Judge Jonathan Weiss finds that a careful application of schmaltz will ease the pain of saddle sores.
The greatest cowboy ever to ride into the Wild West. From Poland.
Westerns and the Catholic Clergy. The Catholic Clergy and Westerns. They just seem to go hand in hand. Whether they're playing main characters like the nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara, the priest in The Quick and the Dead, or used as background flavor in countless films—milling around wearing their burlap robes and praying feverishly for help from the evil desperados—you can't spit tobaccee without hitting a member the Catholic Clergy.
But how many Westerns can you think of that feature an orthodox Jewish rabbi from Poland? Go on take a minute. Rack your brains…anything? Exactly.
That's why The Frisco Kid is such a revelation (no pun intended). Here's a genre flick (and not a specifically Jewish genre flick either) where Jewish kids can see that, yes indeed, there were Jews in the Wild West too—and not a stereotypical Jew at that. Even better, the guy gets to hang with Han freakin' Solo—so how cool is that?
With all those other Westerns, you don't have to be a Catholic to enjoy any of them, but then, those Westerns mainly play off of Catholic archetypes, the kinds we're all pretty familiar with by now no matter what our background. The Frisco Kid doesn't. The main protagonist doesn't only happen to be Jewish; he's a real orthodox rabbi and is played as such (with humor thrown in for sure, but overall, a pretty observant (pun intended) depiction). This is someone the average viewer hasn't met before (in the media or in life). On top of that, the entire movie is centered on this one (gefilte) fish out of water idea. So here's the thing: do you need to be Jewish to enjoy The Frisco Kid, or is this a film that can be enjoyed by all?
Facts of the Case
Avram Belinski (played by Gene Wilder) is a sweet-natured rabbi from Poland who is sent to America with a Torah (the holiest document in the Jewish religion that encompasses the entire body of Jewish law and teachings) to lead a burgeoning new congregation in San Francisco.
Sadly, Avram gets ambushed almost the second he hits American soil and is robbed of all his money. Setting out on his own, Avram has a couple of solo adventures before meeting up with kind-hearted bank-robber, Tommy Lillard (played by Harrison Ford). Before long the two form an unlikely friendship, facing life and death situations involving the weather, pissed off Indians, an angry posse, and the gang that jumped poor Avram to set this tale in motion, as they cross the frontier towards their final destination—San Francisco.
The first thing you'll undoubtedly notice about The Frisco Kid is who Warner Brothers was obviously banking on to be the bigger draw. On both the DVD cover and the main menu screen, Harrison Ford takes centre stage with poor Gene Wilder regulated to the proverbial Jewish Ghetto of the upper left spotlight. Don't let that fool you. At the time of this movie's release, Wilder was the more recognizable name, having already starred in and received critical acclaim for The Producers, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. The only movie of any heft that Harrison Ford had on his résumé was a little sci-fi space opera called Star Wars which, at that point, was not the cult phenomenon it is today. The second thing you'll probably notice is the music. Frank Del Vol did an absolutely lovely job combining elements of traditional Klezmer music with the recognizable rhythms of the Old West to produce a soundtrack that truly emphasizes the two conflicting cultures that are the basis for this film.
The charm of The Frisco Kid is in how Gene Wilder plays Avram. Avram is naïve, sweet, and pious; he's not a schmuck. If Avram was a bumbling, imbecilic buffoon, neither the character nor the story would be nearly as engaging as it is. One senses that the head of the rabbi tribunal in Poland didn't send Avram to America because he was quite possibly the worst student their Yeshiva (school) has ever produced, but because he knew how stifled Avram would begin to feel if he were to stay. And even when his experiences in America aren't exactly what he thought they would be, the movie never slips into parody. Avram learns from each one, whether they be positive or negative, and he matures as both a man and as a rabbi because of them.
What's especially surprising about The Frisco Kid is how the idea of a rabbi in the Old West is treated. It could have been played for bold farce, or silly slapstick, or even worse—a stereotypical nightmare of bad taste (think the intentionally horrible "Jews on Ice" segment from Mel Brooks' History of the World Part II). Instead, it's treated almost gently. Obviously there's humor to be derived from Avram's designation as an orthodox rabbi (as when he stumbles on an Amish clan thinking initially that they were orthodox like him, or in the working on the railroad scene where three men grunt every time they hit a railway spike and Avram says "Oy"). But mostly, the humor, as well as the drama, comes from Avram trying to survive in a strange culture while holding firmly onto his own.
The best way to dramatize these kind of cultural differences is by giving Avram a traveling companion who is the antithesis of everything he represents. Enter Tommy Lillard, played by Harrison Ford. Tommy Lillard is a bank robber, a whoremonger, and an all around ne'er-do-well, and yet on meeting Avram decides to become his guide all the way to San Francisco. Far fetched? You bet your tookiss. Still, it turns The Frisco Kid from a solo adventure into a buddy movie. It's also a great conduit through which the audience can learn more about Avram's beliefs and traditions. On the flip side, Tommy teaches Avram a couple of important lessons too—and not all of them have to do with the Cowboy way either. The scene between the two of them in the San Francisco restaurant near the film's climax is poignant, touching, and funny as hell. The chemistry between these two characters is undeniable. Wilder and Ford; who would have believed it?
Being a movie from 1979, the video is a bit grainy here and there and a little soft at times. There are also times when the image freezes for a split second and it doesn't seem to be because of a layer change. You'll also probably notice certain moments of footage that have been spliced into the regular narrative. These are usually shots of scenery or wildlife; they don't necessarily take away from the overall feel of the film, but they do kind of stand out like, well, Avram at a Monastery.
The sound is mono, so it's only coming out of your center speaker (if you have a 5.1 set-up—if not, it's probably split between the two stereo speakers on your television). Even so, the mix clearly differentiates between music, atmosphere, and the dialogue—which is clear and easily understood (when it's not in Yiddish).
The Frisco Kid is a charming movie that works on a couple of different levels. If you're Jewish, you should definitely appreciate how Avram and his beliefs and values are portrayed. You'll also probably wish you had a rabbi like Avram in your community—whether you're reform, conservative, or traditional (it's hard to say how the orthodox would feel). After all, how many rabbis do you know that can give and take a punch like Avram can? Makes you quvell with pride it does.
If you're not Jewish, The Frisco Kid is still a fun movie to watch because of the relationship between Avram and Tommy. It's also not a bad place to get familiar with the customs and traditions of this ancient religion, though obviously this wasn't the movie's primary intent.
Overall, The Frisco Kid is a timeless, incredibly appealing movie that can be enjoyed by all (but will hold an even more special place in your heart if you happen to be from one of the lost tribes).
What, like you thought this movie was going to be anything but completely Kosher? Don't be meshugana.
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