I’m always a sucker for any film at least three decades old that receives some kind of special features-heavy DVD release, if it looks like the studio behind it really put their backs into moving things onto the discs. If I’ve heard of the film, I’ll probably pick it up if the fancy edition drops to a price I consider reasonable. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll like it, but it generally means it’s a film I “should” see. It’s worse when it comes to musicals, which depend on someone’s interest in the songs to a degree, or can, for some people. That means asking for opinions can be an iffy process, and that it’s sort of a crapshoot picking such a thing up. Doesn’t generally stop me, of course, as I have to treat musicals as crapshoots most of the time since I’ve watched so few in the first place, due to an early dislike of them.
Tevye (Chaim Topol, usually credited, like here, as just Topol) is the father of five girls in the village of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia. He introduces us to the village and describes its general nature and overall attitude toward the world, any white lies he tells easily countered by the scenery and characters behind him. Tradition is established as the order of the day with the first song, and then there is a brief interlude for the credits, after which we learn of the village matchmaker Yente (Molly Picon) and her news of a match found for Tevye’s oldest, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), the rich butcher Lazar Wolf* (Paul Mann). The daughters closest in age to Tzeitel are excited at the idea of news for her because it means they’re next, and next eldest Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Chava (Neva Small) sing of their hopes, only to have Tzeitel interrupt with her cynical fears that infect the rest. Tevye’s wife Golde (Norma Crane) is the one who speaks to Yente and sends Tevye to meet with Lazar Wolf and attempt to broker an agreement for the arranged marraige. Tzeitel, though, wants to marry the poverty-stricken tailor Motel (Leonard Frey). Tevye is confronted with this affront to tradition that he values so much, and has to decide whether to relent, only to have his other daughters follow in her footsteps. Drifting revolutionary Perchik (Michael Glaser) catches the eye of Hodel, while the gentile Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock) catches Chava’s. Interrupting this is also the encroaching policy of pogroms, brought about through the local Constable (Louis Zorich), who attempts to be reasonable within an unreasonable set of orders.
There’s certainly more to the plot, and of course songs push the running time until it ends up just a tiny bit over three hours in total. This is no surprise for a musical from a stageplay, really, because many of those run such lengths anyway. It doesn’t feel too long, though, and in fact runs about as quickly as three hours can. Not exactly “Really? Three hours?” sort of quick, but not “Ugh, is this over yet?” at all. There was complaint when the film was being made that Zero Mostel was not being cast as Tevye, because he had originated the Broadway role, but Topol did at least originate it in London. It was really Topol who put my foot into the door of watching this; I caught a flash of it once, about six years ago, while at the home of a friend of my then-girlfriend’s parents** and was intrigued (but more interested, at the time, in my girlfriend and the–I think it was Christmas, that or Thanksgiving–dinner that was awaiting). I found him intriguing and interesting. He’s not a perfectly pretty face, but has a strong voice and character. The dancing used in “If I Were a Rich Man” was what I caught, and I found it terribly interesting. Apologies to Mostel, but I can’t separate him from The Producers in my head, and that just seems a bit weird for Tevye in my brain (though it probably wouldn’t be if I saw it, really).
Topol is definitely the best part of the movie as a whole. When the story shifted to Perchik and Hodel in particular, I cringed a little. Occasionally Glaser looked a bit too much like he was picked for his looks, as did Marsh. Glaser and Lovelock both had the obnoxious–usually seemingly stage-born–habit of enunciating by edging in a hint of a posh British accent (stretched R’s, for instance). It’s grating, especially when surrounded by people working with Yiddish accents and mannerisms (Picon probably being the most enthusiastic about taking on such cultural mores). Neither really had the charisma, background or fire to really sell this, either, so it’s a little nudge at the suspension of disbelief (or maybe a child jumping up and down on the bridge–suspension and all that). And Marsh’s singing voice made me think she was only considering the song and singing, and not the character. This is one of the things I find offputting in musicals when it occurs, so it made the scenes with Marsh and Glaser the most uncomfortable. These are just nudges though, thankfully, especially because they are nowhere near the leading roles. Mann is probably the next most exciting actor, with a nice whiplash-inducing mood change in him.
