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MGM Studios DVD presents
Fiddler on the Roof: SE (1971)

"God, did you have to send me news like that, today of all days? I know, I knowˇwe are the 'chosen people'ˇbut once in a while, can't you choose someone else?"
- Tevye, the dairyman (Chaim Topol)

Review By: debi lee mandel  
Published: September 17, 2001

Stars: Chaim Topol, (credited as "Topol")
Other Stars: Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Raymond Lovelock, Paul Michael Glaser, (credited as Michael Glaser)
Director: Norman Jewison

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:00m:31s
Release Date: October 02, 2001
UPC: 027616867674
Genre: musical


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+B+B A+

DVD Review


Tevye: Quiet woman, don't make me angry. When I am angry, even flies don't dare to fly!
Golde: I'm very frightened of you. After we finish supper, I'll faint."

The story of Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof begins with the world's most beloved Yiddish storyteller, Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916). Born in Kiev (as Solomon Rabinovitz), he distilled his childhood experiences into memorable characters that populate his folktales with heart-warmingˇand heart-wrenchingˇhumor. While there are many names that thread through his stories, it is Tevye the dairyman who takes center stage in many of Aleichem's works adapted for the Yiddish Theater, and it is Tevye's travails that dominated Joseph Stein's famous musical adaptation for the stage, which heˇand Jewisonˇbrought to the screen in 1971.

"[Is there] a blessing for the Czar? Of course. 'May God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us!'" ˝ The Rabbi

Set in 1905, during the inchoation of the radical movement that would be the Russian Revolution, the general population was restless and the czarist government needed a scapegoat to re-direct the misery of the masses. There would be a new series of pogroms to sweep across the Pale, wreaking havoc for the Jews who had settled there centuries before, creating another Diaspora, sending thousands wandering into the heart of Eastern Europe and ultimately, a more abominable fate.

Motel: Rabbi, We've been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn't this be a good time for him to come?
Rabbi: We'll have to wait for him some place else.

Even as it is steeped in Jewish culture, Tevye'sˇand Anatevka'sˇstory has great universal appeal: anyone can relate to the complex dichotomies of Tevye's dilemmas, a man deeply invested in tradition, confronted by changing times; his happens to be poised on the edge of the one of the most tumultuous periods in modern history. Some 35,000,000 people in 32 countries have seen this story since it premiered on a New York stage in 1964; 40 million viewed it in one night, the first time televised. A simple man, providing for his family, living by centuries-old customs that are crumbling under the weight of the coming epoch is as old as civilization and as contemporary as our societal struggles today, the world over.

"Without our tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!" - Tevye

Tevye the dairyman ekes out a meager living for his wife, Golde, and their five daughters, three of which are of marrying age. He has a small piece of land, two milk cows, a handful of chickens and an old carthorse to help him deliver his wares around the Russian village of Anatevka. He is a poor man, but the wealth of his tradition sustains him through his labors. As with all those who toil, he accepts his lot while entertaining grander dreams: "I realize it's no shame to be poor - but it's no great honor, either," Tevye shrugs to God. A poor working man with a deep devotion to a way of life, he cannot even stop his work to sing his wistful prayers to God, which, in my favorite scene, he does in the presence of his livestock.

"Lord who made the lion and the lamb/You decreed I should be what I am/Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan/If I were a wealthy man?" - Tevye

As if Tevye's work was not enough of a burden, he experiences change after change through his daughters who, one by one, stretchˇand breakˇthe traditions he has lived by. Tzeitel pledges herself to Motel Kamzoil, a poor tailor, circumventing the matchmaker; Hodel falls in love with an insurgent and goes off to Siberia when he is arrested and sent to the work camps there. And while their beleaguered father comes to terms with their defiance, it is Chava (who, by the use of the diminutive, Chaveleh, we understand to be her father's favorite child) that strays so far as to drive even the good-hearted, broad-minded Tevye to the chilling moment when he must face his own religious intolerance... he argues with himselfˇ"How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in?"ˇand breaks with a resounding "NO!"

