The History of The History of Tom Jones (1963)

TOM JONES (1963)

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It often happens that something comes along, sets a standard, is recognized as being trailblazing, then gets copied and co-opted, until finally we take it for granted and think, “oh, that one’s so overrated.” Such is the case with an adaptation of a novel published in 1749 by the writer Henry Fielding. The title of the book, a comic novel, was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling but the 1963 movie shortened it to the foundling’s name alone, Tom Jones. With the screenplay adapted for the screen by celebrated playwright John Osborne and directed with flair by Tony Richardson, Tom Jones hit the screen to great notices and, more importantly, a certain amount of awe for its style. A blurb from The New York Times‘s Bosley Crowther, slightly edited for length and clarity (where you see the ellipses), ended up serving as the film’s tagline in its advertisements: “Prepare yourself for… one of the wildest, bawdiest, and funniest comedies… ever brought to the screen.” Thus the adaptation of an 18th century comic novel became a 20th century movie blockbuster, but does it still work today? Indeed it does.

Before writing this piece, I last saw Tom Jones a good twenty years ago. I selected the movie precisely because I wanted to watch it again with fresh eyes and see how my attitudes towards it had changed, if at all. My previous take is that it is a good, solid film, well acted and entertaining. Watching it again I feel I vastly underrated it. In fact, if you had asked me about it prior to watching it again, I probably would have told you it was overrated, if anything. Seeing it again opened my eyes to a great many pleasures and delights held within the film, both of style and substance. Firstly, though, the style.

TOM JONES (1963)

I had either forgotten, or never quite noticed, the remarkably modern style of Tom Jones on previous viewings. It’s rapid fire editing, handheld cameras and fourth wall breaking, would fit so comfortably into today’s moviemaking scene that I’d wager you could show it to someone unfamiliar with any of the actors involved and convince them it was made in the last decade. It’s comedic style is especially en vogue these days, taking a period piece and filling it with contemporary jokes and winks to the audience.

Its substance is something quite more than I remembered as well. Here, in the middle of a sardonic lark about a rakish foundling, is an absolutely brutal and relentless hunt scene that is so effectively shot and edited that it alone could have won the movie its Best Picture Oscar. The point of the scene may be obvious – that the rich and privileged are, at the heart, merciless and cruel – but it is the sheer barbarity of the scene that burns it onto the brain. As the action is followed along at high speeds, with nothing on the soundtrack but the sound of dozens of horses in full gallop, the drunken, sated gentry and their dogs pursue a stag through the countryside, utterly indifferent to the destruction and devastation they wreak. They whip their horses without mercy and dig their spurs into their sides. A working man’s barnyard is trampled and as we see him holding the disfigured goose that was killed in the process, we hear the men laugh at the look on his face. We see men fall off their horses to the concern of no one and when the stag is finally cornered, they leap to the ground and beat it to death before slitting its throat. The leader of the pack holds it up, heartily laughing at the stag’s demise.

But it doesn’t end there. Tom Jones does not hold back on showing the hierarchy of 18th century society in all its despicable glory. Men of lower class or distinction are given no real chance in life, and women are either honorable lasses awaiting proper marriage or, as one character disdainfully says in the movie, nothing more than a “filthy slut.”

TOM JONES (1963)

The director, Tony Richardson, was famously dissatisfied with the movie and even said that when people told him how much they liked it, he would “cringe a little inside.” The cinematographer, Walter Lassally, said that Richardson, for whatever reason, couldn’t see it. He said that Richardson was seeing mistakes and flaws that simply weren’t there. I would wholeheartedly agree with Lassally’s assessment. Tony Richardson created something quite special with Tom Jones and, like many artists, couldn’t see his own work from the outside looking in.

TOM JONES (1963)

Then, there are the actors. The titular role is played so perfectly by Albert Finney that it’s almost impossible to notice how much charm and kindness Finney brings to the role underneath all the Lothario bravado. Susannah York is pitch perfect as Sophie Western, playing most of her emotions, from anger to elation, under the surface, as a lady in her time was expected to be quiet and submissive. Diane Cilento plays every deceitful moment with verve. She goes from telling Tom sternly to his face that she can never have another man to laughing at herself when an instant later another man is found hiding naked in the barn behind her. David Warner, in his film debut, seems a fully seasoned film actor, playing Tom’s half-brother as a priggish fop, showing sanctimony to the world while selfishly pursuing only that which will benefit him most. Finally, Hugh Griffith, one of the greatest of all character actor hams, steals the show so much he should have won every supporting award available.

