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2015 Widescreen Weekend  Introductions

The 70mm Newsletter
Feature film text by: Wolfram Hannemann. Images by: Anders M. OlssonDate: 27.10.2015

"Fiddler on the Roof" by Wolfram Hannemann

Wolfram Hannemann as seen through Anders' lens 2015.

First of all please forgive my bad English. Please rest assured that my Yiddish is even worse.

Therefore let’s stay with my poor English.

Based on the folk tales of Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was the brainchild of Joseph Stein, who adapted the Aleichem stories, composer Jerry Bock, who created the score, and wordsmith Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics. When it was first announced that the three were collaborating on the show, many in the New York Jewish community were critical of the concept: a translation, faithful though ot might be, couldn’t do justice to the tales invented by Aleichem (essentially a series of monologues to God delivered by the milkman), especially since the adaptation would be a glossy Broadway musical, in itself an apparent contradiction given the simplicity of the original stories.

Stein quickly rose to the defense of his project: „Like so many children of immigrants to America and Western Europe, I was raised on the stories of Sholom Aleichem... But the Tevye stories were written in a different form, in a different language, at a different time, for a different audience, an audience thoroughly familiar with the traditions and structure of the „shtetl“ culture (an Eastern European village). When Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, our director Jerome Robbins, and I decided to make a contemporary musical play based on these stories, we knew we would need to move far from them in content, but we resolved to do so while remaining true to the feeling and the spirit of the original“.

When it opened in New York at the Imperial Theater in New York on September 22, 1964, it was greeted with enthusiastic reviews and ran for 3,242 performances, setting a record for the longest running show on Broadway passing "Life With Father" that held the record for 25 years. In the original cast as Tevye was Zero Mostel. Bea Arthur, best known to audiences as Dorothy on TV's GOLDEN GIRLS, played Yente. "Fiddler on the Roof" won the 1965 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Author, and Best Score.

Transferring to the screen a show with a pedigree like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is not an easy task. Director Norman Jewison - a hot property in Hollywood after he had won the Oscar for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in 1967, but a newcomer to screen musicals - was brought into the project by executives at United Artists thinking he was Jewish. His first words to the executives upon meeting were, "You know I'm not Jewish... right?" Jewison realized early on what he had committed himself to, though the final results belied the many problems he and his collaborators encountered from the start.

While the film's script remained very close to the original stage musical, it also capitalized on the vast possibilities offered by the medium itself. "In the theater, it is easier to accept a stylized, unreal atmosphere; film introduces the real world, with real scenery and real sounds," Jewison explained. "In film today, it is very difficult to use music and poetry and to suspend audiences' disbelief, as THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) once did so perfectly."

The production design department scoured Europe, because they couldn't film in the Soviet Ukraine, where the story takes place in Prerevolution Villages South of Kiev. Sadly, most of the original villages had been destroyed by 1919 after the Russian Civil War, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred thus the end of Shtetl life. The producers eventually found what they required in rural Yugoslavia, in what is now Croatia. It was only because president Tito of Yugoslavia was a huge movie fan that he allowed the film to be made in his country. His Russian counterparts were less pleased as the film is openly critical of the pogroms.

Shooting began in August, 1970. Problems quickly arose when the weather failed to cooperate, forcing the production to be delayed. Bleak fall and winter scenes had to be scuttled because, for the first time in memory, Yugoslavia enjoyed an unusually lengthy Indian summer that went counter to what Jewison needed to evoke the moods of the story. Due to lack of snow tons of marble dust had to be imported from Siberia. Some scenes had to be completed at Pinewood, just outside London.
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Norman Jewison considered Hanna Maron for the part of Golde but, when she lost a leg in a terrorist attack in Munich, had to give the part to Norma Crane. It was her final feature film role, as she was suffering from breast cancer during filming, and died less than two years later. Other candidates for Golde included Anne Bancroft (who turned it down on the grounds that Golde was too small next to Tevye's), Anne Jackson, Claire Bloom, Geraldine Page, and Colleén Dewhurst.

When it came to casting the lead role of Tevye Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, and Marlon Brando were among the many actors who turned down the role. Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye both wanted the role and were passed over.

Many devotees of the Broadway show were annoyed that Zero Mostel (who originated the role so famously on the Broadway stage) was not cast as Tevye in this film. The filmmakers decided that the film needed to be more authentic so a more "believeable" actor was hired: Topol, whom portrayed Tevye in the London production of FIDDLER. Norman Jewison explained: "One reason I liked Topol's performance so much on the stage was that he projected his sense of destiny as, and pride in being, a Jew. His Tevye never loses dignity and strength; he is a man who knows who he is and where he's going."

To get the look he wanted for the film, director Norman Jewison told Director of Photography Oswald Morris, who was famous for shooting color films in unusual styles, to shoot the film in an earthy tone. Morris saw a woman wearing brown nylon hosiery, thought "That's the tone we want," asked the woman for the stockings on the spot, and shot the entire film with a stocking over the lens. The weave can be detected in some scenes. Morris also shot the musical number "Tevye's Dream" in sepia rather than in full color. He had previously filmed MOULIN ROUGE (1952) with a color style made to resemble Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings and MOBY DICK (1956) in a color style made to resemble 19th century engravings of life at sea. Morris did shoot the film in anamorphic Panavison on 35mm film stock and it was blown up to 70mm for roadshow engagements. Unfortunately it seems that none of these prints survived in an acceptable quality which is why a 2K digital version will be screened tonight.

The title FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, by the way, comes from a painting by Russian artist Marc Chagall called "The Dead Man" which depicts a funeral scene and shows a man playing a violin on a roof top. It is also used by Tevye in the story as a metaphor for trying to survive in a difficult, constantly changing world. Jewison had Tutte Lemkow - the actor who plays the fiddler - try seven different instruments until he found the one that fit right. The fiddling itself was done by nobody less than Isaac Stern

The film version omits two songs from the stage production - "Now I Have Everything" and "The Rumor". Paul Michael Glaser, who portrays Perchik, recorded a song called "Any Day Now" which did not appear in the stage version and was written especially for this film. However, it was cut in the interest of time and content.

The film originally began with the 1968 United Artists logo, accompanied by a timpani piece, composed by John Williams. It was also seen on early television broadcasts, as well as on the RCA CED VideoDisc version in early 1981. It has been lost to the ravages of time, due to Transamerica Corporation no longer being associated with United Artists Corporation. Let’s see how the film opens tonight.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF won the Oscar for Cinematography, Sound and most importantly for John Williams‘ treatment of Jerry Bock’s music and his effective underscoring. Williams, who was still years away from becoming a household name, had been attracting a great del of attention in Hollywood studios since the early 1960s for his work on several leightweight comedies, and on films like THE REIVERS and JANE EYRE, in which his deft sense of melody and exuberant and witty expression blended to create memorable scores that often outlasted the films for which they were created.

Enjoy the show!
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Updated 06-05-22