Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on September 28, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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