Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Fiddler" On Film Is A Real Joy

Cleveland Press December 15, 1971

"Fiddler on the Roof" must be the most totally disarming show around. Every time I come to review it -- and I have lost track of the number of times -- I am convinced that I cannot possibly find anything more in it.

Now "Fiddler" is on film, and there are obviously new aspects to discuss. But most amazing is that in spite of its familiarity the show still comes across as a warm and pleasant experience.

It is easy enough to knit-pick over the movie. It has its flaws. But it works so well, is so overwhelmingly good in so many ways that it has to be termed a success.

It retains its power to move, to make you laugh, to make your eyes brim, to give you goose pimples, to send you away feeling that here, by golly, is one heck of a good show.

The picture has been made with integrity. The movie industry has a tendency to buy stage properties, throw half of the material away and gussy up the rest with lousy love ballads.

"Fiddler" is as faithful to its material as possible. Since this is one of the best scores for a musical in more than a decade, it would have been stupid to tamper with it.

The opening song, "Tradition," serves as a prolog before the title comes on. Instead of a chorus dancing and singing, the voices are on the soundtrack as the camera cuts quickly from scene to scene of Jewish life in the Russian village of Anatevka in 1905. Rather than using choreography, the film has been cut to the music.

The integrity extends to the casting. Topol as Tevyes may be known in London and Telaviv -- but not here. Clearly no one succumbed to the notion of casting a star name in the role.

The man is perfect, less a caricature than the role sometimes becomes. He is more actor than most Tevyes but he also is a grand singer and he gives the role dignity.

His daughters are no glamour girls. They are plain with a scrubbed look and are totally disarming. Norma Crane is a sturdy Golde, Leonard Frey perfect as the tailor. All the small roles are wonderfully cast. Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker overacts by comparison with the rest, but her comic gifts are so great that it is better to have them -- even accentuated -- than not.

Part of the producer-director Norman Jewison's problem in adapting the work for the screen is that while the stage can suggest, film has to show it realistically. Thus a program that turns a wedding into a shambles continues in full force outside -- not by way of sound effects as on stage but in actualities of destruction and fire.

Most movie musicals have failed because musical numbers are unacceptable when grounded in the reality of film instead of the stylizations of the stage.

Again Jewison and his colleagues have solved most of these problems as in "Tradition." The wedding scene and the sabbath prayers, moving as they are on stage, are even better as they are enlarged photographically.

One of my favorite numbers, and one that is sometimes lost on stage, is "Do You Love Me." It is even more poignant and warm on film.

Maybe some will object to the realism of this "Fiddler," but since Jewison was using a realistic medium he was wise to go all the way. Thus the Jews of Anatevka become on film a total community with their farms, their shops, their temple.

The exodus becomes more than that of a small group but instead is all the Ukraine, an entire nation forced to lose everything. While the stage musical simply ended at that point, the screen -- with its sharply etched portraits of the aged, the children, the bedraggled and their pitiful possessions -- suggests the eventual immigration to this and other countries.

The picture's shortcomings are matters of length and a tendency to emphasize camera tricks. Several scenes could be dropped and others trimmed.

Jewison's films have all been remarkably well photographed ("In the Heat of the Night," "The Thomas Crown Affair") but here excessive camera trickery tends to detract. Too often the camera pulls too far away from characters, looks at them with a bird's eye view or just simply climbs trees.

If it's criticism you're looking for, that's it right there. Most of all this is a pretty wonderful movie, a refreshingly entertaining picture, one with enough unforgettable scenes to make it live long in your memory.