The three previous movies I looked at in this month’s blog series were all movies I had at least some knowledge of. I’d seen The Wizard of Oz several times before. I’d seen significant chunks of The Sound of Music. While I hadn’t seen Singing in the Rain, it’s nearly impossible to not at least hear its title song one way or another, and you’d likely recognize a couple more in the movie. But today’s subject is a movie I had no knowledge of before fellow blogger https://classicsandcraziness.wordpress.com/ recommended it. I was considering Saturday Night Fever, until I learned it was a dance movie, not a musical. I’m not likely to do a dance movie blog series any time soon. Not really a fan of that genre.
Each movie I looked at this month is based on a completely different type of source. The Wizard of Oz is based on a children’s book series. Singing in the Rain is a mostly original story, written around Arthur Freed’s song catalogue. The Sound of Music is actually based on a true story. Finally, with Fiddler on the Roof, I’m actually looking at a movie based on a Broadway musical. The 1964 Broadway musical was the first in history to surpass 3,000 performances, and it held the record for longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years. It won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, Direction and Choreography. It’s spawned 5 Broadway revivals, enjoys an international popularity, and is often chosen for school and community productions.
There isn’t too much information on the production of the movie, beyond a minor casting controversy. Joseph Stein wrote the original Broadway production, and also wrote the film. Retired Canadian director Norman Jewison directed the film. Despite his name, and the fact that Fiddler on the Roof is very much about traditional Jewish culture, Jewison isn’t Jewish, but protestant Christian. The lead character, Tevye, is the poor milkman in a Jewish village, and a father of 5 daughters. In the Broadway play, Zero Mostel portrayed the character, but despite still being active and working in film, he wasn’t cast. That’s the minor controversy. Instead, they cast Israeli actor Chaim Topol. Topol would also end up portraying the character on-stage.
Norma Crane plays Goldie, Tevye’s wife, and his oldest three daughters are played by Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small, in that order. Paul Mann plays Lazer Wolf, a butcher and the eldest daughter’s first suitor. Leonard Frey plays Motel, a poor tailor and the eldest daughter’s eventual husband. Paul Michael Glaser plays a Bolshevik revolutionary, and the second daughter’s eventual husband. Raymond Lovelock portrays Fyedka, a Christian and the third daughter’s eventual husband. There are a number of other noteworthy characters in what is essentially an ensemble cast, but they’re the ones with the biggest effect on the movie’s plot and drama.
Fiddler on the Roof tells two stories in one, and they interweave with each other quite well. The first is Tevye’s eldest three daughters falling in love, and each of them breaking the village’s Jewish traditions. Tevye, being very traditional himself, must come to terms with this as the movie goes on. The second revolves around how Nicholas II mistreated the Jewish community during his rule. On that note, the movie also touches on the 1905 Russian Revolution. It’s a fairly straight forward story, but one that’s told on a grand scale with interweaving character journeys, music, and an atmosphere that works quite well.
Tevye is a very sympathetic character. You can tell he wants what’s best for his daughters, even if he may not personally understand. His very traditional attitude is the main source of conflict for him, both with what’s happening outside of the village and with his daughters. In each case, he eventually comes around, even if at first, he felt that his third daughter marrying a Christian meant she was dead to him. He’s also an amusing character. He refers to the Jewish bible as “The Good Book”, and often misquotes it or misattributes quotes to the wrong person.
This is another musical I’ve looked at this month where the music fits perfectly with the movie’s story and themes. Even more than the acting and the environment, the music gives this movie a traditional feel that’s both Jewish and Russian. “The Sabbath Prayer” song is the best overall for bringing the Jewish themes forward, and helps establish Tevye’s character for the rest of the movie. Yet the camera work also further hints at who his second daughter ends up marrying. “Tevye’s Dream” really digs into Tevye’s dilemma on who his eldest daughter should marry. The brief “Sunrise, Sunset” song during the movie’s wedding at the half-way point ends up repeating as a musical cue throughout the second act. It’s a bittersweet song performed at a wedding that also works as foreshadowing for what is about to come. I remember hearing a more comedic version of that song in an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy about the Sun, so it’s interesting to actually learn what it’s from.
The actual fiddler isn’t a huge part of the story. You really only see him playing twice in the entire movie. The first breaks filmmaking traditions of the time by skipping over the opening overture, and instead showing the fiddler’s silhouette as he plays during the opening credits. There’s even the opening song before his appearance, “Tradition”. The only other time you actually see him is at the end of the movie, as Tevye’s traveling across the countryside along with his younger two daughters. Tevye motions the fiddler to follow, symbolizing that he’s not abandoning his tradition, despite being forced to leave his town.
The movie follows the Broadway version very closely, keeping almost all of the play’s dialogue. The songs, “Now I Have Everything” and “The Rumor” were both removed, and “Tevye’s Dream” removed a couple of repeated lines. All of these cut songs and lines exist on the movie’s soundtrack, suggesting they were cut out at some point during the editing process. The movie also adds a couple of additional scenes, including the Constable character receiving orders from his superiors for some sort of “demonstration” against the Jews, and the Bolshevik revolutionary getting arrested.
The Fiddler on the Roof was very well received, earning $83 million worldwide on a budget of $9 million, making it the most profitable movie of 1971. It received 8 nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It ended up winning Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. The critical reception was generally positive. Roger Ebert gave the movie 3 out of 4 stars, despite finding the story boring. Gene Siskel gave it 3.5 out of 4, stating that the musical numbers were “better staged and choreographed than in any recent Broadway film adaptation.” The Los Angeles Times review said the film “has been done not only with such artistry, but also with such evident love, devotion, integrity and high aspirations that watching it is a kind of duplex pleasure.” The New Yorker review called it “The most powerful movie musical ever made.”
It’s always nice to go into a movie blind, and really enjoying it. That’s what happened here. The music is memorable. Tevye and his family are all likeable characters, as are his daughter’s suitors. It’s a movie that touches on the poor treatment towards the Jews in the late Russian empire, while also touching on themes of Tradition clashing with modern culture. The latter themes will always be relevant to one degree or another, and it’s handled well here. They of course knew this by the time the Broadway was created, but ironically, despite how Jews helped bring forth the Russian Revolution that created the Soviet Union, they were treated much worse under Stalin and his successors. That in itself ads a layer of tragedy to the story. Fiddler on the Roof also works fairly well as a comedy. Overall, The Fiddler on the Roof is a brilliant movie, and a pleasant surprise for someone who never even heard of it until a few weeks ago.
Next month I’ll start a blog series on the Pink Panther film franchise. I haven’t covered comedy on this level before, so hopefully it’ll go well. After that I’ll likely stick to theme months for the rest of the year. If the Pink Panther series goes well, I’ll probably do a Christmas Comedy theme month for December.