Wednesday, June 8, 2011

#306. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Directed By: Norman Jewison

Starring: Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey

Tag line: "Shout It From The Rooftops!"

Trivia:  Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando were among the many actors who turned down the lead role of Tevye. Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye both wanted the role and were passed over

Since when do hardship, oppression and stifling traditional values translate into a feel-good experience? 

Under normal circumstances, the answer is: never. 

But Norman Jewison’s 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof somehow manages to be the exception to that rule. The story of a father’s attempt to hold onto tradition in the face of a changing world, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most heart-warming movies I have ever seen. 

Based on the long-running Broadway musical of the same name, Fiddler on the Roof takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the town of Anatevka, a poverty-stricken village in the Ukraine. 

Tevye (Topol) is a milkman whose three daughters, Tzietel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Chava (Neva Small), are close to marrying age. Tradition calls for the father to be involved in the selection of a husband for his daughters. However, all three girls seem to have a mind of their own when it comes to a potential mate, ignoring the wishes of the old-fashioned Tevye. 

Will Tevye adapt to this new, modern world, or will he cherish tradition above all else? 

So what is it about Fiddler on the Roof that’s so uplifting? What’s to smile about when children are stifled by the strict practices of their parents; when people are persecuted for their religious beliefs; when poverty, sadness, and violence are the rules of the day? 

I could say it’s the musical numbers that gives the film its charm, yet even they occasionally delve into suffering. Matchmaker is a rousing number, but one that shows us Tevye’s three daughters the moment they realize Anatevka’s resident matchmaker, Yente (Molly Picon), probably won’t find them the Prince Charming they’re hoping for. If I Were a Rich Man has Tevye fantasizing about what it would be like to finally have a little extra money. “I know there’s no shame in being poor”, he says during one of his many conversations with God, “but it’s no great honor, either”. 

So what is it, exactly, about Fiddler on the Roof that makes me smile whenever i watch this wonderful film? 

It’s Tevye asking Golde (Norma Crane), his wife of 25 years, if she loves him, and noticing the spark in her eyes when she realizes that, despite their constant bickering, she does. 

It’s Tevye’s internalized debates with himself as his daughters, one by one, break with the tradition he holds dear, and in his realization that their doing so moght not signify the end of the world. 

It’s even in Tevye’s heart-breaking goodbye to his daughter, Hodel, as she's waiting for the next train to Siberia to marry the revolutionary-minded Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser). 

In short, it’s the will to carry on, to smile in the face of oppression. Through the difficulties and persecution, there is always hope, and in the poverty and sadness, always life. 

These are the images from Fiddler on the Roof that stay with me: some happy, some sad, yet all very endearing. 

Drink La’chayim to life!


Anthony Lee Collins said...

I saw it on Broadway with Zero Mostel, and it was wonderful. I never saw the movie, mostly because I wanted to remember Zero in the role. If I saw the movie, that would be the Tevya I'd remember.

Wonderful show, though, with a great story and great songs.

(The thought of Orson Welles in the role is kind of scary, though. :-) )

DVD Infatuation said...

@Anthony: I know Mostel really wanted to play Tevye in the movie (I've heard great things about his performance on the stage), but they went with Topol, which left a real bitter taste in Mostel's mouth for many years. And I know what you're saying..for me, the role will always belong to Topol.

And yes...Orson Welles? REALLY?

Anthony Lee Collins said...

I was lucky with Mostel, since I saw him twice on Broadway. The other time was Ulysses in Nighttown, an attempt to make a play out of James Joyce's Ulysses. As an adaptation it was doomed (of course) but interesting, and Mostel was wonderful as Leopold Bloom. Which also adds a bit of a joke, since "Leo Bloom" was the name of Gene Wilder's character in The Producers.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Anthony: It's soon as I read "Leopold Bloom", I was thinking THE PRODUCERS! That, for me, will always be the quintessential Zero Mostel role (well, that and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM). His Bialystock was amazing!