. This brings us to about 14 minutes into the film and the rest of the credits appear on screen. Seems long, nu? Eventually, he gets back on the way out west when a bank robber, Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford), meets him. Lillard is a classic Western cowboy but there’s something about the rabbi that appeals to him.
Things work differently in the West than they do now. For instance, one can make their way further with vehicle in a day than riding on horseback. Lillard’s upset that his new Orthodox Jewish friend will not ride a horse on Shabbos. However, it plays to their advantage when trying to distance themselves from their pursuers because they’re horses are fresh for walking in the evening after Shabbos.
They encounter Native Americans–Avram teaches the hora!–and a Trappist monastery before eventually getting to San Francisco. It’s quite the journey and the two of them grow to be quite friendly with each other. I mean, Lillard is even the best man at the wedding!
There are moments in the film that are outright hysterical. Rabbi Belinski sees a group of people wearing black hats and dressed in black. It’s easy to see why he believes they are Jewish. That is until he sees one of them wearing a cross. It turns out to be a Pennsylvania Dutch Amish colony. They give him money so that he can take the train to San Francisco–only the end of the line is in Ohio and I think you’re starting to get the idea here.
There are some comedic aspects in the film that also remind me of Fiddler on the Roof. That’s Jewish humor for you. I love a good Mel Brooks film but I really mean it when this feels more like a Western than the other film starring Wilder. Wilder initially turned down the film before signing on after reading a new draft. Of course, it’s no surprise that the studio asked him to work on the script. What I find surprising is that John Wayne was the person they had in mind for Lillard. I know he’s a Western veteran and all but there’s no telling what his health would have been like in fall 1978. He would have definitely brought something different to the role than the Star Wars veteran.
Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford are quite the duo in The Frisco Kid–it’s a shame they didn’t work together more. It’s one of Wilder’s best roles in his career, too.
DIRECTOR: Robert Aldrich
SCREENWRITERS: Michael Elias & Frank Shaw
CAST: Gene Wilder, Harrison Ford, Ramon Bieri, Val Bisoglio, George Ralph DiCenzo, Leo Fuchs, Penny Peyser, William Smith, Jack Somack
Warner Bros. released The Frisco Kid in theaters on July 13, 1979. Grade: 4/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.