The approach Norman Jewison took in directing this (after reminding the producers who called him in that, despite the suggestive name, he’s not Jewish) is the kind that works best in adapting stage musicals: he envelops the feel of the stage musical in film-dressing, giving it the kind of life that preserves its origins while giving it something that original medium cannot. Dancing is never a focal point in a scene (with the possible exception of Topol’s solo dancing), nor is singing. It’s never framed to say, “And now they’re going to dance!” or “Here’s an actor singing!” There’s no way to make someone bursting into song feel completely realistic or believable (even if some people might actually burst into song in reality, it’s rarely so perfectly relevant), but it is possible to make it seem less jarring. That’s what’s achieved here, with framing and filming done to treat most of these scenes like dialogue in the way actors play and in the way the camera follows them. There’s a different rhythm and movement inherent in this because they are singing and not talking, but it’s not the rhythm that really draws one’s eye to the fact of the song. The minimal dancing usually takes place only where appropriate: characters dance at a wedding, or in drunken celebration at a bar, or to express joy in a way that is not overly choreographed in feeling. Probably the most constructed of these scenes is the bar, where a group of Russians comes in to congratulate Tevye on the upcoming marriage of his daughter. They reel out dances that are widely recognized as “Russian,” and often do so in clear lines or groups, but it all comes off through its cultural association as a way of establishing the Russians and matched to the appropriate nature of dancing in the scene, it doesn’t come off strangely. It’s also filmed from peculiar angles, and always with stationary crowds around watching (usually the Jews, who are somewhat confused by and wary of this intrusion), many from under a table or chair, resulting in a focus on feet without following them in an unnatural way.
The extra techniques included were most clear whenever Tevye was faced with some kind of decision as to whether to let others encroach on the way his life was currently being lived. First Lazar Wolf is frozen while Tevye ponders “aloud”–though the freezing of course tells us it is not aloud at all–whether to agree to let him marry Tzeitel. It occurs again whenever confronted with his daughters, though now, instead of freezing, they are suddenly many yards away from where they just were, which was right next to him. It’s a clever method of continuing Tevye’s established habit of asides, first with his narration and later with his discussions with God, which is always filmed with Tevye in the foreground and simply looking out of the scene in some direction that is near the camera (without being the camera). It’s very effective and feels right for the character–as does, curiously, his tendency to burst into song, or dance (which he mostly just does with “If I Were a Rich Man”). There’s a moment that comes from not from the camera or Jewison though–unless he suggested it–but from Topol that was probably my favourite. It’s strange and momentary, but it was a perfect encapsulation of the character of Tevye, or at least what I liked about him. He’s about to sing “Do You Love Me” to Golde, and he begins to get into the subject by picking aimlessly at a door frame, almost as if he were a child preparing to tell his childhood crush that he liked her. Tevye is like this; he’s stubborn and interested in tradition, but is an honourable and good man and measures things, discussing them with God and trying to get a feel for what the truth is–even if it violates his previously held beliefs.
The songs are not all as catchy as the ones that I think are the most famous (“If I Were a Rich Man” and “Matchmaker”), but that may be due to the fact that I have not heard them near so much. Still, none bear the marks of unpleasant musical convention for me–though they often happily end on the horn blast that marks the moment where the cast would freeze in some productions of any musical–perhaps thanks to John Williams’ choices in arranging them, but I imagine more due to the songs themselves. This is perhaps the most important element of the film for some people, but not me. I like to think of musicals as a medium in the genre sense–a way of telling a story and conveying an idea (like the changing of traditions and the established way, in this case) rather than a showcase for the elements of the medium or genre. To draw an absurd comparison (albeit one that shouldn’t be surprising from me), it’s the difference between horror that uses the fantastic for itself and as part of a story, and horror that throws a story out as a showcase for gory setpiece murders. It’s possible to blur the line (in horror AND musicals, I mean), but that’s not at issue here. This is definitely more a story being told that happens to have good songs in it, which makes sense since it did come from stories originally. Regardless of the detail, though, this is how I like my musicals.
*I harp on the morons who wouldn’t stop laughing at the dog named “Homo” in The Man Who Laughed, but I definitely heard this name and thought, “…I did not just hear that.” I continued to think that for the rest of the movie, then read the credits and yes, barring a little spelling, I DID hear that. I did not, however, laugh aloud at it–even though I was by myself. It’s weird, but it’s a name that happens to sound like Laser Wolf. That doesn’t mean it IS Laser Wolf. Even if that’s exactly what you hear. Over and over.
**Sorry, unless I just made up the relation, I couldn’t make that any simpler.