TOM JONES (1963)

  • Director: Tony Richardson
  • Writers: John Osborne, based on the novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
  • Starring: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joyce Redman, Diane Cilento, George Devine, Joan Greenwood, David Warner, Rachel Kempson, Peter Bull, Patsy Rowlands, Jack MacGowran, John Moffatt, David Tomlinson, Julian Glover, and Micheál Mac Lammóir
  • Accolades: Shown at Venice International Film Festival, 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Tony Richardson, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score), 6 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Albert Finney, Best Supporting Actor – Hugh Griffith, Best Supporting Actress – Diane Cilento, Best Supporting Actress – Edith Evans, Best Supporting Actress – Joyce Redman, Best Art Direction – Color)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel, buy or rent of Amazon Video or Apple TV

Of all of the “new” discoveries I’ve had since starting work on this site, I think Tom Jones might be my favorite. Honestly, I’m not sure why it’s not better known today. I’d submit that this is a better movie in every way than, say, The Graduate, plus came out several years earlier, was a big hit, and won a bunch of Oscars, while making a lot of the same social points. I honestly don’t get it. This is great! Perhaps it is the giant dresses and froofy 1700s dude sleeves, or maybe it’s the fact that the whole thing happens at a slight remove. Here we have a wry, unseen narrator (Micheál Mac Lammóir) commentating obliquely on the action throughout, and even characters turning and talking directly to the audience, Ferris Bueller-style, at irregular intervals. In 1963! There is this knowing cleverness that I get the sense could be a turn off for some people. But I’m just guessing. I am definitely not one of those people. I have read a lot of movie books and things over the years, and I am mad, because nobody told me this movie was this good.

Tom Jones is based on a novel by Henry Fielding that was first published in 1749 and is considered one of the first novels, in the modern sense, to be published in English. It tells the many adventures of a somewhat amoral “foundling” named, as you might expect, Tom Jones, played here by a young Albert Finney, who every woman in the film finds entirely irresistible. As a baby, he is left in the bed of a country gentleman, Squire Allworthy (George Devine), who raises the boy as his own. The initially carefree Tom cannot quite resist a wide variety of womanizing over the course of the story, and this trait, combined with the hatred of Allworthy’s actual son, Blifil (future Klingon Chancellor David Warner, in his film debut), causes him no end of problems. He loves the beautiful and headstrong Sophie Western (Susannah York), and she loves him, but circumstances (and her blustering father, played by the great character actor Hugh Griffith) conspire to get in the way of their union for most of the movie.

You might not, I should say, find Tom particularly likable. He often seems to act as he must, rather than making choices. But that is part of the point, I gather. The novel opens with a discussion by the Narrator that the purpose of the story is to illustrate all sides of human nature, and in fact the story is a particularly biting satire of hypocrisy and society. Or, as Time Magazine put it in a rave review, it is “a social satire written in blood with a broadaxe. It is bawdy as the British were bawdy when a wench had to wear five petticoats to barricade her virtue.” The Narrator shows up frequently, but much of the time he’s not actually doing much narrating. Sometimes he just starts quoting poetry. Before a big fight between two female characters, he issues a long commentary on how unseemly it is for women to fight. And when the camera first freezes on Tom, as a baby, the Narrator notes that he was “born to be hanged.” In that remove is the difference between Tom and other knowing, wisecracking, bulletproof protagonists, including Ferris Bueller himself. He thinks he’s the cleverest guy around, but the movie is not sure about that at all. 

Finney’s performance made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic, and he’s clearly having a great time, but a major key to the movie is everyone seems to be having just as good a time as he is. Tom Jones is the only movie ever to have three separate nominations in the Best Supporting Actress category, and interestingly none of these was for Susannah York, who I think might give the best performance in the whole thing. Instead, those nominations went to Diane Cilento (who plays the lower class Molly Seagrim, with whom Tom dallies and at one point believes he’s fathered a child, causing the Narrator to comment: “Unlike many men, Tom was fortunate enough to discover the father of his child before it was too late”), Edith Evans, who plays Sophie’s wry, matchmaking aunt, and Joyce Redman, who plays Mrs. Waters, a woman who Tom rescues from an attack by a soldier (played by a young Julian Glover, best known today as Maester Pycelle on Game of Thrones), bangs at an inn, and later discovers might secretly be his mom. All three lost to Margaret Rutherford for her role in another English film, The V.I.P.s.

I’m not just talking about the people turning to the camera when I say that this really feels like a movie from about seven or eight years after it was actually made. There is a lot of handheld camerawork and quick cuts that would feel out of place in Hollywood movie of the same era. The opening few minutes are told with just music and title cards, as if we were just watching a silent movie. I’m not sure why the movie makes that choice, but in some ways it feels like a bit of a warning of what we’re in for. The director, Tony Richardson, went to Oxford at the same time as Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher, if you’re wondering why he wanted to make a movie about upper-class hypocrisy. Though he had a few other hits in Britain, he was primarily known as a theater director before this movie, and never had nearly as big a hit again, either. In fact, he was never happy with the movie, and kept editing it and re-editing it way beyond the point that everyone else involved thought it was pretty great. Richardson was eventually diagnosed with HIV, which caused him to come out as bisexual. He died of AIDS in 1991.

A very British, madcap comedy, Tom Jones is not the sort of movie that wins big at the Oscars most years, but 1963 was part of sort of a transitional period in Hollywood, and I think even at the time many critics would have told you the most interesting movies were being made overseas. Fellini’s 8 ½ is probably the movie today that would win a “re-vote” for that year, but in 1963 no foreign-language film was winning Best Picture. In fact, the only two movies to get nominations for both Picture and Director (usually a pre-requisite for winning either) were this one and America America, directed by Elia Kazan, which nobody today remembers, either.

Tom Jones is based on a 1700s novel that I haven’t read (but definitely should), and I think that alone is probably enough to put some segment of the audience off. But even though there are literally female characters referred to as “Goody” whatever in this, it actually feels very modern, in terms of both story and filmmaking. There is a semi-climactic sword fight that is honestly one of the better such scenes I’ve ever seen. It has the big, sprawling plot, which all comes together by the end, which I gather is also a feature of Fielding’s novel (Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it had “one of the three most perfect plots ever devised”). Anyway, if, like me, you’d never seen this one or even given it much thought, I really, really recommend it.

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