Fiddler on the Roof remains a cinematic masterpiece nearly 50 years following the theatrical release of the musical adaptation.
It’s been some time since I last watched the film but there’s something about watching this movie late in December. Tonally speaking, the first and second acts of the film could not be more strikingly different in how they feel. No, the production design remains the same but the humor of the first half is gone. This is because once the pogrom takes place during the wedding, all the happiness is erased from the atmosphere.
“How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you!” Tevye says to the camera before pausing. “I don’t know.”
There’s something in Fiddler to be said about tradition. How have traditions evolved or been preserved? In some portions of the Jewish communities, the activities depicted in this film are very welcome today. Other aspects, not so much. When it comes to Jewish culture, it’s an era bygone but as Jews–we can’t help but love the film! We see this represented by way of Tevye’s (Topol) three daughters and the relationship they have with their dad. It’s more of a metaphor of Judaism. Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris) stays within the faith by marrying Motel Kamzoil (Leonard Frey). The next daughter, Hodel (Michele Marsh), becomes engaged to Perchick (Michael Glaser) without Tevye’s blessing. Finally, third daughter, Chava (Neva Small), becomes engaged to a non-Jew, Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock), and quickly gets disowned by her father. This isn’t surprising to see at all.
Even when we think about the Jewish traditions, the Jewish village of Anatevka is very much its own character. Tevye, of course, breaks the fourth wall very early on to address the audience about the Jewish culture. If it’s not about traditions, it’s about being poor, his family, or worst of all, the threat of harm coming their way from Russian neighbors.
Maybe it was because of the increased anti-Semitism over the last two years but watching the film now, “To Life” plays in a fascinating way. Despite Tevye and Lazar Wolf’s (Paul Mann) excitement over the latter’s engagement to Tzeitel, one can’t help but feel the tension in the room once the Cossacks show up. Tense at first, things soon lighten up and everybody starts dancing!
During the second half when the tone changes, things start looking grim for the Jews of Anatevka upon learning they have they days to leave or get forced out. It’s never quite as sad than when the rabbi carries the Torah out of the Ark for the final time. The camera pans to the village’s Jews leaving and things truly reach that depressing point.
The songwriting team of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock bring their A game to the film. Combine this with Sid Caesar veteran writer Joseph Stein’s screenplay and we’ve got a masterpiece at hand. There’s a nice mix of humor in the film, too. Take it from me–I once participated in reading one of Sholem Aleichem’s stories back in the day and couldn’t stop cracking up. But back to the songs for a moment. I’ve listened to the soundtrack repeatedly over the years–both the original Broadway recording and the motion picture soundtrack. There’s not a bad song here. This is when you know a musical is a masterpiece. Usually, there’s a song that I want to pass over–pardon the pun–but that couldn’t be further from the case here.
Jerome Robbins’ stage choreography translates so beautifully on screen thanks to Tom Abbott and Norman Jewison’s direction. This comes through during several scenes but never more so than during the Wedding Celebration and Bottle Dance. How these dancers were able to get through the takes in the final cut without breaking is beyond me!
Nearly 50 years following its release, Fiddler on the Roof remains a beautiful masterpiece.
DIRECTOR: Norman Jewison
SCREENPLAY: Joseph Stein
LYRICS: Sheldon Harnick
MUSIC: Jerry Bock
CAST: Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, and Paul Mann