(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday. Will she make it? Keep following the site to find out!)
Oh, how I wanted to love Tom Jones!
No! Not that Tom Jones.
I’m talking about Tom Jones, the British film from 1963. Based on a novel by Henry Fielding, Tom Jones was a huge box office success and it was one of the few comedies to ever win the Oscar for best picture. Whenever you watch a documentary about the British invasion of the early 60s, chances are that you’ll see at least a clip or two from Tom Jones. The film (or perhaps I should say the film’s box office success) is a part of 60s pop history, right up there with The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and Sean Connery shooting that guy in cold blood in Dr. No.
Up until last night, I had heard about Tom Jones but I had never seen it.
And I really wanted to love it.
The film takes place in 18th century England and it tells the story of young Tom Jones (Albert Finney). It starts with a lengthy sequence that plays out like a silent film, complete with title cards. Upright Squire Allworthy (George Devine) comes home and discovers that a baby has been left in his bed. He assumes that the child was born to two of his servants and declares that he will raise Tom Jones to be a good and worthy man.
Two decades later, Tom Jones has grown up and now he’s being played by Albert Finney (who, it must be said, was quite a handsome man when he was young). Because Tom is good-looking and kind-hearted, every woman in England lusts after him. But Tom is in love with innocent Sophie Western (Susannah York). However, Sophie is a member of the upper class and Tom is a “bastard,” at a time when that actually means something.
Indeed, Sophie’s aunt and uncle (played by Edith Evans and Hugh Griffith) demand that Sophie have nothing to do with Tom Jones. They decide that she will marry Blifil (David Warner, young but already typecast as a villain). Through clever lies and manipulations, Blifil convinces Squire Allworthy that Tom has turned bad and must therefore be exiled from his home. Does Blifil want to get rid of Tom just so he can marry Sophie or is it possible that there’s more to Blifil’s scheming?
Before we get the answer to that question, we spend a while following the exiled Tom as he wanders around England and attempts to prove himself worthy of Sophie. Along the way, Tom serves briefly in the army, gets into numerous fights, and has several affairs. One of those affairs is with Mrs. Walters (Joyce Redman), who he briefly thinks might be his mother. Eventually, Tom ends up as the lover to the decadent Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood). Through Blifil’s scheming, he also ends up framed for attempted murder and facing the gallows…
And, as melodramatic as that may all sound, Tom Jones is definitely a comedy. It doesn’t take itself seriously and there’s hardly a single scene that isn’t played for laughs. Director Tony Richardson goes out of his way to make sure that you never forget that you’re watching a movie. There are freeze frames. There’s plenty of characters around to supply sarcastic commentary. There’s even a few cases of fourth wall breaking.
As I watched Tom Jones, it was hard for me not to compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. After all, both films take place during the same period of time and both deal with a young man making his way through European society. I would even argue that, in its way, Barry Lyndon is far more satirical than Tom Jones. The main difference between the two films is that Barry Lyndon is all about subtext whereas everything that happens in Tom Jones happens right on the surface.
As I said, I really wanted to like Tom Jones but, seen today, the entire film seems to be trying a little bit too hard. Tony Richardson’s direction is so manic that it gets a bit exhausting after a while. That said, I can understand why the film was such a success when it was first released. I’m sure in 1963 — after having to deal with decades of pompous costume dramas — viewers probably found Tom Jones to be a breath of fresh air. Not only was it a British film released at a time when all things British were in style but it was also a film that, by the standards of 1963, dealt frankly with sex. In short, Tom Jones is definitely a film of its time. If it doesn’t hold up as well today, that’s because it wasn’t made for 2016. It was made for 1963.
And obviously, if the judgment of the Academy is to be trusted, Tom Jones was the perfect film for 1963. That said, I would have given best picture to another British film, From Russia With Love.