Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

I usually restrict myself to films from the 30’s through to the 60’s. Occasionally, however, along comes a film that’s a little more recent, but manages to charm me enough to let me write about it. Fiddler on the Roof, though from 1971, has that indefinable something—a touch, perhaps, of an earlier decade—that puts it solidly amongst the classics. And anyway, 1971 is just two years away from the 60’s.
Fiddler on the Roof is, as some of you would probably know, a musical, based on stories from the book Tevye the Milkman by Sholem Aleichem. With words by Sheldon Harnick set to music by Jerry Bock, the musical opened on Broadway in 1964. Seven years later, it was made into this heart-warming film.

Fiddler on the roof

In Tsarist Russia, at the turn of the century, a Jewish milkman called Tevye (Topol) lives with his wife Golde (Norma Crane) and five daughters in a village called Anatevka. The Jews in Anatevka are a small community, precariously poised between one world and the other, like a fiddler on a sloping roof, always in danger of sliding off. They’ve kept their balance, explains Tevye, because of tradition. Tradition governs everything in their lives: how they eat, how they work, how they dress…

Tevye and the people of Anatevka

… And whom they marry. One of the traditions is that a girl’s husband is always chosen by her parents, on the recommendation of the local matchmaker Yente (Molly Picon). This time, Yente’s come to visit Golde with exciting news: the butcher, Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann), wants to marry Tevye and Golde’s eldest daughter Tzeitel (Rosaline Harris).

Yente tells Golde of a match for Tzeitel

Which would have been cause for great rejoicing, since (a) Lazar Wolf is rich and successful, and (b) Tzeitel and her sisters have all been yearning for the matchmaker to find them a good match, a great catch… when they’re slightly older.

Tevye's daughters decide they're in no hurry to marry

The problem is, Lazar Wolf isn’t exactly in the first flush of youth:

Tzeitel's prospective groom, Lazar Wolf

And Tzeitel, horror of horrors, has committed the ultimate blunder: she’s fallen in love with her childhood friend Motel (Leonard Frey). Motel is a poor, diffident tailor (his greatest ambition in life is to save enough to buy a sewing machine) and he’s terrified of Tevye, so the chances of him ever getting around to talking to the milkman about marrying Tzeitel are exceedingly slight.

Tzeitel and her true love, Motel

As if that wasn’t all, Tzeitel’s younger sisters are no better when it comes to sticking to tradition. The second sister, Hodel (Michelle Marsh), for instance, is part-awed, part-scared by new arrival Perchik (Michael Glaser), a student from Kiev who goes against tradition as far as to say that there’s nothing wrong with men dancing with women. The very thought of it! —But Hodel’s fascinated by Perchik, no matter how revolutionary his ideas.

Hodel falls in love with Perchik...

What she doesn’t realise is that Perchik’s revolutionary ideas also extend into politics, and that is going to soon snatch Perchik away from her. He tells her one day that he’s going to the city, to join in the protests against the Tsarist regime. With Perchik going away, the very slight chance of him marrying Hodel evaporates.

...but the revolution separates them

Motel and Perchik, undesirable though they may be as grooms for Tevye’s two eldest daughters, are at least Jewish. The third young man who comes in contact with Tevye’s family isn’t. Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock) one day saves Tevye’s third daughter Chava (Neva Small) from the unwanted attentions of a group of young men as Chava’s walking home past the fields… but can there be even the thought of a romance between an Orthodox Christian and a Jew, let alone marriage?

Chava meets Fyedka

To add to the miseries of Tevye’s family and their tiny community, anti-Jewish pogroms have begun across Russia. The newspapers have been carrying disturbing articles about Jews being forced to leave their homes, but till now Tevye and his neighbours have paid no attention. All of that is happening in a faraway world; they’re safe here.
But one night, after much revelry, Tevye is intercepted by the village constable (Louis Zorich) who, because he likes Tevye, cautions him. Orders have arrived—and the Tsar’s soldiers will come in their wake—to throw the Jews out of Anatevka.

The constable warns Tevye of the pogrom

Will Tevye’s traditions survive these assaults? Will a daughter’s marrying of her own choice and without the matchmaker as intermediary, not be a blow to tradition? Worse, what of a daughter marrying a man of a different religion? And will tradition help Tevye, his friends and family withstand the horrific pogrom that is to come? Is it time for them to perhaps realise that traditions should change… or will those traditions help save them? Will they be able to stay perched on the rooftop, fiddling while the world around them catches fire and burns away?

Watch Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a beautiful film, definitely among the best musicals I have ever seen.

What I liked about this film:
Just about everything. One complaint I often have against Hollywood musicals is that they either have too many songs and too little story, or the songs are fitted into the story very badly. Fiddler on the Roof manages to have a well-crafted though simple story interwoven with just the right number of songs at just the right places.

