I’d known the music for ages but hadn’t watched the full musical until recently. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is a fantastic golden-age musical that will leave you humming a tune. There isn’t much to talk about in the way of costumes, since it’s set in a poor Jewish shtetl circa 1905 in the Ukrainian region of Imperial Russia. But everything on screen is chosen to reflect the period and place so the story and songs can shine.
Fiddler on the Roof does that thing that only the finest artworks can do: it takes a story steeped in one culture’s tradition and values and makes it it universal and relatable without losing the unique qualities of the original culture. You can appreciate how this is a deeply Jewish story and also just a story of a family, a father and his daughters, and their relationships. This is a story of poor people living in an oppressive environment. It’s about change from one generation to the next. All of these things make it relatable to those outside the original community the story is about. Good music and songs help too!
The costumes were designed by Joan Bridge and Elizabeth Haffenden, who worked together on a few period films previously such as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). None are extravagantly costumed or excessively frock-y in ways that we think of them, but this team does appear to do decent historical character studies in clothing. That’s what we see on-screen in Fiddler on the Roof — subtle character expression through costume.
The father, Tevye (Topol), is a poor dairyman married to Golde (Norma Crane) and they have five daughters. The older three girls — Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small) — are each concerned with their possible marriages. They all wear simple clothes and have few costume changes throughout the movie. Things like mending and tiny patches communicate their social status, while the women’s covered heads at various times remind us of the modesty of their era and religion. Further, for special occasions, the family brings out the small fineries they do have, and this reinforces how important and rare these times are.
The costume designers relied on historical research too, and they had the expertise of Lillian Michelson, who was the often uncredited historian for numerous Hollywood productions. For Fiddler, she tells a story of how she got info about the relevant undergarments of the era:
“There was this song, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker,’ and there’s a line of laundry and the daughters of Tevye are hanging their underpants, their bloomers, on it. The costume designers said to me, ‘We don’t know how to make these underpants.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any pictures of that. Nobody took pictures of Jewish girls’ underwear in 1890s or ’90s. They said, ‘Well, what are we going to put on there? It has to be right.’ Of course, everything has to be right.
So, I decide to go down and sit on a bench at Fairfax and Beverly, which is a Jewish section of Los Angeles. I sit there, and little old ladies are sitting right by me. I start talking about this and that, getting pictures of this for a certain project — I didn’t mention the movie — and does anybody remember what you wore in those days? They were of that age.
They got so excited about helping me. The people were so wonderful, just wonderful. One little old lady — and she couldn’t run very fast — walked as fast as she could to her apartment. She says, ‘You stay here. I’m going to my apartment and I’m going to cut you out a pattern because we had to sew all our underwear.’ She brings me back a pattern with little scallops on the edges of the knee-length bloomers.” (Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story)
While they look like simple bloomers, they’re historically accurate!
The one fancy occasion is Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding, and the bride wears a very Edwardian white gown, starkly simple and elegant. Her veil is, like her mother’s Sabbath veil, also a fine lace.
Are you a fan of Fiddler, even though the costumes are plain?
Very much so. My first wife was Jewish, so I got some special insights into Jewish life. My second wife was Irish-English Catholic. Her Brother ended up playing Tevye in a little theatre production of Fiddler. In one scene, Lazar Wolf missed his entrance, and Dan had to do both sides of the dialogue, which he did very neatly. “If my fried Lazar Wolf were here, he would say…”
PS: Chappy Chanukkah!
This is my all-time favorite musical. Especially because the costumes are plain, no glossing over history.
Yes, I can never forget the line ‘Never trust an employer’. I can’t help wondering, if Motel and Tzeitel, although fictitious wondering if they would have survive the Holocaust. They were going to Warsaw at end.
You do wonder, tho’ it was still early, in 1905, & since some of the family was going to America, hopefully they got the rest of them to immigrate too.
