Friday, October 21, 2011

TOM JONES (1963)


TOM JONES at first seems like an unlikely candidate for best picture: its cast were mostly unknowns, as was its director and eighteenth century source novel (in America anyway), not to mention the fact that it is an outright comedy, a true rarity for a best picture winner.  But the film definitely caught the zeitgeist of the time; with America's infatuation with all things English just starting  (beginning with 1962's DR NO, the James Bond films were proving to be very popular in the US, meanwhile The Beatles were just starting to hit the charts here) plus the onset of the sexual revolution, (the birth control pill was first introduced in 1960) the stage was set for a saucy and sexy romp from England to become a commercial and critical smash.  But, while the film does produce a few big laughs, its a little too light and silly to really be considered great, and its designation as the year's best movie appears far from correct to me.
The idea for the film came from  director Richardson (who also produced it), who, after years of making gritty English dramas, wanted to adapt Henry Fielding's comic novel for the screen.  After securing funding mainly though his own production company, Woodfall Films, he cast Albert Finney, then known mostly for British TV work, in the lead.  Filming was difficult, as Richardson demanded it be shot on location in various parts of England.  After assembling a rough cut, he was disappointed with the results, but he and editor Anthony Gibbs pulled out all the stops, using unusual cutting techniques (like numerous wipes, irises and freeze frames) and a jaunty harpsichord score by John Addison to brighten the film  (Addison would win an Oscar for it). Also some clever narration by Micheál Mac Liammóir ("We are all as god made us, and many of us much worse") was added. Still, Richardson expected a flop, but instead the film grew into an enormous hit on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing in around $50,000,000 world wide on a budget of around a million.
It tells the story of Tom (Finney), a baby abandoned at birth in the bed of Squire Allworthy(George Devine), who assumes him to be the offspring of one of his servants and his barber, both of whom he casts out.  He then raises Tom like he is own son.  Tom grows to be a good looking young man who enjoys drink and the company of women, but his true love is the pretty Sophie Weston (Susannah York), the daughter of Squire Weston (Hugh Griffith), but because he is a bastard, he is unable to wed her, and eventually his father is coerced into driving him out of the house.  After many adventures (some of a sexual nature), his true standing as Allworthy's nephew is revealed, and, after literally being saved from being hanged on false charges at the last possible second, he and Sophie are reunited.

Albert Finney and Susannah York

As Tom, Finney is full of charm, good looks and energy, and is well matched with York's lovely Sophie; importantly, he remains likable even when he is far from faithful to her.  Still, this is a pretty breezy roll, and I think Finney's best work lay ahead in films like SHOOT THE MOON and THE DRESSER.  The rest of the cast is just fine, except for Griffith as Sophie's father, who's constant screeching of his dialogue quickly grows tiresome (and whose drunken behavior in the film, by all accounts, was not just the result of acting).
The film has an odd style: on the one hand, the recreations of the 18th. century are shown realistically, as is the story and dialogue, but Richardson often adds surreal touches like speeding up the action or having characters suddenly directly address the camera.  He even opens the film like a silent movie, complete with title cards.  Also,  he tends  to fill his frame with people and animals in almost constant motion,  (running, fighting, rolling around).  The result is a 18th. century English period piece like no other; instead of the often staid and stentorian tone of such films it is playful and light.  It also avoids the self conscious prettiness that so many period pieces have, reminding the audience that this was a time of abundant mud and filth.

Joyce Redman in the famous "eating" scene

But there just isn't that compelling a story here, and at over two hours it goes on far too long, especially at the film's beginning, when a long deer hunt followed by romantic scenes between Tom and Sophie  bring the film to a crawl; the main plot doesn't really kick in until Tom is cast out by Squire Allworthy, which should have happened much sooner.   (Richardson apparently agreed with this assessment, assembling a director's cut in 1989 that is seven minutes shorter, and which does play a little better.)
The film's most famous scene comes when, after Tom saves a  woman in distress (Joyce Redman), the two of them go to an inn and share a seductive meal of lobster, oyster and fruit.  Redman and Finney mostly improvised this scene, and their ridiculous expressions as they chomp and slurp away provide the film's biggest laughs.  But this is the only scene in the film that I really find hilarious (although I also enjoy Liammóir's droll narration),  and too often I find the film's straining to be funny by speeding up the action or having the cast yell or perform pratfalls, tiresome.  Still, the film very much captured the tenor of its times by making the sexually liberated Tom the hero and portraying the so called guardians of morality as pompous killjoys.  So, as a time capsule precursor to the youth culture rebellion that was about to rock the 1960's, it's an interesting film, but as a movie, it's only a mild success.

Obviously, I am not that crazy about this film, and I think that AMERICA AMERICA,  THE HAUNTING, and especially THE GREAT ESCAPE are all better films that were released that year.  But, to be fair, TOM JONES is a fun movie, and its nice to see a rare win for a comedy.