The Frisco Kid

Starring: Gene Wilder, Harrison Ford

Director: Robert Aldrich
Released: 1979

Mood: If you’re aching for an atypical Western that’s funny without being totally inconceivable and it happens to feature Gene Wilder at his best in a great Jewish story and hey, why not also ask for Harrison Ford as the cherry on top.

“He gives us strength when we’re suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness. But he does not make rain!… Of course, sometimes just like that, he’ll change his mind.”

Avram (Gene Wilder)

It’s really, really f*cking cold where I live right now. This morning I woke up, took one look out the window, and made a prompt decision to start my day with boozy hot chocolate and The Frisco Kid.

It started snowing last week. Like, October 13th. I would have felt a tiny bit better if it had waited until the official halfway mark of a month that’s STILL TECHNICALLY FALL. But no, it has been snowing steadily for five days. Welcome to the Cariboo…

I bought The Frisco Kid on one of those whims I get, like “Bill Pullman in a Western” or “what’s Christian Slater doing”. This time it was “holy crap, a Harrison Ford Western” with a side of “a Jewish Western, that sounds fun”.  

It turns out The Frisco Kid is actually a Gene Wilder movie, despite Ford’s face taking centre stage on the DVD (see below). And it’s a GREAT F*CKING GENE WILDER MOVIE. My heart was warmed, and it wasn’t just the Baileys. 

photo of the Frisco Kid dvd on a snow-covered wooden wheel

The Frisco Kid opens in 1850s Poland – not exactly the locale you’d expect for a Western. 

A large group of older Jewish gentlemen are meeting around a table. Then you have Avram (Gene Wilder) flailing around on skates on a frozen pond, and being summoned inside. The mood shifts to judgey disappointment, and you can tell Avram is the black sheep. 

It’s revealed that Avram, with his wildly unkempt and greying hair, placed 87th in a rabbinical class of 88 students. The only solution seems to be to ship him off to a synagogue in San Francisco, where he’ll hopefully be less of an embarrassment. 

Avram arrives in Philadelphia, but the boat to San Francisco departed early due to gold rush fever. Sweet, naïve Avram is then scammed into purchasing a wagon ride with a bunch of bandits, who rob him of his possessions including the precious Torah scroll. 

Avram continues his noble journey on foot, then by train, and then on foot again. His sad attempts at roughing it earning him the pity and companionship of rugged bank robber Tommy (Harrison Ford). The two suffer a LOT of misadventures and near-death situations on their way to San Francisco.  

illustration of a fancy moustache

The Frisco Kid isn’t what you’d expect, especially as far as Westerns go. It was a box office flop, released the same year as the slapstick Western The Villain, which also bombed hard. But here’s the thing – I think it’s a strong story with a great message.  

The Frisco Kid is also peak Gene Wilder. This comedic genius could make you laugh with just a series of facial expressions. He could take you on an emotional journey using only his eyes, and he does a lot of that in this movie.

I rarely agree with Roger Ebert’s reviews, but he captured Wilder’s performance perfectly (despite a shitty two-star review) when he described it as “his own brand of complex vulnerability”. His Avram is humble and forgiving to a fault, always rising above and being a good person. 

Although not credited, Wilder wrote much of the dialogue in The Frisco Kid. He hired two rabbis and a cantor to help him beef up his lapsed Jewish upbringing and education, so that he could sing prayers and immerse himself in this divine performance. There’s a fantastic excerpt from a book in which he’s interviewed and talks about it in detail, I highly recommend giving it a read.

illustration of a fancy moustache

A lot of critics panned The Frisco Kid for too much ethnic humour, but that was totally Wilder’s intent – ‘what would it be funny for a rabbi to do?’. If you look at it that way, it’s a massive success. You have Avram trying (and failing) to work on a railroad, to club fish in a stream using a tree branch, falling off a horse, teaching Native Americans to do the ‘dance of his people’, learning how to say ‘oh shit’…

There’s this hilarious scene where Avram meets a group of Amish farmers and, assuming they’re Jewish, starts shouting crazily in Yiddish. Apparently Wilder’s entire rant came directly from the lips of Mel Brooks. 

Another thing The Frisco Kid excels at is subtle commentary on prejudice. It’s not as overt as Blazing Saddles, where you’ve got n-bombs going off. Instead, you get a Chinese railroad worker mocking Avram for talking funny, and then Avram himself using stilted English to address a Native American chief (Val Bisoglio) who, in turn, mocks his grammar.  

The aforementioned dance scene, in which Avram is urged to teach the Native Americans one of his dances, is actually quite powerful. It’s everything 2020 needs: people of different beliefs recognizing their common ground and just dancing it out. 

That’s the thing about The Frisco Kid that hooked me – you’re going along thinking it’s dumb comedy fun, and then you realize it’s got an amazing message about perseverance and staying true to yourself against all odds

illustration of a fancy moustache

Obviously this movie also starred Harrison Ford, shortly after his first turn as Han Solo in Star Wars. He’s great as Tommy, don’t get me wrong. It’s just hard to stop raving about Wilder’s performance! 

The bank robber with a heart of gold isn’t a particularly unique character. But Ford has fantastic chemistry with Wilder, and balances Avram’s wide-eyed innocence with that cheeky ruggedness that made Han Solo and Indiana Jones so popular. He radiates intensity every time his character draws a gun.

Bonus sighting of Vincent Schiavelli, aka ‘that creepy guy’ you know from countless older movies and TV.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that The Frisco Kid is a heartwarming story; it’s Gene F*cking Wilder. His face can hit you right in the feels, every time. The way Ford and Wilder play off each other, and build their characters’ friendship, is just beautiful.

If you enjoy Mel Brooks’ style and Gene Wilder in general, this movie would be up your alley. It’s lightly farcical and a tad ridiculous, but also so f*cking sweet and uplifting that if you don’t like it you’re dead inside. It’s the perfect choice if you need cheering up – or if you need something light after watching too many horror movies (because October).