The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Frisco Kid

Some movies have a formula that should just work. They just should. A great director, a really cool premise/plot, and two actors in the lead roles that I'm a big, big fan of. And sometimes, the formula doesn't add up to something that's as good as it could have been. That's 1979's The Frisco Kid. I liked it, but it has its flaws/struggles and doesn't quite live up to its potential.

It's 1850 in Poland and young rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder) is 87th in his graduating class of 88 potential rabbis (because rabbis have graduation/class rankings?), but he's about to be on the move. He has been named the rabbi of a congregation/church in San Francisco so Avram packs his things, a Torah included, and sails across the Atlantic on his way to his new life and destination. Likable and naive, Avram is taken in by three con men who steal his money, clothes and all his possessions, leaving him on his own on the trail westward. His hopes of surviving on his own seem slim at best, much less actually making it to San Francisco to get to his church. Just when it seems his chances are completely shot, he is saved on the trail by young Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford), who looks like a cowboy but is in fact, a bank robber. Maybe the duo can get by together.

From director Robert Aldrich (of The Dirty Dozen fame, among many others), this 1979 western is good but not great. It just should have been better. I've made no bones about my general dislike for comedic westerns, but this one could have been a pretty good one. As it is, it is way too long at 119 minutes, utilizing an episodic story that is funny at times and drags in a big way in others. There's no real unifying link in the story that simply drifts too much. Never bad, but never as good as it could have been in the end unfortunately.

Come on now, it doesn't take a nuclear scientist to figure out the best thing going here in Aldrich's western comedy. That would be Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford as one of the odder buddy pairings I've ever seen, a naive, likable rabbi and a wild west bank robber. Above all else, this pairing works because both actors commit to their parts. Things get a little goofy at times, a little over the top, as both actors are required to ham it up as their trail trials get a little weirder. It is a pairing that wouldn't seem to work, but it does. They have a great chemistry together whether it be arguments or bonding back and forth. With Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles and many other movies, Wilder was the established star by 1979. Ford was riding high as Han Solo off the success of 1977's Star Wars ('Empire' to come). Two very different stars, but it works throughout.

Not many others resonate from the rest of the cast unfortunately. Most of the episodic portions of the story don't stick around long enough to do so. Ramon Bieri, William Smith and George DiCenzo play the three con men who rob Avram and leave him for dead on the trail. Val Bisoglio has some fun as Chief Gray Cloud, an Indian chief who's fascinated by Avram's Jewish background. Penny Peyser has a good part as Rosalie, the sister of the somewhat slutty young woman who's been promised to Avram upon his arrival in San Franisco.

With a talent like Wilder, you've got to figure some comedic moments are going to stand out from a story that drags at times. Some of it is as simple as a physical mannerism, like the inexperienced Avram riding a horse, holding the reins out wide of his body like he's conducting an orchestra. The Jewish jokes can be hit or miss at times, but when they work, they're really funny. In a life or death situation, Avram refuses to ride a horse on a Saturday (the Shabbat) but encourages his horse to walk faster, Tommy screaming at him all the while, as the sun ever so slowly sets behind a rock formation, a posse in hot pursuit behind them. A trip to a monastery run by monks who have taken a vow of silence has some good laughs, as does a detour to an Indian camp where Avram sees their cultures aren't so different, the Indians and the Jews.

There are a handful of moments like these, really strong moments that hold the story together, whether they be dramatic or funny. The same for Wilder as Avram and Ford as Tommy, a genuine if unlikely friendship developing between the two men. If only the movie had been a little tighter, a little more pointed in its story, we'd have a pretty good movie. As is, it is a mild recommendation with some worthwhile moments.

The Frisco Kid (1979): ** 1/2 /****

1 comment:

  1. you have an original poster for your pic. i can tell because that's when gene wilder was a bigger star than the dude in the smaller picture, who now takes up the entire DVD whereas gene gets the tiny bubble off to the side, even though he's the star and title character.