I found the first twenty minutes of The Frisco Kid (1979) so broadly silly and irritating that I didn’t know if I was going to make it. The goofball stereotypes and bad accents had me wondering what I’d gotten myself into. In the end I didn’t fall in love with the film, but while watching a recent Warner Archive Blu-ray release of this unusual flick, I did find myself fascinated by Gene Wilder’s performance.
In this Robert Aldrich-directed comic western, Wilder stars as a Polish student of Judaism who has failed so badly that he is sent far away to San Francisco to be a rabbi for a small population of Jews in the midst of the 1850s gold rush. Almost immediately he is robbed and loses his transportation to the West coast. He runs into a bandit (Harrison Ford) who is amused by him and can’t stand to see him starve on the open prairie so he helps him travel the Wild West.
The copy on the Blu-ray case claims that this film rivals Wilder’s previous success Blazing Saddles (1974) for laughs. That is far from true, but he does make The Frisco Kid worth watching. It would have been best if he could have completely toned down the Jewish/Polish mugging, but there are plenty of moments he does find sincerity and an appealing gravity in his role as a man who is strong because he refuses to give up his moral code, but he knows when he must make compromises.
It is a tender performance, full of earnestness that I wish more actors would embrace. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role successfully; it works because Wilder is adept at finding the humanity in any character he plays, no matter how broad. I was continually impressed by how he found depth and feeling in this part with so little of either on the page.
Two years after his breakout success in Star Wars (1977) Harrison Ford is appealing as Wilder’s savior, if not particularly engaging. He lacks the charisma which brought life to his more legendary roles. It doesn’t help that he and Wilder don’t have a strong chemistry, though that’s not to say it’s entirely absent.
In essence, the film is enough: amusing enough and exciting enough, but not a must-see unless you are a Gene Wilder completest. Ford fans might enjoy seeing him in an early role, but they could also be disappointed as it pales so much in comparison to his greater productions.
There is also a trailer for the film on the disc as a special feature.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.