History, Legacy & Showmanship

To Life! Remembering “Fiddler on the Roof” on its 50th Anniversary

December 20, 2021 - 3:47 pm   |   by
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Fiddler on the Roof belongs on the list of the best and most successful musicals, which would include West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. — Matthew Kennedy, author of Roadshow!

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of Fiddler on the Roof, the popular, award-winning screen adaptation of the Broadway musical and the writings of Sholem Aleichem.

Directed by Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Moonstruck), Fiddler starred Topol (Flash Gordon, For Your Eyes Only) as Tevye, the poor Jewish milkman determined to marry off his daughters amidst turmoil in his small Ukrainian village.

Also starring Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, and Paul Mann, and featuring Oscar-winning cinematography, music, and sound, Fiddler rolled out to movie theaters, initially as a roadshow, beginning fifty years ago this autumn. [Read on here...]

For the occasion The Bits features a multi-page package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, passages from some of its film reviews, a reference/historical listing of its reserved-seat “roadshow” engagements, and, finally, a roundtable interview segment with a group of film historians, documentarians and scholars who reflect on the film five decades after its debut.

Fiddler on the Roof

The film’s most recent home media release (on Blu-ray Disc) was in 2011. And since we’re on the subject of the film’s 50th… Hey, MGM…, how ‘bout a 4K UHD release? Or a theatrical re-release?

 

FIDDLER NUMBER$

  • 1 = Box-office rank among films directed by Norman Jewison
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning films released in 1971 (lifetime/retroactive)
  • 1 = Rank among UA’s all-time top-earning movies at close of first run
  • 2 = Box-office rank among roadshow era musicals
  • 2 = Number of cinemas playing Fiddler during its opening weekend
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning movies during the 1972 calendar year
  • 3 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 4 = Number of years UA’s top-earning film
  • 8 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 13 = Peak all-time box-office chart position
  • 66 = Number of weeks longest-running engagement played
  • $9.0 million = Production cost
  • $25.1 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1972)
  • $35.6 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1973)
  • $40.5 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1980)
  • $61.5 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $83.3 million = Box-office gross
  • $251.4 million = Box-office rental (adjusted for inflation)
  • $531.9 million = Box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)

 

PASSAGES FROM A SAMPLING OF ORIGINAL FILM REVIEWS

“There’s a little too much of everything except simplicity in Norman Jewison’s over-inflated three-hour screen edition of the famous Broadway musical. To the movie’s credit are some fine songs and dances and an over-riding decency of spirit. It offers an affirmation of life that contrasts strongly with the suicidal pessimism of many so-called entertainments in our era.” — Clyde Gilmour, The Toronto Star

“The film version of Fiddler on the Roof is somewhere between a very quiet mazel tov and a loud oy.” — Kevin Kelly, The Boston Globe

Fiddler on the Roof has been done with such artistry but also with such evident love, devotion, integrity and high aspiration that watching it is a kind of duplex pleasure. You are warmed by it in its own terms as a superior piece of entertainment. And, if you have any abiding affection for the movies as a form, you have to be knocked out of your seat by the painstaking and inspired craftsmanship you see (and hear) before you.” — Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

“After a record-breaking seven years on the New York stage, Tevye, the poor Jewish milkman from the little Russian town of Anatevka, has made it big. Not every milkman is accompanied on his rounds by a six-track stereo recording of a symphony orchestra.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“I suppose Fiddler on the Roof is just the movie that lovers of the stage play were waiting for—and since Fiddler is the most popular stage musical in history, that’s something, all right. But would it be heresy on my part to suggest that Fiddler isn’t much as a musical, and that director Norman Jewison has made as good a film as can be made from a story that is quite simply boring?” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“As a film, Fiddler on the Roof has to be judged an artistic failure, although a handsomely photographed one.” — Howell Raines, The Atlanta Constitution

“There are virtually insuperable difficulties in bringing a Broadway musical to the screen, and this Fiddler suffers from them. The conception behind the musical numbers remains inflexibly stage-bound for the most part. The attempts at cinematic equivalents usually prove distracting. The convention of pretending that people are going about their normal lives while singing is too contradictory to be accepted. ” — William B. Collins, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“An enormous man with sparkling (not melting) brown eyes, Topol has the necessary combination of bombast and compassion, vitality and doubts. His dialogs with God (and/or the audience) are more cautious and less in the chutzpah style of, say, Zero Mostel. Topol sings passably, but If I Were a Rich Man is too serious, losing the fun.” — A.D. Murphy, Variety

“[T]he screen version of Fiddler on the Roof is a film that will be seen by millions and loved. It should have about the same success as did Sound of Music, which had people going back time after time to see it. In short, it’s a blockbuster.” — Barry Morrison, The Denver Post

“It does not matter whether you have seen Fiddler on the stage, you must see what Jewison has done with this bittersweet story, how he has expanded the action which the camera makes possible to further enhance an already delightful experience.” — William A. Payne, The Dallas Morning News

“The music is simply elegant. Never have I gone around humming it so often, not even after the first time I saw it on stage.” — Emerson Batdorff, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

