DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Fiddler on the Roof

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) dir. Norman Jewison
Starring: Chaim Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris
Michèle Marsh, Neva Small


By Alan Bacchus

A couple of days ago, I discussed the fabulous NFB documentary Norman Jewison, Filmmaker, which is included on the new Blu-ray 40th Anniversary release of Fiddler on the Roof. Here's my discussion of the original film, which is still a fantastic picture.

With his adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof from the successful stage production to the screen, director Norman Jewison executes at once a thrilling and extravagant musical in the grand old ways of studio Hollywood while using the context of the impending Russian Revolution. It’s a sombre reflection on how the march of time can quickly erase centuries-old traditions and history.

As proclaimed in the opening musical number, the film is about 'tradition'. Specifically, it’s about the family traditions of Tevye’s people, Ukrainian Jews, who for centuries have done things a certain way, the duties of the family set out and adhered to without question. Like the grass is green, so are the traditions of Tevye’s life. And so when his three daughters, all of whom have entered marrying age, one by one choose the modern version of courtship over the traditional arrangement, Tevye's life comes crashing down.

The narrative structure coincides with the romances of each of the three daughters. There’s the eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), who is set up with an older widower because he has money. But the young gal is clearly in love with the lowly tailor – a fact that everyone in the town knows except Tevye. Adding fuel to Tevye's fire is the second daughter, Hodel, who shacks up with the local Marxist, Perchik. And as much as Tevye is a man of principle and tradition, he can't help but give in to their demands. But the last straw is Chava (Neva Small), who elopes with her Russian Orthodox beau, which causes Tevye to put his foot down on faith and disown his youngest daughter.

At three hours in duration, it’s long and indeed the two hours before the intermission fly by at lightning speed. Arguably, the final third is a different film. As the parallel story of the Russian Revolution catches up to Tevye, the film turns serious with a very dark dose of new century reality. Not only are Tevye's traditions crashing down, but his entire way of life will be instantly thrown upside-down. As Jews, they will be thrown off their land, and presumably later in life, they will suffer even worse fates.

As the anchor, Topol is magnetic. The Israeli star appeared in the London production and in the film version, which was nominated for an Oscar. Topol exudes great strength as a father, as well as a vulnerable emotional side when his traditions are challenged by his daughters.

Jerome Robbins’ choreography, like his other great cinematic ventures, West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The King and I, is rooted in the reality of the story. Unlike the fantasies of say Gene Kelly, Robbins' sequences don't so much provide audiences with imaginative escapism as they do distinct expressions of the emotion and action of a particular scene. For instance, the great wedding scene at the end of the second act features a number of precise dance numbers, all of which are organically tied to the traditions of the event.

One of the more ironic stories to emerge from the making of this film is the description of the inadvertent error made by the studio in their decision to hire Jewison, based on his name. Well, despite his name, Norman Jewison is not Jewish. But he still delivered a great Jewish movie and a timeless classic.

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