It is based on the "Tevye the Dairyman" stories by Sholem Aleichem. Tevyenote (played by Maurice Schwartz) is in fact a dairyman, a Jew living in Tsarist Russia, specifically in Ukraine, within the Pale of Settlement. Tevye gets along fine with his Russian Orthodox Christian neighbors, but he knows perfectly well that the goyim don't really respect him and they'll turn on him on a dime. That's why he's so upset when his beloved younger daughter, Khave, falls in love with Fedye, a Christian farmboy neighbor. Tevye desperately tries to stop his daughter from turning her back on her religion and making a terrible mistake.
Despite being an American production, the film is entirely in Yiddish and Russian. The life of Eastern European Jewry that the film depicts would soon be wiped out—in fact, World War II started while the film was being produced.
Compare The Dybbuk, another Jewish film made in Yiddish at around the same time (1937) and also set in shtetl life of Eastern Europe (in this case, Poland).
The same "Tevye the Dairyman" short stories were later adopted again, into the famous stage musical and film, Fiddler on the Roof.
Provides example of:
- Answer Cut: The end of the movie has Khave coming back, admitting that she was wrong, renouncing her conversion to Christianity, and begging Tevye to take her back into the family. Tevye isn't sure, because he's still mad about her converting in the first place, plus there's the matter of Golde's Death by Despair. Finally, after musing about forgiveness, he looks up and says "O Lord, what do you say?" The film then cuts to the closing shot of the whole family, including Khave, trundling out of town on the cart.
- As You Know: The setting is determined by an early line in which Fedye calls Khave "beautiful. Like the dreamy skies of our Ukraine."
- Death by Despair: It's even explicitly stated that Mama Golde's grief over her daughter converting to Christianity and getting married to a Gentile is what ruined Golde's health. Sure enough, she croaks.
- Down on the Farm: An isolated Ukrainian village, full of bigotry and hate.
- Fainting: Naturally Khave has to do this when some gossip from her sister gets Tevye to start ranting about how it's a terrible idea for Jews to marry Christians and he'd disown anyone in his family who did.
- Gray Rain of Depression: Khave, having been disowned and written off as dead by her family, stands outside in the pouring rain looking through a window as her mother dies.
- I Have No Son!: "Khave is no more! She is dead!", says Tevye after his daughter goes through with converting to Christianity and marrying a Gentile.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: A rare example of this trope in which, as far as the work is concerned, the mixed marriage should be maligned. Tevye writes his daughter off as dead. Although Fedye sincerely loves his wife and respects her family, the rest of Khave's in-laws seem to regard her as a slave, and Fedye's father leads the effort to kick Tevye out of town. At the end Khave leaves her husband, goes back to her father, and reclaims her identity as a Jew.
- Obnoxious In-Laws: Khave comes to dislike Fedye's family after the marriage, to the point where she tries to go back to her own family.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with Tevye and his family leaving the village in his milkman's cart, headed out of Ukraine and, eventually, to Israel.
- One-Word Title: Tevya (or Tevye)
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Tevye chuckles good-humoredly when his granddaughter wants to sing the Psalms with Tevye and her brother. Then he says "But the Psalms aren't for women", and only the grandson sings along with Tevye.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: In the source stories, as well as Fiddler on the Roof, Khave (called "Chava" in the stories and in Fiddler) does not leave her husband or renounce Christianity. Instead they leave the town together, Fedye being disgusted at the treatment of his father-in-law. It is believed that the Nazi threat to European Jewry led Schwartz to write an ending where Khave reclaims her religion.
- That Russian Squat Dance: Done at the festivities for Khave and Fedye's wedding.
- World of Ham: The acting isn't subtle. Tevye is hammy, Khave moans melodramatically, and the Orthodox villagers are, except for Fedye, cartoon villains.