In Montréal in 1948, 19-year-old Duddy Kravitz (Richard Dreyfuss) meets his cab-driver father, Max (Jack Warden) at a local café. Max is singing the praises of Jerry Dingleman (Henry Ramer), the local “Boy Wonder” who escaped Montréal's Jewish ghetto and became rich. Duddy listens intently and dreams of being a somebody like Dingleman. Shortly thereafter, his grandfather tells him that “a man without land is nobody,” and Duddy decides that someday he will buy the lake near the Jewish summer resort which employs him.
While at the resort, Duddy falls in love with co-worker Yvette (Micheline Lanctôt) and soon involves her in his restless search and endless schemes to raise money. To finance his dream, Duddy starts a film production company, becomes a distributor of pinball machines and eventually forges the signature of his disabled employee, Virgil (Randy Quaid), to secure a bank loan. Yvette leaves him, and although he succeeds in purchasing the land, Duddy’s underhanded methods have disappointed or driven away most of the people he loves, including his beloved grandfather.
Ted Kotcheff and Mordecai Richler met in Paris in the late 1950s and became lifelong friends. While sharing an apartment in London in 1958, Kotcheff read the manuscript for Richler’s novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and liked it so much that he swore to one day return to Canada and make it into a film. Financing was initially hard to come by, as many producers were afraid of meeting the same charges of anti-Semitism that were levied against the book.
The project finally moved forward after veteran National Film Board (NFB) producer John Kemeny helped secure funding from the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) and Richler spent six weeks polishing Lionel Chetwynd’s screenplay. Richard Dreyfuss was cast late in pre-production when Kotcheff’s casting agent friend, Lynn Stalmaster, recommended a young actor “who was born to play this part.” The film was shot primarily in Montréal on a budget of $900,000.
Analysis and Critical Reception
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz occupies an unusual place in Canadian film history. Voted by critics in 1984 and 1993 as one of Canadian cinema’s very best, the film has, oddly enough, been largely ignored in Canadian film criticism. While praised upon its release in April 1974 as an excellent example of adaptation and for its convincing portrait of postwar Montréal, the production was also harshly criticized for its casting of American actors in principal roles (Richard Dreyfuss, Randy Quaid, Jack Warden) and for its decidedly commercial Hollywood style. Indeed, like its ambitious protagonist, the film was undeniably successful, but it was also shunned by many critics for the compromised nature of its success.
Debates about cultural politics aside, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz remains an often engaging and occasionally complex film. It also contains one of the most devastatingly funny parodies of Canadian cinema’s documentary tradition. (The character of John Friar, the drunken British filmmaker played by Denholm Elliott, is considered by many to be a parody of NFB founder and legendary documentarian John Grierson.)
The film was also commercially successful in the US and received generally positive reviews. Variety wrote that “Ted Kotcheff has taken Mordecai Richler’s novel by the scruff of the neck and worked a zesty but somewhat muted nostalgic look at a nervy Jewish kid on the make in the 1940s.” In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “It's a little too sloppy, and occasionally too obvious, to qualify as a great film, but it’s a good and entertaining one.” However, Vincent Canby of the New York Times was more forthright with his praise, calling the film a “funny, fantastic and often moving story” with “an abundance of visual and narrative detail.”
Honours and Legacy
Following its release, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz became the most commercially successful Canadian film to that time; it was the first Canadian film to gross more than $1 million domestically, and also the first Canadian feature film to earn an Oscar nomination. In 1984 and 1993, it was named one of the top 10 Canadian films of all time in polls conducted by TIFF. In 1996, it was one of 10 films honoured with postage stamps by Canada Post to commemorate 100 years of cinema in Canada, and in 2002, it was recognized as a Masterwork by the AV Preservation Trust.
In 2013, a restored digital print of the film struck by the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television had a limited release in Canada and the UK, and screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of its Cannes Classics programme. In October 2016, the film was named one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history in a poll of 200 media professionals conducted by TIFF, Library and Archives Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise and The Cinematheque in Vancouver in anticipation of the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017.
See also: Canadian Feature Films.
Golden Bear Award, Berlin International Film Festival (1974)
Film of the Year, Canadian Film Awards (1974)
Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium (Mordecai Richler, Lionel Chetwynd), Writers Guild of America (1975)