THE WHOLE WORLD LOVES TOM JONES!
The film that won director Tony Richardson an Oscar and launched the international career of Albert Finney had quite a challenging shoot. Finney once said that he was bored throughout it and that his character wasn’t serious enough; co-star Hugh Griffith was allegedly so drunk through much of the production that he got into an accident with a horse. Still, they did get a movie made out of Henry Fielding’s classic 1749 novel. Very popular in its day, this Best Picture Oscar winner still has many virtues.
The story is set in 18th century England. When Squire Allworthy (George Devine) comes home after spending some time in London, he’s shocked to find a baby in his bed. After reaching the conclusion that the boy was conceived by his barber and one of the servant girls, he decides to raise the child as his own. The boy is given the name Tom Jones and he turns out to be quite the little rascal who often lands in trouble, especially because of his good looks and way with women. When he falls in love with a beautiful girl, Sophie Western (Susannah York), their relationship is condemned by her father, Squire Western (Griffith), who wants her to marry a more appropriate sort, Allworthy’s dull nephew (David Warner).
Eventually, Tom falls victim to a conspiracy and is banished from his home; as he sets out into the world, Sophie is never far away from his thoughts…
Plenty of sexual appeal
One reason for the success of Tom Jones was its sexual appeal, although nothing in the film was as daring to audiences in 1963 as the promiscuity portrayed in the novel, which helped bring attention to Fielding’s work in an era when such matters were not openly discussed. Richardson has the right attitude. There’s a tremendous playfulness to his direction, evidenced by the decision to edit the opening scenes as a silent-film farce and having Tom Jones look into the camera at times as if to share a pun with us in the audience. The reindeer hunt is vividly filmed and edited as sheer thirst for blood, and another scene in the second half of the film is sped-up for comical effect as Tom is chased around by the husband of a woman he just seduced.
John Addison’s score, which employs the harpsichord as an accompaniment to the comedy, is a fitting ingredient. All the craziness is a daring approach that seems to suit the novel as well as the times of the film’s release and it was to be followed by many other similarly styled British comedies in the ’60s. At the same time, the portrayal of 18th century England has its grim aspects as well, which creates a nice contrast. Finney is a perfect Tom Jones, handsome, charming and a little naughty; drunk or not, Griffith is very funny as the title-obsessed Squire and it is certainly easy to understand Tom’s infatuation with the lovely Sophie, as played by York.
So, why not a higher rating? Well, it’s hard to imagine a better screen adaptation of the massive novel, but in the end I realized that I couldn’t care less whether or not Tom and Sophie were reunited. I simply didn’t have any emotions invested in this story. I was entertained and amused by the filmmakers’ shenanigans, but they did try my patience in the second half of the movie. As charming as Tom Jones may be, his powers simply have a limited effect on me.
Tom Jones 1963-Britain. 129 min. Color. Produced and directed by Tony Richardson. Screenplay: John Osborne. Novel: Henry Fielding (“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”). Music: John Addison. Editing: Antony Gibbs. Cast: Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Susannah York (Sophie Western), Hugh Griffith (Squire Western), Edith Evans, Joyce Redman, Diane Cilento… David Warner, Lynn Redgrave.
Trivia: The film debuts of Warner and Redgrave. The story was also filmed as The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1976) and as a miniseries in 1997.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score. BAFTA: Best British Film, Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical). Venice: Best Actor (Finney).
Last word: “[Finney] was bored by ‘Tom Jones’. Albert thought it wasn’t an interesting part, it was reactive, that all he had to use was his personality. And he found that frustrating. He wanted to tear into passion. The part didn’t give him the opportunities of Hamlet or Macbeth.” (Richardson, Rolling Stone)