Farewell to the Frisco Kid

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The much-mourned passing of comic actor, writer, and director Gene Wilder on June 11, 2016 was one of the saddest shocks in a year already full of them. A master of both physical and verbal comic timing as well as an underrated dramatic actor, Wilder will be honored on Thursday, September 29, with a four-film sampling of his formidable talents including Young Frankenstein (1974), Start the Revolution without Me (1970), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), plus a double airing of his one-hour Role Model interview episode from 2008. Of course, you could easily program an entire day of Wilder without covering everything, so hopefully this will be enough to either get fans back in the mood to explore his output or awaken newbies to the riches in his filmography, which also includes such milestones as Blazing Saddles (1974), The Producers (1967), and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

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In that same Wilder block you’ll have a chance to see his last film from the ’70s, The Frisco Kid (1979), which seemed to play on HBO every other day in the early ’80s but rarely gets referenced today; even on those occasions when it does come up, it’s usually in the context of being an early starring role for Harrison Ford after the success of Star Wars (1977), to such an extent that Wilder was often minimized or removed from the covers of various home video releases. That’s a shame because this is a really sly and beautifully mounted western as well as one of the decade’s last gasps of great Jewish screen comedy, a movement popularized by Mel Brooks over a decade earlier. Everyone was still hot to cash in on the Brooks factor at the time, giving his cohorts like Wilder and Marty Feldman the chance to star and direct projects that varied wildly in quality. Wilder had proven his mettle behind the camera by writing the story and screenplay for Young Frankenstein, which was enough to give him the clout to both write and direct four subsequent films: The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), The Woman in Red (1984), and Haunted Honeymoon (1986). The latter two also paired up him as an actor with wife Gilda Radner, with whom he also appeared in the thriller spoof Hanky Panky (1982); her tragic young demise in 1989, after which Wilder co-founded the landmark Gilda’s Club cancer support network.

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At the time he appeared in The Frisco Kid (no relation to the 1935 western with the same title), Wilder was on a roll as a leading man in between two of his most popular non-Brooks films, Silver Streak (1977) and Stir Crazy (1980). Here he stars as Avram, a rabbi in 1850 Poland who leaves his people to take charge of a San Francisco synagogue. His journey takes him into the American West where he encounters myriad troubles and curiosities including busty train passengers, armed gunmen, Indians, and even a group of Amish settlers who help him out. However, his most notable companion on the journey is Tommy (Ford in a role originally intended for John Wayne), a young bank robber with a hot temper and a kind heart whom he first meets when he robs Avram’s train.

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While there was always a funny strain of Jewish humor running through many of Wilder’s roles (especially accountant Leo Bloom), The Frisco Kid amps it up to a crazed degree for a major production; in fact, it almost feels like a cousin to the most famous imported title with the great Louis de Funès, The Mad Adventures of Rabbbi Jacob (1973). Of course Wilder had a western association due to his supporting role as The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, but it’s fun to see him take center stage here with an angst-riddled turn as a fish out of water in an all-American setting. Whether freaking out after Ford dupes him into robbing a bank or chasing after wild geese for food (“I’m not going to hurt you! I just want you to be kosher!”), it’s a prime showcase for Wilder’s impeccable timing and ability to build a character one trait at a time. On top of that you get to hear him and Ford alternate their catch phrases “Oy gevalt” and “Oh, sheee-it,” something you’ll never encounter anywhere else.

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There’s one name in the credits of this film likely to surprise classic movie fans: director Robert Aldrich, in what would be his penultimate film followed by …All the Marbles (1981). Aldrich was rarely known for his uplifting depiction of humanity, but this is one of his sunnier films as he portrays a gritty but ultimately beneficial world far removed from the dark and vicious cop culture of his previous, much darker comedy, The Choirboys (1977). If anything this plays like a more genteel take on one of Aldrich’s finest films of the decade, Emperor of the North (1973), a railroad-oriented story of two contrasting men linked together in a common physical and spiritual journey. Of course, Aldrich had also cut his teeth on westerns earlier in his career with titles like Vera Cruz (1954) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), all of whose DNA can be traced to this film’s expansive desert settings and fondness for the trappings of the Old West. Typical of Aldrich, the film is studded with welcome character actors including perennial tough guy William Smith, a young Vincent Shiavelli, Ian Wolfe, George Di Cenzo, Val Bisoglio (in a scene-stealing turn as Chief Grey Cloud), and the unmistakable Larry Gelman as a fellow rabbi.

