"The Frisco Kid" is not a great film; it's not even a very good film by the best filmmaking standards; but it's such a sweet and gentle film, it's hard not to like.
Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford star in this 1979 buddy-comedy Western, directed by Robert Aldrich ("Kiss Me Deadly," "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?," "The Flight of the Phoenix," "The Dirty Dozen," "The Longest Yard"). The film moseys along at a leisurely pace, and the director has a little difficulty finding the right comedic tone between dry, subtle farce and outright slapstick; yet it manages to find a soft spot in the heart for every scene, so maybe "heartwarming" is what Aldrich had in mind, in which case he couldn't have done better.
The movie also maintains a strong moral conviction, the main character being a Jewish rabbi who refuses under the most grueling circumstances to forsake his faith. So while "The Frisco Kid" is humorous and touching, it is uplifting as well. As I say, it's hard not to like.
Wilder plays a rabbi, Avram Belinski, newly advanced from rabbinical school in Poland, 1850, whose chief rabbi assigns him a new congregation in San Francisco. There, a leading member of the congregation promises Avram one of his daughters as a wife. But getting there is the problem, which occupies most of the movie's two-hour running time.
Arriving in Philadelphia, Avram finds that the ship around the Horn to California has already sailed, and there won't be another one for two months. He decides to make the trek overland by covered wagon, instead, and thus his odyssey begins. However, the time setting is during the California gold rush when everybody and his Uncle Josh are heading for the gold country, so there are outlaws, highwaymen, and con artists everywhere. It doesn't take long before the naive and innocent Avram is robbed of almost everything he has. Thankfully, he manages to hang on to his blessed Torah, the holy book he must bring with him to his new congregation.
Alone and hungry, he finds refuge with a settlement of Amish folk in the first of a series of endearing gestures for the put-upon rabbi, especially as poor Avram initially mistakes the Christian Amish as Jewish. They comfort him, give him food and money, and help him on his way.
It's on a train going West that we first meet Tommy, played by Harrison Ford. He's a bank robber who holds up trains as a sideline, and he just happens to hold up the one Avram is on. Only Avram doesn't see the incident because he's in the men's room at the time. Oddly, we then leave Tommy for the next fifteen minutes or so, and he doesn't actually show up again as a major character until almost the halfway point in the film.
When Avram and Tommy finally do meet up, Avram is, as usual, in desperate straits, alone and starving in the middle of nowhere. "Chicken, chicken, come here," calls Avram to a prairie hen he's chasing through the brush. "I don't want to hurt you; I just want to eat you; I just want to make you kosher." Tommy stumbles upon him, takes pity on him, and helps him to find food and direction. Then, for reasons unclear, Tommy decides to head for San Francisco with Avram. The film offers no explanation at the time, but later Tommy wonders if he wasn't sent by God to help the rabbi, a kind of guardian angel. Certainly, he helps Avram out of any number of scraps along the way.
Like most buddy movies, this one relies on opposites attracting. Avram is the humble, mild-mannered man of peace; Tommy is the gruff, gunslinging outlaw. But both of them are bighearted, so the combination makes for a kinder, gentler sort of buddy movie. In an early part of the movie, Tommy teaches Avram how to swear in English, the ever-trusting Avram not quite understanding the exact meaning of the words. "Sheee-it!"
"Where you born at?" asks Tommy. "Poland," replies Avram. "Oh, that near Pittsburgh?" "No, that's near Czechoslovakia." It's a cute film.
Avram has no idea his new friend is an outlaw until Tommy robs a bank and implicates Avram in the getaway. This is followed by a variation on a scene from one of the granddaddies of all buddy pictures, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," where the president of the bank that Tommy's just robbed calls for a posse. "To hell with you," says a townsman, "I ain't got any money in the bank."
Despite the hardships and the calamitous circumstances that befall Avram and Tommy's journey West, including encounters with rattlesnakes, Indians, and desperados, Avram keeps his faith. He refuses to ride a horse on the Sabbath; he always says his morning devotionals; and he is determined to bring the torah to his new congregation. No matter how bad things get, he trusts in God to help him through. Well, maybe God plus Tommy's gun-fighting ability.
Nobody does nice like Gene Wilder, still fresh from his triumphs in Mel Brooks's "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles," and "Young Frankenstein." Nor have many actors been so willing to celebrate their culture and religious convictions as Wilder does here, perhaps also a trait he picked up from Brooks.
Moreover, nobody does charming like Harrison Ford. He had just done his first "Star Wars" film, and here he does an extension of his space-opera gunslinger, Han Solo. Ford had not yet become Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan or the Fugitive or the richest actor in Hollywood.
"The Frisco Kid" is overly long, highly episodic, and frequently sentimental and stereotyped, yet it works despite, maybe even because of, these apparent shortcomings. The fact is, the movie is mostly amusing and sometimes joyous. As I say again, it's hard not to like.
Trivia note: I've read that the filmmakers originally offered the part of the outlaw Tommy to John Wayne, who was eager to take it on as a comic follow-up to "True Grit" and "Rooster Cogburn." A salary concern nixed the idea, though, and it's questionable he would have finished the shooting, in any case, as he died shortly before "The Frisco Kid" opened in '79.
"The Frisco Kid" may not be a new release or a super blockbuster, but Warner Bros. regardless give it their best video treatment. The high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer retains most of the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and most of its solid colors. Stock footage and second-unit shots reveal a degree of grain, but in general the film is reasonably clean. Colors are bright, without being overbearing, and object definition is more than adequate. When the picture quality is good, which is the better part of the time, it's as good as it gets; and when it's not, it's still tolerable.
If the movie's ordinary Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound seems on first hearing a bit deficient, don't let it bother you. You'll get used to it. It has a good, strong dynamic impact and a smooth, natural balance, which count for a lot. Yes, the frequency range is somewhat limited, and, of course, the surround channels provide no information, but you'll hardly notice. And even though there are a few inexplicable sour patches in the audio along the way, they are easy to ignore.
As an older catalogue item, "The Frisco Kid" gets little from WB in the way of extras. A widescreen theatrical trailer is about all you'll find. There are, however, twenty-nine scene selections (but no chapter insert); English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
I have a kind of old-fashioned way of judging comedies. On the one hand I rate them on how often I laugh or smile and on the other hand on how often I'm offended, insulted, or bored. "The Frisco Kid" made me laugh several times and smile often, while never being offensive, insulting, or boring. I'd say that makes it at least a mildly successful film and a fairly enjoyable one, too.