FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was the #1 hit of 1971. Grossing over $100,000,000 worldwide, critically lauded, it won Oscars for Cinematography, Adapted Score, and Sound, and drew nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Topol), Director, Supporting Actor (Leonard Frey) and Art Direction. Producer-director Norman Jewison used $9,500,000 to good effect—and modestly, compared to the absurd budgets musicals had been guilty of—filming on location in Croatia, at the time still wrapped into Tito’s Yugoslavia. A few flaws notwithstanding, it’s a handsome, excellently acted, funny, frequently moving entertainment, a sympathetic and serious cultural and ethnic period piece, one whose big heart, folk humor and common humanity found and hold wide and lasting appeal. With some great songs!
Czarist Russia,1905. The self-contained Jewish community in the shtetl of Anatevka, held together by the bonds and traditions of their faith, share the turn of seasons, and experience the implacable tides of history. This includes periodic repression from the minions of the fraying Empire. Sunrise, sunset. Chiefly the story focuses on milkman ‘Tevye’ (Chaim Topol), blessed/tasked with his wife and five daughters.
35-year-old Israeli actor Topol (using only his last name in this film and for most of his career) nabbed a supporting role in the 1966 Kirk Douglas epic Cast A Giant Shadow, and had played Tevye extensively in stage productions but was otherwise unknown to international audiences. Jewison (who had to shyly inform everyone involved that he wasn’t Jewish) and United Artists picked Topol over Zero Mostel, 55, who’d made the role his lodestone on Broadway, but was notoriously just too difficult to direct with his outrageous hamming and ad-libbing. It was a smart move that probably ensured the movie’s success: Mostel can be exhausting and off-putting, and Topol is as subtle and winning as he is earthy and warm. Wry and forgiving, vexed but wise, shaken yet solid; as Jewison commented, Topol’s “Tevye never loses dignity and strength; he is a man who knows who he is and where he’s going.” A magnificent performance.
Joseph Stein did the screenplay, adapting Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and his Daughters/Tevye the Dairyman” stories he wrote between 1894 and 1914. They begat to the long-running and continually revived plays, ultimately the film.
Like most musicals of the day, length—181 minutes—gets to be a bit of a chore; a few scenes could’ve been chopped, especially the gawd-awful “Tevye’s Dream”, a nightmare of screaming that feels like it lasts longer than the Russian Revolution. That number is a one of those intrusive inserts that played havoc in Oklahoma!, The King And I, South Pacific and others. Use it as an excuse to grab some food or drinks until the hurricane cacophony of noise and painful avant-garde leaping ceases.*
That one yuck number, a few others that are “meh”, and some incidental padding to the side, the essential material and smart scripting have enough depth to fashion a sense of involvement with the community as well with the central characters. The supporting cast are all on-point, especially Paul Mann as ‘Lazar Wolf’, the frustrated butcher. Michael Glaser, 27, gets in his first feature credit: he’d become Paul Michael Glaser of TVs Starsky and Hutch. Later in life Glaser would play Tevye on stage.
The carefully constructed sets on unspoiled countryside locations and Jewison’s progressive season-by-season shooting help greatly in conveying the dualism a constant time and a vanished place. That captured atmosphere was achieved to a strong degree by cameraman Oswald Morris, who got the mostly warm, autumnal look by shooting the entire film with brown nylon pantyhose over the lens. Jewison’s direction is top-grade, earning this favorite inclusion with gems like West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, Oliver! and Cabaret.
Of the 17 numbers, the highlights are true emotional rousers: “Tradition”, “If I Were A Rich Man”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, “To Life” and “The Wedding Celebration/Bottle Dance”. Isaac Stern does beauty duty on violin (you’ll hum the theme tune for weeks).
With Norma Crane, Rosalind Harris, Molly Picon, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Leonard Frey, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich (fine as the conflicted ‘Constable’), Alfie Scopp and Tutte Lemkow (the ‘Fiddler’).
* That awful nightmare scene. Plop a pretense-party onto the cowboys of the Panhandle (Oklahoma!), the canals of Siam (The King and I) or here, the plains of Ukraine, and the preening precocity only serves to skew period pieces off-purpose. The teeth grind.