"I always wanted a son, but I wanted one a little younger than myself!" ˝ Tevye, to Lazar Wolf

I have seen Fiddler numerous times on stages large and small, and even in the round. I have seen Herschel Bernardi's Tevye, and Broadway's famous Zero Mostel as the oysgemutshet dairyman, but Chaim Topol IS Sholom Aleichem's everyman in every way. At only 35, Topol's portrayal is quintessentially Yiddish, never once appearing as an idealizedˇAmericanizedˇcaricature of this turn-of-the-century Russian Jew. He is an extraordinary, physical actor, and his Tevye explodes from the screen with emotion. We weep when he weeps, bristle when he bristles, and laugh when he expects us to. In the last moment before the entr'acte, his wordless gesture, "Why?" speaks forˇand toˇus all. We are crushed under his unbearable weight as he lifts his cart, turning his back on his dear little Chava, and gestures her away. When the commissar tells him he must leave, his voice and posture is quickened with anger, yet he respond with all the restraint of every man present. He dances our joy and all our unfulfilled wishes: when it comes to the role of Tevye, there is no "other hand."

"Even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness!" ˝ Motel

The structure of the original stage play, and therefore this film, is a brilliant series of vignettes of shtetl life strung together by Tevye, who maintains the flow as a kind of narrator or guide, without really breaking the "fourth wall": it is not to us, but to God that he speaks, whenever he steps out of the action. The film begins with a song that introduces us to the traditions of Jewish life in Anatevka, and from that moment we leap worlds away from the stage play as well as our own modern lives. The dramatic story is rarely halted by song; rather, the music illuminates the characters, their culture and their arduous life, more than hours of action could provide, and even serves to further the story in many instances. The score, rooted in traditional Klezmer music, helps to establish a more convincing use of song than is common to the musical genre. I admit, I'm a sucker for davening old men and impassioned men of any age willing to dance with each other (see my list and you'll find Zorba as well).

Perchik: Money is the world's curse.
Tevye: May the Lord smite me with it! Andˇmay I never recover!

Director Jewison strives to "entertain without losing sight of the painful realities underlying the humor of the people." He succeeds. The orchestration of the action during Tradition is fabulous, as are so many of the choices he made, from his location outside Zagreb to his casting (including Molly Picon, the great star of Yiddish theater) to the smallest details. Even the few dance sequences are believably placed, and carry their weight: in the public house, the Jewish men's dance is interrupted by, then expertly interwoven with, the rowdy movements of the local Cossacks, illustrating how they live together, but simultaneously, apart and in the wedding dance, when Perchik pulls down the rope that divides the men from the women, with one swift tug, portraying the fragility of their tradition in these changing times. Jewison silently builds from Fiddler's convivial beginning toward its desolate finale by slowly draining the color from his landscape, and in the end, as the exodus begins, he allows the camera to pan the faces of the characters we've met, creating a montage of images like so many photos that would end up in the ruins of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. There is a poetic rhythm to every movement; perhaps more contemporary dramas should try the vehicle of musicˇor iambic pentameterˇto tell their stories as successfully.

"Heaven bless you both/Nazdorov'ya!ˇTo you health/And may we live together in peace!" - Cossack chorus

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: It is difficult to rate this transfer. Basically, the image is clean and the colors are natural, yet there is an overall softness, which appears to have been the creative intention. Jewison explains in the commentary that the entire film was shot through a silk stocking, which explains this look, and he,too, is aware there are a few places where the knit pattern is completely obvious (a few memory shots near the end, against the sun). Blacks are soft as well, but the colors are vivid and organic. The entr'acte black screen is nicked and there is some speckling in the nightmare sequence, but such flaws in the image are rare.