That’s what I would hope, too. And hopefully you will review Yentl. Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin, sigh, drool, slobber
I am fond of Yentl, which I think could have been a great movie if (1) everyone got to sing (you have Mandu Patinkin and he doesn’t sing?!) and (2) if it had a melodic, folksy score, in the style of Fiddler. And, yes, Fiddler’s costuming is so fine and so detailed. Have to watch again it this winter.
Sorry, that’s “Mandy.”
Let’s hope they ALL ended up in America. In one of the special features on my Fiddler DVD, the director talked about shtetl life in general…how, up until that point, it was possible to grow up, marry, raise children, welcome grandchildren and die without ever going more than a few miles beyond the shtetl. While he was talking about all this, we saw historical photos. Jewison ended the talk by saying that exiles like Tevye and his family were the lucky ones…that the photos we’d seen were the last remnants of Auschwitz victims.
This is pretty much my Jewish family’s story – they came from a small Ukrainian village just like Anatevka, called Ratno, and thankfully immigrated to America in 1912 (though most of their relatives in the village were murdered by Nazis in 1942). My grandmother cried when we took her to see it.
Oh how beautiful!
Last night we watched the documentary on the making of Fiddler, both the play and the film. It is called Fiddle: Miracle of Miracles. Not much on the frocks, but recommended
Yes! I saw that on PBS & it’s what inspired me to watch the full movie — I realized I knew all these songs but hadn’t watched the musical.
Still my favorite musical- makes me laugh and cry no matter how many times I see it. I think many musicals really rely on spectacle, while Fiddler is just very grounded in emotion. I need to watch that documentary!
So I love love love Fiddler the show, but am actually not a fan of the film. I don’t really like the Jewison approach to making ‘palatable’ musicals, though I understand the aesthetic trends that led to it – the idea that audiences will somehow find bursting into song about their feelings a grounded and realistic thing to do if the surrounding filmmaking is as dour as possible, with little color and almost no choreography (except for the transcendent Jerome Robbins bottle dance, which feels like it stepped in from a completely different and better movie). Also, Topol’s timing is Just. So. Off. He is a fabulous Tevye, but it’s almost like no one told him that there was no theatrical audience to laugh and clap over his bon mots. In a three-hour movie that is supposed to be about a clever wordsmith, leaden timing is absolutely deadly.
Agree with you. For me, it was all too obvious that Topol learned the part phonetically, and I felt the farm reflected too much prosperity. My grandmother, who lived that life,hated Fiddler because she thought Bock and Harnick made too light of the history, although she loved the original stories. Once I’d read the stories myself, I developed an understanding of her reaction.
Fiddler is a musical set in a historical period, but it’s not meant to be a historical drama, & it’s inspired by older stories but not literally telling them. Such as, The Sound of Music is set during the rise of Nazis in Austria, but it’s got a pretty light view of that conflict, & I’m not mad about that either.
It’s not that I don’t like <i.Fiddler. I love the show, although I’m not so fond of the movie.
But it took me some time to understand my grandmother’s issues with it, and when I read the original stories, I could see why she felt the way she did..
I’m not one for many musicals, but I thought this one was near perfect. It also pointed me toward Jewish liturgical music and Klezmer which I adore. Even though I had already started collecting vintage clothing back then as a teen, I was struck by the authenticity of the ‘peasant’ clothing. Obviuously great care went into their work.
So often, & esp. in ’60s/’70s films, “peasant” clothing is just raggedy, dirty, & dull. But this movie treats the characters with respect & it shows in their costumes.
When we were a new little family we had all the parents over for Thanksgiving. We all sang Sabbath Prayer for our grace. We’re not Jewish, but this show has always been special us. <3
My family loves this musical–it’s great. And we even had a great local production in our town as well when I was a kid. I love the story about the bloomers research! :-) I also remember learning in a dramaturgy class a bit more about the source of Tevye, who was part of an interesting Yiddish storytelling tradition from right around that time if I recall correctly. I think they did Fiddler in Yiddish in NYC a couple years ago–I heard it was great.
