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In November 1971, the screen version of the frequently revived Broadway musical hit theaters, eventually winning three Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Like Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver!, Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof is a lavish, carefully made, splendidly designed musical film. It demonstrates once again that ample amounts of time and money, intelligently employed, can indeed buy perfection.
At first it seems almost too perfect for its own good. The production designer, Robert Boyle, and the art director, Michael Stringer, have achieved such absolute color harmony (muted browns, oranges, and greens in the autumn scenes; pale blues and grays in the winter scenes) that one longs for a dissonant touch of primary color here and there. The costumes, by Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge, are perfectly matched in color and texture to Peter Lamont’s sets and the Yugoslav locations. Nowhere is there evidence of the jarring, brilliant hues of Chagall, whose painting are said to have “inspired” the filmmakers.
And Oswald Morris, the director of photography (who performed the same function, superbly, in Oliver! as well as in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Scrooge), has created visual softness and warmth throughout by the remarkable expedient of stretching a brown silk stocking over the lens. The taste and attention to detail demonstrated by these people is something to marvel at.
Yet Jewison’s first concern as a director seems to be to keep things moving, and so the action prevents all this visual perfection from producing monotony. The pace is remarkably quick throughout the film’s three-hour running time. (Excessive? Well, Antony Gibbs and Robert Lawrence, the film editors, are obviously perfectionists, too, and it would be difficult to prescribe cuts in such a well-integrated package.)
Moreover, Jewison demonstrates a concern for human values that gives the film a more serious purpose than the stage production ever seemed to have, and he makes his points subtly and without excessive sentimentality. The Czar, while never seen, is felt as a grim undercurrent of oppression though all the events in the tiny Russian village of Anatevka, and the final scenes (as the Jews are driven out of their homes) made a moving statement about the plight of all refugees.
But for the most part this is a cheerful, affirmative film, and Jewison demonstrates a fine sense of humor in the bizarre graveyard scene (painted in ghastly greens) that represents Tevye’s dream. Patience Collier, in the role of Grandma Tzeitel, gives a spirited performance here, and the technical work is a match for the best achievements of Disney’s animators.
Topol, as the milkman, philosopher, and folk hero Tevye, is the inevitable center of attention in nearly every scene, and his weight as a performer is immense. Looking two decades older than his 36 years, Topol demonstrates as much virtuosity (if not agility) as Ron Moody did in Oliver! But this is a more complex role, of course, and Topol imbues it with all the compassion, intensity, and rough humor it requires. His speaking voice is magnificent, and if his singing voice is imperfect, this only seems appropriate to the characterization.
Leonard Frey makes a charmingly homely Motel (the tailor who marries Tevye’s eldest daughter); Molly Picon is delightfully obnoxious as Yente, the matchmaker; and Paul Mann is likeable and bombastic as Lazar Wolf, the porcine butcher. Rosalind Harris, Neva Small, and Michel Marsh are all very good as Tevye’s daughters, although Miss Marsh seems altogether too beautiful to be a product of the union of Tevye and Golde. Michael Glaser is fine as Perchick, an endearing revolutionist; Raymond Lovelock, as Fyedka, displays the handsomest face on the screen.
Norma Crane is rather a disappointment as Golde; shes a fine actress and an adequate singer, but the characterization seems harsh and humorless.
The title role is taken by Tutte Lemkow, who does a great deal of splendid body acting in his speechless performance as the embodiment of Isaac Stern’s fine fiddle playing on the soundtrack. Stern is amply credited (and applauded) as a soloist, but credit should also be given to the unnamed clarinet player who enlivens the wedding celebration.
Jerry Bock’s music has actually been improved in the translation to the screen, thanks to the orchestrations and crisp conducting of John Williams, the film’s musical director. The score, which isn’t the strongest ever to emerge from Broadway, has never sounded better.
Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics hold up remarkably well after all the exposure they’ve had. The Jerome Robbins choreography, as adapted by Tom Abbott, blends in well with the dramatic action of the film, largely because the amount of dancing has been cut to a simple and effective minimum.
There are some contrived and artificial moments in Fiddler, but it becomes more convincing, naturalistic, and involving as it goes on, and finally builds to a powerful climax. It ranks high among the best musicals ever put on film. Its financial success seems guaranteed, and its artistic success will be thoroughly certified during the next Academy Award ceremonies.
—Paul Sargent Clark
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