Bitrates hover in the mid-range, never falling below 4 but rarely squeaking over 7; surely more attention to this aspect would have boosted the overall quality. This is not perfect, but there is nothing that distracts from the pleasure of the film.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 5.1 track is gorgeously expanded, but I cannot say I heard as much as a chicken squawk from the rears. Having seen Fiddler performed live many times, I settled in, imagining the great boom from the tympani that awaited me in Traditionˇmon dieu! Quel d╚sastre! Nonetheless, I recovered, and was completely satisfied - it's impossible to go wrong with this ecstatic and heart-wrenching score. Its rich mix of orchestral and traditional Klezmer music, with bits of Russian folk and Soviet gusto, is simply indelible; from the opening solo (performed by Isaac Stern) to the barnyard cacophonies, I was not disappointed.

Also, as I know this film has been translated into numerous languages for audiences around the world, I am surprised that English is the only available language track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring 1979 theatrical re-release of Fiddler on the Roof
4 TV Spots/Teasers
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Storyboard
1 Feature/Episode commentary by actor Chaim Topol and director Norman Jewison
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. "Tevye's Dream" sequence in full color (with director commentary) and side-by-side comparison
  2. Norman Jewison Looks Back interview
  3. Any Day Now, deleted song
  4. Stories of Sholom Aleichem read by Norman Jewison
  5. Historical background with Norman Jewison commentary
Extras Review: MGM performs a mitzvah for this simple Yiddish folktale, sending it off with a wonderful parade of entertaining supplements. Side One contains the main feature, its commentary, and a widescreen trailer from the theatrical re-release in 1979.

Subtitles appear in the lower third, but have a few problems: they are not italicized (to denote singing), default to French ON, and while they can be changed between English, French and Spanish on-the-fly, one must return to the menu to turn them off. I noted quite a few "lost in the translation" subtitles, even outside the common Yiddish humor, as when Tevye sings "And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men - ": the Spanish offers an acceptable "los libros sagrados," while French-speakers read "des livres saints" - hmmm, not exactly.

Commentary
This is the easiest commentary I have ever sat through. Recorded separatelyˇbut perfectly timedˇdirector/producer Norman Jewison and actor Chaim Topol fill just about all of the feature's 3-hour run. Fiddler was both a professional and personal triumph for each of these men and still holds in their affections. Neither of them, however, becomes overly nostalgic or sentimental; rather, they mix anecdotes, historical reference and contemporary commentary, just what I think the nature of a track like this should be. Jewison mentions that "God" is always in the "same spot" when Tevye speaks to him, and it becomes a bit of fun to note this each time. He credits the paintings of Marc Chagall as design inspiration, and tags cinematographer Ozzie Morrisˇwon was awarded the Oscar®ˇas the one who gave the entire film its diffused, old world look by shooting through a silk stocking. TopolˇI could listen to him recite grocery lists, 24 hours a day. He outsteps the usual commentary by talking about his parents' shtetl life, and his own experiences growing up in Israel. They both comment on the events that have transpired in Yugoslavia since the filming, and express the same fondness for the people. Even as an Israeli, Topol adds, who "never knew a day of peace," he could not have foreseen the bloodshed.

The audio begins a bit unevenly, with Topol's track much lower, but this is remedied before long. If you are a fan of this film or its historical reference, this is well worth an evening.

Side Two:
Norman Jewison: Filmmaker (49m:27s)

"I'm not a technical filmmaker, and I'm not a cerebral filmmaker... I make emotional films." - Jewison

The National Film Board of Canada visited their native son on location in Yugoslavia during the latter days of the Fiddler shoot in 1971. This full-screen documentary serves as a behind-the-scenes view of the project, as well as a concise study of the man himself. The most telling scene shows the director shooting the closing Anatevka images, mouthing along with the song, tears in his eyes.

Jewison talks about his work (In the Heat of the Night, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming , The Thomas Crown Affair), gives his opinions about the downfall of the studio system based on his experiences, and Canadian national guilt.

MGM provides 12 chapter stops for this film.