Looking at it again over 50 years after its release, Tom Jones is as surprisingly fresh and lively today as it must have been in 1963. Its filmmaking techniques and narrative styles have been used so many times since, that someone watching it today might easily dismiss it as just another period piece deconstruction. But it is so much more than that, and in many ways, the main influence on all period comedies to follow. Tony Richardson was a fine director and with Tom Jones, he outdid himself and made a movie that will stand the test of time. He just didn’t seem to know it. Fortunately, we do.

Greg Ferrara

5 Responses The History of The History of Tom Jones (1963)
Posted By LD : May 7, 2017 6:47 am

TOM JONES has been one of my favorite films since I first saw it when it was released in theaters. Having seen it many times since (I keep it on my DVR), I am never disappointed.

When it was released it was very popular. I was too young to appreciate everything in it. All I know is I had a really good time seeing it with my friends and we all fell a little bit in love with Finney. The part of the film that was most discussed was not the brutal hunting scene but the eating scene between Tom and Mrs. Waters (oysters anyone?) Now that was brutal. Also there was no way for us to know at the time that Hugh Griffith’s fall from his horse was not a stunt but a result of his drunken state. Griffith survived and hopefully the horse did too.

TOM JONES would be a good title for a Criterion release. I would also like for Criterion to bring back booklets. There is probably a better chance for the former than the latter.

Posted By Ken Adlam : May 7, 2017 3:35 pm

The positive impact of TOM JONES was to introduce us to Albert Finney; otherwise, I didn’t care for it in 1963 as a college Junior…I still don’t. It was too smart-ass in its presentation and too “clever” by half. My movie that year was “America, America”.

Posted By George : May 8, 2017 3:11 pm

AS Ken said, TOM JONES is a bit too smug and self-satisfied for its own good. But all the acting is good, Susannah York is gorgeous, and it’s beautifully photographed. So it’s certainly worth seeing (at least once).

Posted By John Fickes : May 8, 2017 5:32 pm

I first saw the film Tom Jones when it was featured on Saturday Night at the Movies in the mid-1960s, when I was still in grade school. I admit to being hopelessly romantic . . . I absolutely loved it! When, in the days of VHS, the print was cleaned up and re-released theatrically, I jumped at the chance to see it again. The film was even better than I’d remembered. It’s among my very favorite films, one of those that I’ve bought several times, when it’s appeared in a better format. I’d love to see it in the Criterion Collection.

The casting was superb — not a weak performance in the bunch. Greg, your observation of Albert Finney is on the money: he reveals Tom’s essential humanity as well as his charm and resiliency. And Susannah York was irresistible as the embodiment of plucky English maidenhood.

The film score is memorable, especially for its use of the harpsichord. The scene that I see and hear in my mind whenever I recall Tom Jones is of Tom and Sophie falling in love during his recovery at the Western manor (he was injured rescuing Sophie after her horse bolts). There is no dialogue: just a softly played keyboard. Fantastic!

Thanks for a great post!

Posted By EricJ : May 9, 2017 12:09 am

I’m with Ken in that I don’t see what all the love and fuss was about, probably in that I was looking back on it AFTER the late 60′s, when the “bawdy humor” of the Carry On movies was a little more common, and thought the movie was a bit overly-done.
Maybe the cheekiness of Regency bed-hopping was a little more of a bold shock in 1963 than in 1969–when low-budget British sex-comedies started borrowing then period legacies of Tom Jones and Fanny Hill–but the satire of 18th-century social warfare either needed a more savage touch, like Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”, or at least a more disciplined comic touch than a Benny Hill sketch.
It’s good, and so is Finney, but why it’s considered one of the “great” Oscar Pictures of the 60′s always mystified me, even after seeing it.

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