“TOM JONES” (1963) Review

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“TOM JONES” (1963) Review

Recently, I searched my memories for any movies produced outside of the United States that not only won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I would also consider a personal favorite of mine. Only one came to mind – the 1963 movie,“TOM JONES”

“TOM JONES” turned out to be the second non-Hollywood film that won the coveted Oscar prize. Directed by Tony Richardson, the movie is an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”, about the coming-of-age and misadventures of an illegitimate young man, raised by a landowner in mid-18th century England. I might as well start from the beginning. Sometime during the 1720s, one Squire Allworthy returned home to his Somerset estate and found an abandoned infant in his bedroom. Demanding to learn the identity of the infant’s parents, the Squire learned from his housekeeper and other servants that the child’s parents were a local schoolmaster named Partridge and a servant girl named Jenny Jones. Squire Allworthy banished both from the immediate neighborhood and became the baby’s new guardian.

Named Tom Jones, the infant grew up to become a charming, handsome and slightly roguish young. He also became friendly with most of the locals, especially his guardian’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom’s good looks and charm not only captured the eyes of Squire Western’s only child, Sophie, but also Molly Seagrim, the promiscuous daughter of a local poacher named Black George Seagrim. But malignant forces in the form of Squire Allworthy’s venomous nephew, Mr. Blifil, the tutors for both young men – Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square, and Tom’s own personal vices; eventually lead Squire Allworthy to order the young hero’s departure from the Allworthy estate. Tom sets out for London, where more acquaintances and adventures await.

I first saw the Best Picture Oscar winner, “TOM JONES”, on television, when I was in my early teens. And I immediately fell in love. Mind you, my love for the movie has not blinded me from its flaws that are featured in the last ten minutes. It felt so rushed. And it seemed as if director Tony Richardson had retold Henry Fielding’s tale with a great deal of detail and atmosphere, before he lost his impatience and rushed the last few minutes of the movie’s narrative. Richardson and screenwriter John Osbourne never allowed the audiences to witness Lawyer Dowling’s revelation to Squire Allworthy of the details in the letter written by the Squire’s late sister, Mrs. Bridget Allworthy Blifil. Instead, they allowed the Mrs. Waters character to break the fourth wall and inform the audiences of the letter’s contents. I found this very frustrating, especially since the audience was denied the Squire’s immediate reaction. I also found the appearance of Lieutenant Norton, the Army officer whom Tom prevented from harming Mrs. Waters on the journey to London. By some bad coincidence, Norton managed to rejoin the Army and ended up leading the detail that escorted Tom to a public execution. For me, this is coincidence of the cheap kind. But as I had stated earlier, my complaints are few.

Overall, “TOM JONES” strikes me as a beautiful and lively film to watch. I have the feeling that it ushered in a new style for period movies on both sides of the Atlantic. One, the movie lacked the gloss that marred the realism of most costume dramas before 1963. Richardson approached the story’s earthiness, sexuality and violence with a great deal of realism without any overindulgence. Prime examples of the director’s approach could be found in famous scenes like Tom and Mrs. Waters’ lusty supper at the Upton Inn, Tom and Mr. Partridge’s colorful entry into mid-18th century London, and the fox hunt sequence that still delivers quite a cinematic punch after fifty years. Richardson also utilized a filming style used in comedies from the silent era with great effect in scenes that included Squire Allworthy’s discovery of the infant Tom and the romantic chaos that ensued following Mr. Fitzgerald’s erroneous interruption of Tom and Mrs. Waters’ nocturnal activities at Upton.

I have to express my admiration for John McCorry’s costumes. I believe they perfectly reflected the fashions for all classes in Britain of the 1740s, without any pesky 20th century influences. Both Ralph W. Brinton’s production designs and Josie MacAvin’s set decorations conveyed Richardson’s earthy and realistic view of mid-18th century Britain. Brinton and MacAvin earned Oscar nominations, along with Ted Marshall for his art direction. “TOM JONES” was filmed mainly in the rural areas of Somerset and Dorset. And Walter Lassally’s photography captured the beauty of the English countryside with a natural elegance and zest that I found very appealing. It seemed a pity that he was not recognized with an Oscar nomination. I feel he deserved it . . . especially for his work on the fox hunt and London arrival sequences. On the other hand, John Addison won the Best Score Oscar for his work on the film. I cannot deny that I found his music for the film truly outstanding. It beautifully captured the spirit and atmosphere of the movie’s setting. Despite my pure satisfaction of Addison’s score, a part of me still wishes that Elmer Bernstein had won that Oscar for the “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” score.

I read somewhere that Albert Finney found the character of Tom Jones something of a bore. If he did find the character boring, it is a credit to his acting skills and perseverance that his boredom never appeared in his performance. In fact, I believe he gave a sparkling, charismatic and star-making portrayal of one of the most charming and roguish characters in English literature . . . and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination for his work. I have no idea how Susannah York felt about the character of Sophie Western. For me, it does not matter. She was a delight, as far as I am concerned. More importantly, she infused a great deal of fire into her performance, reminding viewers that despite the well-mannered and elegant appearance, she is her father’s daughter. Speaking of Squire Western, Hugh Griffith seemed to be having a ball, portraying the lively and somewhat coarse landowner, Squire Western. It was not surprising to learn that he had earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. Three other cast members earned Oscar nominations – Edith Evans, who gave an energetic performance as Squire Western’s caustic and snobbish sister; Diane Cilento, whose portrayal of Molly Seagrim seemed to be an interesting mixture of sexiness and desperation; and Joyce Readman, who radiated a more mature sexiness in her portrayal of Mrs. Waters, Tom’s famous companion at the Upton Inn.

I do wish the Academy had considered Joan Greenwood for a nomination. I was very impressed by her subtle, yet malevolent portrayal of the lustful, yet insidious Lady Bellaston. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of George Devine, who gave a solid and heart-warming performance as Squire Allworthy; David Tomlinson as the sexually aggresive Lord Fellamar; Jack MacGowran as Tom’s faithful companion, Partridge; and George A. Cooper as Sophie’s hot-headed cousin-in-law, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Four other performances struck me as noteworthy. One came from Rachel Kempson, who not only gave a brief, yet solid performance as Bridget Allworthy Blifil, but also happened to be Richardson’s mother-in-law. The second one belonged to well-known character actor David Warner. “TOM JONES” not only featured his film debut, but also featured the first of many villainous roles he would portray over the years. Also in the movie was Julian Glover, who also made an impressive film debut in “TOM JONES” as a villain, namely Lieutenant Northerton. And Richardson’s sister-in-law, Lynn Redgrave, made her film debut in a brief scene as a maid at Upton Inn.

I read somewhere that Tony Richardson was never satisfied with his work on “TOM JONES”. According to cinematographer Walter Lassally, an unsatisfied Richardson tinkered a bit too much with the movie’s editing during the post-production period. Perhaps that is why the movie is not particularly perfect. But neither Richardson’s unsatisfied tinkering or Albert Finney’s boredom with the main character could mar what became one of my favorite Oscar winning movies of all time . . . or cause Richardson to lose his Best Director Oscar. After half a century, “TOM JONES” has lost none of its magic.

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