Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Tevya: A Review (Review #1797)



There is scant love for My Yiddishe Papa in Tevya, the first film version of the Tevye the Milkman stories later adapted into the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Tevya, released in the extraordinary cinematic year of 1939, shows that Yiddish-language films could more than keep up with the big studios. 

Simple Jewish milkman Tevye (writer/director Maurice Schwartz) lives a relatively contented life with his wife Golde (Rebecca Weintraub) and his younger daughter Chava (Miriam Riselle). Chava, more intellectual than her parents or visiting sister Tseytl (Paula Lubelski) also has another difference. This "Jew-girl" has fallen in love with Fedya Galagan (Leon Liebgold), a Ukrainian gentile. To the delight of the gentiles and the horror of her family, Chava marries Fedya, moving away from both her family and her heritage.

Now dead to Tevye, he faces more hardships when his new in-laws push to expel Tevye's family from the village despite having lived in relative peace and harmony. More troubles come when Golde dies, leaving Tevye adrift in a hostile world. The Galagans are successful in forcing Tevye and his family out, and now they contemplate where to go. There's Israel, America, Argentina or Palestine. Chava hears of her family's plight. She is also horrified when she sees that her in-laws stole her mother's petticoat despite it being part of Tevye's fire sale. Sneaking away, she begs Tevye to take her back and go into exile with him. Now reconciled, the family heads off to their ancestral lands to start afresh.

The surprising thing about Tevya, or at least the first half, is how much of it takes place outside. There are few indoor scenes for about half of the film. In fact, it is not until Chava's wedding that we start getting more and more interior scenes. I do not know why Schwartz decided to make Tevya such an outdoor film. It does make it feel free and natural, so that is a plus.  

As a director, Maurice Schwartz moves things well and has some beautiful imagery. At Golde's death, we see Chava standing outside the window, unable to grieve with her family as the rain pounds down on her. When Tevye gives the Sabbath blessing after declaring Chava dead, it is also a beautifully filmed sequence. 

As an actor, Schwartz excels in making Tevye a simple man. There is a simplicity to Tevye, one who accepts almost all things that come his way. Commenting to his horse when the animal does not move despite the lashings, Tevye quips, "He's accustomed to the whip as I am to poverty", revealing his wisdom and self-awareness. He even allows for a bit of comedy when he comes across three Jewish women who beg him to let them ride on his cart to get back home. "A hundred-pound Jewess has two tons of talk!" he bemoans.

There is much to praise in Tevya, but there is a major issue in the film. That issue is Miriam Riselle as Chava. She is absolutely appalling in the role. Rarely if ever does Riselle come across as anything other than hysterical. Her acting is so overdone that it becomes maddening to watch. I genuinely cannot remember one moment in Tevye where she was not so over-the-top in her manner. It was as if she was a parody of a silent film actress who was thrust into a sound film, and a Yiddish one at that. 

There is no other way around it: Miriam Riselle gave one of the worst performances that I have ever seen on film in any language. Overdramatic, almost cartoonish, it stands in stark contrast to everyone in the film. I walk that back a bit. Leon Liebgold as her goyim love interest was also a bit over-the-top in his declarations of love for the "Jew-girl" (the film's words). However, he was nowhere near Riselle's histrionics and almost crazed facial and body movements.

Tevya is a beautiful looking film, one that captures this now-lost Yiddish world. If not for Miriam Riselle, Tevya would be among 1939's myriad of masterpieces. However, it is still a film to holds up well and moves audiences Jewish and gentile alike. 

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