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