Yep, Tevye has a long lineage ;)
I was in a production of it once. At 17 I played a mamma! So I watched the movie. I liked it but having Starsky playing Motel was hilarious. That’s just timing though. The music is wonderful. We do a parody version of ‘Do you love me’ set in a brunch cafe between a muddled aged couple who are civil servants in this government city.
Yes, it is one of my favorite movie musicals and I can sing most of the songs by memory.
There is a great line from Mad Men. Bert asks Roger to meet with the owners of Manischewitz. Roger asks, “How Jewish are they? Fiddler on the Roof: Audience or Cast?”
I love this movie! I read that the director instructed that a piece of brown hosiery be put over the camera so that everything was filmed with a more sepia tint. Even though it’s not as glamorous as some frock flicks, I think it’s important that movie musicals aren’t just about wealthy people. And I love the attention to detail that went into it.
I’ve seen Fiddler on stage, but not the movie. The music was memorable, but I’d like to see it with a professional cast. Between the new PBS documentary and this blog post, I’ll definitely check out the film soon. Also, I second the request for a review of Yentl.
Love this show, love this film. Starsky plays Perchik, though, not Motel–and they cut his song, “Now I have everything”. Guess he wasn’t a singer, so he became a TV cop!
Perchik was supposed to have a new song, and wasn’t half bad singing it. It’s on the special features of the DVD–it’s called “Any Day Now.” It’s more fiery and idealistic than the more contemplative “Now I Have Everything.”
I have four sisters, and I can’t even count the number of times we sang “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” together…it’s a wonderful show, and gives an insight into lives and stories I would never have known without it.
I love the movie, because it does exactly what you said- it makes something deeply specific and as true-to-history as possible (they did SO much research into everything), which somehow makes it universal. Every character is clearly a product of their environment- there’s no ahistorical “empowerment” moment, there’re just people trying to navigate the world they’ve been given and stay true to their families, their values and their own needs, and sometimes that means pushing back on gender norms. There’s also sometimes not much you can do to stop oppression, like with the case of the pogrom.
I also love the costumes, because they feel like clothes, which is exactly what you need for a story like this.
Just remembered that a friend of my stepdaughter helped make a short Passover-During-the-Passover Fiddler parody earlier this year–pretty cool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS9iiGJxbWo
The only thing I wish they’d left in from the show is a short speech Perchik has shortly before he proposes to Hodel. (The rest of this scene is there; these lines aren’t.)
“Hodel…your father, the others here think that what happened at Tzeitel’s wedding was just a little cloudburst, and it’s over, and everything will now be peaceful again. It won’t. Horrible things are happening throughout the land: pogroms, violence. Whole villages are being emptied of their people. It’s reaching everywhere and it will reach here.”
I always liked this bit because it shows Perchik knows the score…and, what’s more, he trusts Hodel to be able to handle the truth as well. In fact, the whole musical is more feminist than you’d realize. Perchik respects Hodel’s intelligence and encourages her to question outdated traditions. Fyedka admires Chava’s mind and love of reading and is willing to leave behind his own home because he doesn’t want to stand for the way his wife’s people are being treated.
And about Topol and his performance as Tevye…I like it myself. But it leads to one of the funniest behind-the-scenes stories I know. Zero Mostel, Broadway’s original Tevye, wanted the movie role badly. But as wonderful as he was, his style was very broad, very stagey, and very American. Jewison wanted someone who’d be a better fit for the more restrained and naturalistic style he planned, and chose Topol who’d played Tevye onstage in London. Zero was not very happy about this (and with Zero, “not very happy” probably translated into a lot of broken stuff). A year or so later, Zero’s son Josh Mostel got the part of King Herod in Jewison’s film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. When Josh called his old man to tell him the news, Zero retored with, “You should have told that son of a bitch to hire TOPOL’S son!!!”