(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison
Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.
Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.
Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.
Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.
Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.
Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.
One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.
Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.
WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Winter in Wartime