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To put it mildly, we’ll never see anyone else like Wilder again, and hopefully you’ll get a chance to tune in and catch this underrated entry in his comedy canon. (I’d recommend Start the Revolution without Me as well the same night.)  He never gave a performance that could be considered weak, much less bad, so feel free to program a Wilder festival of your own choosing with anything from 1967 through his last big screen ventures with another sorely missed comedy legend, Richard Pryor. Now it’s time to tip our hat to a legend as he gallops off into the sunset, but he’ll never be forgotten.

 

11 Responses Farewell to the Frisco Kid
Posted By Flora : September 28, 2016 6:23 pm

I have yet to see Start the Revolution Without Me, so I will be recording it.

Posted By EricJ : September 28, 2016 9:31 pm

Yes, this would have been more of the poster-promised high-concept lark WITHOUT Robert Aldrich, either for his harshness or his unfamiliarity with comedy.
Instead, we get the movie trying more to be a traditional western, and a serious metaphor for WIlder’s Rabbi-faith. I remember it not doing well in theaters due to most critics thinking the movie should have been something other what it ended up being.

Posted By Doug : September 28, 2016 9:41 pm

Wilder was one of those fine actors who did a lot of acting with his eyes.
Is it possible that “The Frisco Kid” made it to the screen thanks in part to the very popular “Fiddler On The Roof” a decade earlier?
We’re approaching the ‘Spooky Season’-and as this post is about a rabbi, I wonder how many have seen “The Dybbuk” from 1937, a Jewish fable/ghost story? I have it on DVD, and will probably watch it again in the next few weeks. Well worth checking out.

Posted By Amy : September 29, 2016 12:26 am

A correction – Mr. Wilder died August 29, 2016, not June 11.

I have always enjoyed The Frisco Kid. Not the best work from either star, but still entertaining. I remembering enjoying the Role Model: Gene Wilder interview that opens the evening a lot when it first aired a few years ago. My DVR will be busy tomorrow night.

Posted By swac44 : September 29, 2016 10:42 am

I’ve been a big fan of this film since stumbling across it on VHS, I don’t know that it even played my local theatres when it debuted. Being a big Star Wars fan as a kid, I certainly would have been aware of anything with Harrison Ford in it at the time. I remember early post-SW roles like Force 10 From Navarone and Hanover Street hitting theatres, although since they were both duds, I can see why his star might have sunk somewhat until The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark put it back in the firmament.

Posted By Doug : September 29, 2016 10:51 am

swac44-I saw Star Wars in French in Montreal back in 1978. Very cool for a young pup who only knew English but had already seen the show many times.

Posted By swac44 : September 29, 2016 11:17 am

Very cool! There were some great theatres in downtown Montreal in those days too. I wonder if it was a dub done specifically for Quebec, or an international French version?

Posted By Doug : September 29, 2016 11:29 pm

The theater must have been within walking distance of the subway station below the Hotel Bonaventure, which is basically all I remember of that time. My ship was in dry dock for four months, and I was an 18 year old know nothing.

Posted By swac44 : September 30, 2016 12:02 am

I know that subway station well! I used to take trains from Halifax to Montreal all the time as a student (I miss that ol’ Via Rail student discount). The hotel is close to Rue St. Catherine, where all the theatres were. Last time I was up there for a film festival, Bono from U2 appeared unannounced to introduce a documentary he helped to produce. I find something amazing usually happens every time I’m there.

Posted By Pam Simone : September 30, 2016 3:23 am

Gene Wilder was a comic genius as well as great in dramatic roles as well.
To be able to hold his own against Zero Mostel in The Producers shows what a strong actor he was.
His presence will be missed but he left us with a rich treasure of his talent on film and with his outings as director and writer as well.
Thanks to TCM for the tribute to this wonderful, kind mensch.

Posted By robbushblog : September 30, 2016 1:26 pm

He was born on June 11, but he died on August 29.

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