The music. The songs are all wonderful, from the cynical, sarcastic yet poignant If I were a rich man to the coltishly sweet and joyful Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.

The entire feel of the film. Fiddler on the Roof touches depths that few musicals care to explore: the worry gnawing at a man because everything he holds sacred seems to be sliding away; the struggle between tradition and the happiness of those whom he loves most of all; and the most basic of struggles, staying alive. Yet, if only that were the synopsis of this film, I perhaps wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole: too morbid! What makes this a gem of a film is that it’s very skilfully handled. There’s romance, there’s love, and plenty of (often satirical) humour… it’s a film of many moods.

And yes, Topol is superb as Tevye.

Topol as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof

What I didn’t like:
The existence of one song, Mazeltov. Though it’s a good song (and the dream sequence—literally—is interesting), I thought this forced. In the context in which it appears—and its consequences—I would have liked a more skilful handling of the problem at hand.

However: one little niggle in a film that’s just over three hours long is forgivable. Fiddler on the Roof is an unforgettable, moving film that deserves watching. It may be about a small Jewish community over a century ago in a faraway land, but deep down, it’s about the fears, tribulations, triumphs and joys of people all across the world. It’s a story easy to identify with. Highly recommended.

Little bit of trivia:
Topol had already been playing the part of Tevye onstage when he was selected for the film. In fact, close to forty years later, he’s still playing Tevye—the farewell tour of Topol in Fiddler on the Roof began in January 2009 and will go on till August.

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13 thoughts on “Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

  1. A lovely film!
    I love, how the father has to take leave of everything he believes is steadfast in his life and makes his life that what it is.

    Reminds me of myself!

    The music is great!

    You didn’t like Mazeltov? I loved it! I love it so much, that I even liked the parody in The Nanny

  2. Yes, it’s such a lovely film… such a pleasant change from the last Hollywood musical I saw (South Pacific). That tussle between Tevye’s conscience and everything he’s been brought up to believe in, is beautifully depicted.

    I liked Mazeltov – the song, its picturisation etc is good, but somehow the context of the song didn’t fit. The rest of the film is relatively subtle; this bit is a somewhat clumsy effort on Tevye’s part to get Golde to agree. The context and use of the song lacks the finesse of the rest of the film, that’s all!

  3. You are right!
    Not a very decent and convincing manner to persuade Golde!
    but fun all the same!
    Thank you so much for bringing up this film.

    Two days back saw Bringing up Baby on TV. Such a screw ball comedy. Was most of the time ROTFL! (See how I use newly learnt knowledge)
    Highly recommended!

  4. Is it realy from 1971?!!! I thought it was much older – it does have that feel. Its certainly very touching and yet, it never gets you down or fails to entertain. And Tevye is the perfect father – he values tradition and having his own way, but he loves his daughters’ happiness way more.

  5. harvey: I haven’t seen Bringing up Baby yet, but it’s on my wishlist. Cary Grant, if I’m not mistaken? He’s awesome in comedy, so I’m sure you must have been ROTFL! ;-) (Well done, that’s what I call a fast learner!)

    bollyviewer: Yes, doesn’t feel like 1971, does it? I saw the play years ago, staged by a Delhi-based theatre group. The film is a recent watch for me, and I loved it, it was just so beautiful without being depressing.

  6. Thank you for bringing back the beautiful memories of this wonderful film.

    I love everything about it . The scene towards the end when they are all leaving never fails to choke me and bring tears in my eyes.

    How I wished their lives to continue there with improvement of course, and all together.
    But true, the film isn’t morbid, and there is so much to enjoy.
    I think I’ll watch it again some time soon.

  7. You know what the end actually reminded me of, in some ways? Do Bigha Zameen. Things are bad, but at least they’re together, and they love each other… Fiddler on the Roof overall has a happier and more optimistic end, but somehow the underlying core of that end was similar.

  8. “Cary Grant, if I’m not mistaken?”

    Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Was surprised to see Katherine Hepburn carry comedy so well. She was superb and so different. Do watch it.

  9. When I was younger, we used to have lots of those vinyl records, owned by my late grandfather. And I saw one entitled Fiddler on the Roof. My mom once told me that it’s actually my grandfather’s favorite. Since then I became curious about it.

    I just bought a VCD copy of the movie a few weeks ago. But until now I still haven’t seen the full movie, yet. Perhaps soon. ;)

  10. Dustedoff, What a concise review of the film. You’ve managed to put together so much that was going on, in the film, in your post.

  11. One o my all time favourites.The typical pastoral milieu and the lifestyle is fascinating. The songs are just mesmerising…I always wonder why can’t Indians make such films without the stars and sickening melodrama. more than 80% of India lives in its villages and they do have rich cultural ethos and artistic temperament….but we always try to get involved in unwanted sentimental trash in the name of drama…..Whenever I get free I watch this film…It is a true human document of the highest order.

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