The Oscars Project: Tom Jones (1963)

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, with the help of the fine folks at Casablanca Video and the Calgary Public Library, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to tonight’s winner. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

Tom Jones (Best Picture, Best Director and two others)

"We are all as God made us, and many of us much worse."

— Micheál Mac Liammóir, the narrator

Viewed 47 years on, the lecherous, zany, occasionally post-modern comedy Tom Jones is an undeniably unlikely best picture winner. Set in the bedrooms and byways of 18th century England, with all of the bodices and scoundrel highwaymen that implies, it’s one of only a tiny handful of all-out comedies to take the top Oscar, and its British-made pedigree puts it at even more of a disadvantage with the all-American Academy. It’s also an oddly prescient choice, a precursor to the sexual openness and outright silliness that marked the films of mid-’60s Swinging London, which doesn’t really jibe with a decade’s worth of choices rewarding more staid Hollywood forms, namely musicals (the next two winners are My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music) and sweeping epics.

All of which is basically to say, what the hell? Even though I’d argue that Tom Jones doesn’t hold up particularly well, since its stylistic tricks, plentiful though they may be, have been better implemented and even entirely sublimated in the last half-century, it’s easily one of the most interesting best pictures in terms of its out-of-left-field appearance. Pretty well the only thing Oscar about it is its setting.

An adaptation of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (first published in 1749), Tom Jones maintains the mid-18th century setting and most of the plot, but it’s far from your typical costume drama, and not just because there’s next to no drama involved. After a series of acclaimed but grim dramas, director Tony Richardson (working from a script by playwright John Osborne) clearly relishes the chance to do something fun. His playfulness is evident from the film’s opening sequence, during which the eponymous hero’s bastardly birth and subsequent adoption by the aristocratic Squire Allworthy is established not through dialogue or narration, but with the silent film-style hurdy-gurdy music and intertitles. Why? I’d guess it’s partially because it makes sense to handle a flashback using antiquated techniques, but it’s also likely because, well, why not?

It’s far from the only time that Richardson plays up his cinematic self-awareness. At time, Jones (played as an adult by Albert Finney, in his star-making role) will break the fourth wall by asking the audience a question or hanging his cap over the camera in the interest of propriety. Elsewhere, Richardson will speed up the action to Benny Hill levels, or freeze the frame to give the narrator a chance to dryly undercut the action. It’s not hard to draw the line from Jones through Richar Lester’s Beatles movies to today’s catch-all comedies — I finally got around to watching Louis CK’s cult comedy Pootie Tang this weekend, and it’s probably saying something that I had to take a minute to sort out if one of the jokes I was remembering was from that 21st century blaxploitation comedy or Jones.

But prescient and influential aren’t the same as enjoyable, and while Jones is certainly fun, it’s not exactly great. Richardson is trying to cram a massive amount of storytelling into two hours, and the result is absolutely manic. Jones zips from one episode to the next, falling into bed with any number of attractive women from any level of social strata with equal zeal, and usually with disastrous consequences — it’s no coincidence that even as a baby, he’s first seen causing a stir by appearing unexpectedly in the wrong bed. And everywhere Jones goes, he’s greeted by shouting, laughing, groping, pratfalling, machinating, scheming and revenging. The movie is crammed with verbs, which leaves little room for adjectives.

That also means Jones gets exhausting, which is an odd thing to say about such a fluffy piece of comedy in the midst of Oscar’s usual overstuffed epics. But it’s the truth. Every character in Tom Jones is entirely over-the-top, from Hugh Griffith’s Squire Western, the drunken, ass-grabbing boor who is also the father of the love of Tom’s life, to the instantly unlikable David Warner as Blifil, Tom’s pimpled, petulant cousin and rival. (Supposedly, Griffith was every bit as drunk and unreliable during the filming as his character. A scene in which he tries to turn his horse around and ends up knocking it over was an actual accident; fortunately, his drunkenness actually prevented any injury by keeping him relaxed during the fall). There’s surely some class commentary in Jones’ portrayal of every aristocrat as either outrageously stuffy or glaringly hypocritical, but it’s couched in such excessively hammy silliness that it loses any real pointedness. The trailer actually captures the mood quite well, for what it’s worth:

As you can tell, restraint isn’t the name of the game. Take the fox hunt scene from the trailer: we’re supposed to associate the feverish passion of the aristocratic riders with the mindless pursuit of the hunting dogs, and Richardson does an excellent job of establishing exactly that by having the wealthy hunters tumble off their horses, crash through the fences and fields of the local peasants and generally do everything short of frothing at the mouth. But he lingers on the image far too long, until the frantic rumblings of the horses and dogs becomes just so much clattering noise; the scene is still going long after the point’s been made.

The movie’s other set-piece is the dinner scene between Jones and the busty Mrs. Waters, who he saves from being assaulted by a roadside scoundrel. After walking to an inn (she raises a few eyebrows thanks to her torn top and its... er... ample contents), the pair indulge in a meal that crosses the line between erotically charged and just plain gross. It’s another example of those scenes that probably played better at the time, when the bars for both gross-out humour and eroticism on film were set considerably lower. The sound design is still commendable — every slathering slurp is rendered in loving detail — but now that semen and feces have become a part of your average family comedy, the scene just can’t hope to provoke the same reaction that it would have 50 years ago. Although, I could be wrong — considering it’s been parodied in an actual porn with Ron Jeremy in the part of Tom Jones, there might be some folks out there who still get turned on by a pair of dirty Brits gorging on chicken.

It feels unfair to damn Jones for taking so many chances with its presentation. Richardson deserves credit, at the very least, for the vitality he brings to a story that could have transformed into yet another lifeless costume drama. His camera swoops around the scenes, rapidly cutting to extreme close-ups of the characters or indulging in wipes and iris-ins and outs that staunchly refuse to allow any boredom on the part of the viewer. But even his flashiest techniques have moved from cutting-edge to commonplace, so that now they can’t hide the silliness at the film’s heart. Jones is a welcome anomaly in the annals of Oscar, and it’s almost certainly a major influence on contemporary comedy, but at this point, those qualities easily overshadow its merits as a standalone film.

Then again, there wasn’t all that much competition at the 1963 Oscars, either. Cleopatra and How the West Was Won were both up for best picture, but neither had widespread support. Of the should-have-beens, Hitchcock’s The Birds is effective, but not the director’s best (if the Academy wouldn’t recognize Vertigo or Rear Window, it’s doubtful that a thriller about killer birds would gather much momentum), though the lack of a nomination for Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce, which reteamed the Apartment director with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, is a bit harder to explain. The other big British imports of the year — the first two Bond movies, Dr. No and From Russia With Love — were probably more culturally significant than anything else released that year, but straight-up action is even less likely to win a best picture than comedy. With no clear classics to shut it out, the Academy could have done worse than picking a progressive romp like Tom Jones for the win.

Coming up:
1964: My Fair Lady
1965: The Sound of Music
1966: A Man for All Seasons


more in Film Features     |     posted May 31st, 2010 at 6:24pm     


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