Fiddler on the Roof

“[A]n absolutely smashing movie; it is not especially sensitive, it is far from delicate, and it isn’t even particularly imaginative, but it seems to me the most powerful movie musical ever made.” — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“Audiences will be going in to see a musical comedy with a bit of meaning and a bit more uplift for the spirit. What the film delivers is a heavy-handed folk drama with a lot of posing and preaching about eternal verities and—oh yes, some incidental music.” — Tom McElfresh, The Cincinnati Enquirer

“Norman Jewison, the film’s director, and Joseph Stein, who adapted for the screen his own stage adaptation of the Sholem Aleichem stories, have not tampered with the text in any obviously reckless way. They have sought only to enlarge the physical frame of the show by setting it in its time (1905) and physical place (actually in Yugoslavia) with real houses, in real barns with real animals, in real fields and real landscapes. They want to show us everything, to give us our money’s worth. In doing so, they’ve not just opened up the play, they’ve let most of the life out of it. ” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“Jewison’s Fiddler is a great film, by which I mean great in the sense that matters most—greatly moving, an extraordinarily powerful, emotional experience.” — Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

“This wouldn’t be the same movie without Oswald Morris’ wonderfully muted cinematography. Like his work on Oliver! it makes a visually depressing environment seem much less so, and the costumes and sets seem both authentic and tinged with the theatrical. The music is too loud and emphatic in places—as if it had to be, to prove that this is an important film—but John Williams’ adaptation of Jerry Bock’s score is generally apt. Not only is Isaac Stern’s playing of the fiddler’s tunes brilliant; his casting was a stroke of genius. Perhaps the movie’s boldest single stroke is the casting of Topol, the young Israeli actor, in the part of Tevye, the aging Jewish milkman who lives in the Czarist Russian village of Anatevka. Topol is a larger-than-life performer, a highly theatrical actor who delivers the kind of broad, brash, physical performance that hasn’t been seen in movies since Anthony Quinn played Zorba. And it works. Wow, does it work!” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

“The journey from stage to screen, especially for a highly successful musical is often a rocky path, for what works on one doesn’t necessarily work on the other. Furthermore, the wide-screen exposes many of the conceits and conventions of stage productions.” — Paine Knickerbocker, San Francisco Chronicle

“There is a possibility that America’s longest-running stage musical, Fiddler on the Roof, [playing] the Loma Theater, also will become its longest-running film. To accomplish that in San Diego, Fiddler on the Roof would have to exceed two and a half years, which was the length of The Sound of Music run at the Loma. Film audiences were in a different mood about decency, loyalty, romance, sentiment and folksy nostalgia when The Sound of Music opened in 1965 than they have been since. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging, as hoped, in favor of what Fiddler on the Roof has to offer, which is three hours of pleasant entertainment.” — James Meade, The San Diego Union

“Stereophonic bedlam: In his big song-number, If I Were a Rich Man, Topol fails to reach the heights of philosophical humor attained by Zero Mostel in the original Broadway cast. (Mostel is still triumphantly audible in an RCA album, LSO-1093.) The orchestra on the movie soundtrack delivers super-symphonic decibels, and several of the choral numbers shake the chandeliers with stereophonic bedlam. Even the allegorical fiddler on the roof at the story’s beginning and ending, representing the unquenchable Jewish soul, is played with dazzling virtuosity by the celebrated Isaac Stern. He’s a glorious violinist—and he sounds much too expensive for Sholom Aleichem’s modest rural musician.” — Clyde Gilmour, The Toronto Star

“If one could say only two words about Fiddler on the Roof, they would be: See it. Broadway’s longest-running musical, as the ads say, has been transformed into a magical, often poetic film by producer-director Norman Jewison. The screen Fiddler is not, however, without flaws. It suffers from over-romanticization, a weak second half, and some incredibly hackneyed and trite camera work, along with a few performances that approach borscht-belt caricature. And yet, despite these directoral blemishes, Fiddler is a movie to see and enjoy.” — John Weisman, Detroit Free Press

“Irrespective of the fact that Fiddler has become one of those undying shows on stage, Norman Jewison’s film treatment is a model, indeed a triumph, of translating a production from one medium to another. Most often, the flimsiest conventions of the musical stage are muddled up with the worst excesses of movie gimmicks to create a hollow clang. Fiddler reverses the process by retaining that inexplicable body-heat of live performance and augmenting it with the scope and openness and reality of setting that a well-run camera can capture.” — Don Morrison, The Minneapolis Star

“Norman Jewison’s $9 million movie of Fiddler on the Roof is the result of a painstaking attempt to purge Broadway from the show and replace it with the spirit of Sholom Aleichem. What emerges is a film that is faithful to the letter of the Broadway show, but [also] faithful to the spirit of Jewish folk lore. At times it is a drama with music; at other times it is a folk opera. It is no longer a musical comedy.” — George Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Fiddler on the Roof is simply a beautiful motion picture. It is not enough that the filmmakers have told their story very well, have created a mood appropriate to the story line, have photographed and recorded the scenery and music so well. The important achievement is in their understanding that a man can be surrounded by grim events and unjust men, and still remain a man, a very good man.” — John Huddy, The Miami Herald

Fiddler on the Roof

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