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FRISCO KID, THE (director: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: Michael Elias/Frank Shaw; cinematographer: Robert B. Hauser; editor: Jack Horger/Irving Rosenblum/Maury Winetrobe; music: Frank De Vol; cast: Gene Wilder (Avram Belinsky), Harrison Ford (Tommy Lillard), Ramon Bieri (Mr. Jones), Val Bisoglio (Chief Gray Cloud), George DiCenzo (Darryl Diggs), William Smith (Matt Diggs), Leo Fuchs (Chief Rabbi), Jack Somack (Sam Bender), Penny Peyser (Rosalie Bender), Walter Janowitz (Old Amish Man); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Mace Neufeld; Warner Bros.; 1979)
“Absurd Western spoof, that relies almost solely on its ethnic brand of humor to get over.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Aldrich (“Autumn Leaves”/”The Angry Hills/”The Longest Yard”) in his penultimate film directs this absurd Western spoof, that relies almost solely on its ethnic brand of humor to get over and never shakes off its overabundance of sentimentality. Though pleasant going most of the way, with Gene Wilder as the out-of-place naïve and pious rabbi in WASP-ish America, the technically competent made episodic comedy just had no chops. It’s written by TV writers Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, who make it more like a television show than a movie.

Gene Wilder plays a Yeshiva rabbinical student named Avram Belinsky in the Poland of 1850 who graduates at the bottom of his class and is sent by the chief rabbi (Leo Fuchs, noted Yiddish theater comic actor) to be the rabbi for a congregation in San Francisco, at the request of the congregation head Sam Bender (Jack Somack), during the days of the gold rush. He’s also promised one of Bender’s daughters as a bride. Avram sails for Philadelphia, but learns his ship to San Francisco has sailed. He then gets suckered into hiring a wagon from three nasty con artists, the wagon owners Darryl and Matt Diggs (George DiCenzo and William Smith) and their fellow traveler named Jones (Ramon Bieri). Outside of Philadelphia they rob and beat him, stealing the valuable ancient Torah and its silver plate. Left stranded on a country road he stumbles upon an Amish community. Since the Amish dress similar to him, he mistakes them for fellow Jews until he sees the cross on their Bible. The kindly Amish give him enough money to take a train to Akron, Ohio. While Avram is in the men’s room, Tom Lillard (Harrison Ford) holds up the other passengers. Realizing it’s the Sabbath eve, a time orthodox Jews can’t travel, Avram embarks. He later gets a job on the railroad to save up enough money to buy a horse. Riding around in circles, he encounters Tom in the prairie. The outlaw looks upon him with amusement and on a whim goes along with him out West.

It’s all ridiculous, but played with mock seriousness. The number of vignettes that ensue include crossing the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, Tom robbing a bank while Avram unwittingly minds the horses, fleeing the posse until Avram realizes it’s the Sabbath and will not ride, falling into the hands of Indians and escaping torture by the Indians being impressed with Avram’s Hebrew prayers, smoking peyote with the Indians in celebration that his prayers brought rain, spotting the con artists in a frontier saloon and ripping the Torah plate from around the neck of Matt Diggs, after being beaten again by the con artists Avram’s rescued by Tom and his money is returned, and at last reaching the Pacific Ocean. There’s another encounter with the con artists, and this time they are all killed. It concludes happily with the rabbi reaching his new congregation and marrying the pretty Rosalie Bender (Penny Peyser), with bank robber Tom as the best man.

I found Aldrich’s hand at light comedy lacking the necessary skills, as his greatest skill seems to be in delivering film noir with the proper boiling point.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”