Norman Jewison Looks Back
In an interview split into 5 brief segments (10 minutes if played together), Jewison discusses aspects of his personal history with the film. While some of this is redundant to the commentary, amazingly, he does have a few more things to say. He admits that his name might have landed him the Fiddler gigˇthe studio had assumed he was Jewish (he's not). The producer/director talks about going to see Zero Mostel in the play on Broadway, his favorite moments, and his pleasure at the universal acceptance of the subject matter.

Deleted Song: Any Day Now
Director Jewison wanted to replace Perchik's song, Now I Have Everything with something more revolutionary in tone to better match the character. Quite Russian in spirit, it succeeded in its mission; in the end, however, neither song appears.

As the entire soundtrack was recorded before shooting began, (Paul) Michael Glaser's audio still exists, played here over photos and sketches of the cut scene.

"Tevye's Dream" in Full Color

"It's the butcher's wife/Come from beyond the grave - " ˝ the chorus

Introduced by Jewison, MGM provides the entire "Tevye's Dream" sequence in its original, vivid colorsˇthis footage was later desaturated to impose the nightmarish quality that separates it from the reality of the film. It can be viewed in full, as well as in a short, split-screen comparison. Its condition remains flawed, but it is completely enjoyable.

The Stories of Sholom Aleichem
In this misleading but lovely presentation, the director reads brief excerpts from two of the great Yiddish storyteller's tales over sketches and stills from Fiddler. Jewison explains how these stories directly inspired songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They are: The Bubble Bursts: If I Were a Rich Man (4 minutes) and Modern Children: Lazar Wolf's marriage proposition to Tevye (3 minutes).

Much like the readings of children's illustrated stories on PBS, I could only wish, instead, for one complete story. Playable independently or together.

Historical Background (approx. 14 minutes)
In perhaps the most didactic supplement on the disc, Norman Jewison relates the history of the shtetlach that were spread across the Russian Pale, over vintage archival photographs that were found at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the aftermath of World War II.

Production Design & Storyboards
A plethora of skillful drawings and storyboards by production designer Robert Boyle can be viewed alone or accompanied by film comparisons, viewed one group at a time or in a continuous fashion. The comparisons are laid out with drawings on top, film motion on the bottom, and can be fast-forwarded or rewound at will.

Original Production Notes
Casting sheets, make-up directions, call sheets and the shooting schedule are available for browsing with zoom-in facility. While some viewers will have little interest in such minutiae, others might find hours of fascination in these documents.

Photographic Production Diary
Yet another sub-menu offers 4 sections of photography, both production stills and candid images in and around locations. Entitled Norman Jewison, Yugoslavia, On Location, The Songs and NY Premiere, they can either be played as a slide show or clicked through manually.

Promotional Materials
Often these sections can be overkill, but here there is just the right amount of material to support the feature, providing interest without seeming endless: Two original release posters, one re-release poster (more similar to the current cover art), the original pressbook, a re-release pressbook and a few international posters. Navigation here is a bit nasty to get to (some successful and some not) close up details and back to the full-page views. There is also a full color brochure from the re-release presented as an animated souvenir program, with "live-action" zooms and page turning.

Trailer, Teasers & TV Spots
MGM includes a re-release trailer and TV spot from 1979, as well as two teasers and a TV spot from the original promotion in 1971. Although all are unrestored widescreen, they are in good shape, if a bit washed out.

DVD production credits are also provided.

MGM, you bring us such naches. A blessing on your head. Mazel tov.

Extras Grade: A+

 

Final Comments


Villager: We should defend ourselves! An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!
Tevye: Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.

As a child, it seemed that every image I saw of Jews, they were leaving: on foot, in carts, on ships, in cattle cars. The tale of Anatevka is as old as storytelling itself, passed down through successive generations in almost every culture; told in every language, whether living or "dead." Fiddler on the Roof is about indomitable faith and the will to persevere against any form of oppression. If this movie doesn't stir your heart, you don't have one.

"Where does it stop?" Tevye, I'll tell you. I don't know.

 


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