Tom Jones (1963): Tony Richardson’s Best Picture Oscar, Starring Albert Finney–One of Weakest Years in Oscar History

The first British film to win the Best Picture Oscar after Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” in 1948, was “Tom Jones,” which made its star, Albert Finney, a household name in the U.S.

Grade: B+ (***1/2* out of *****).

The movie is swift fast moving, and sporadically entertaining, but it is also a bit pompous and too crudely directed and edited.

Based on Henry Fielding’s famous novel, which was adapted to the screen by the playwright John Osborne, this rollicking comedy features Finney as the adventurous, amorous illegitimate son of a servant in eighteenth-century England.

Osborne has condensed considerably Fileding’s 1749 sprawling, episodic adventure to fit a feature-length (running time is 131 minute) film.  Director Tony Richardson treats the text as a slapstick rollicking material, inspired by silent film comedy devices, such as titles, wipes, slow-motion, etc.

 

 

Osborn and Richardson depart from the tradition of “kitchen-sink” realism that had marked their earlier works, manifest in the play and movie “Look Back in Anger.”  Stylistically, Richardson also borrows from the French New Wave in using his camera in a dynamic and jazzy way, and there are sequences that evoke Keystone Kops style slapstick and silent film devices, such as titles, wipes, stop-motion photography.

“Tom Jones” was a commercial success prior to winning the 1963 Oscar and a smash-hit afterward; this period comedy is one of the most popular films of the entire decade.

Several set-pieces are fantastically entertaining, such as the stag hunt at the estate of Griffith; the bedroom farce at the inn, and most memorable of all, Albert Finney and Joyce Redman staring at each other, while never stopping ripping food apart and stuffing it in their mouths, a scene that’s both funny and strangely erotic.

“Tom Jones” is the only film in the Academy’s annals to garner three Supporting Actress nominations. All three Brit thespians were deserving: Dame Edith Evans, as the intrepid aunt; Diane Cilento, as the wild gatekeeper’s daughter; and best of all, Joyce Redman, as a lady of easy virtue who seduces the hero over a large meal in what became the film’s best remembered sequence.

Production values are good, particularly cinematography by Walter Lassally (which won the Oscar) and music score.

Seen from today’s perspective, it’s hard to think of many other pictures (and Oscar winners) that were so overestimated at the time of their release.

Reel/Real Impact: Reading and Rereading Classic Novel

One of the effects of the film’s commercial success was to bring a classic novel, which was published two centuries ago, back to the attention of the modern reading public–the was on the best-seller lists for many weeks.

Actor Alert: Lynn Redgrave

Lynn Redgrave, the younger sister of Vanessa and Colin Redgrave made her screen debut in this picture, though she got her breakthrough three years later in the comedy Georgy Girl, for which she was Oscar-nominated for Best Actress.

 

Detailed Plot

The story begins as a silent film, during which the Squire Allworthy (George Devine) returns home after a stay in London to discovers a baby in his bed. He thinks it belongs to his barber, Mr. Partridge (Jack MacGowran), and one of his servants, Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman), a product of lust, and so he chooses to raise little Tom Jones as if he were his own son.

Cut to Tom (Albert Finney) as a young man whose good looks make him popular with women. However, he truly loves only one woman, the gentle Sophie Western (Susannah York), who returns his passion. But Tom is a “bastard” and cannot wed a lady of her station. Sophie, too, must hide her feelings while her aunt (Edith Evans) and her father, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) try to coerce her to marry a suitable man whom she hates.

This youngster is Blifil (David Warner), son of the Squire’s widowed sister Bridget (Rachel Kempson). Though legitimate, he is ill-natured and hypocritical, lacking Tom’s warmth, honesty, or spirits. When Bridget dies, Blifil intercepts a letter that his mother intended for her brother.  The nature of the letter is not revealed until the end of the movie.

After his mother’s funeral, Blifil and his two tutors, Mr. Thwackum (Peter Bull) and Mr. Square (John Moffatt), convince the squire that Tom is a villain. Allworthy gives Tom some money and sends him out into the world to seek his fortune.

In his road-traveling, Tom is knocked unconscious while defending the good name of his beloved Sophie and robbed of his cash. He also flees from a jealous Irishman who accuses him of having an affair with his wife, engages in swordfights, and so on.

He finally meets Mrs. Waters whom he saves from the evil Redcoat Officer, and later beds. In a celebrated scene, Tom and Mrs. Waters sit opposite each other in the dining room of the Upton Inn, consuming enormous meal while gazing lustfully at each other.

Sophie runs away from home after Tom’s banishment to escape the attentions of Blifil. After almost missing each other, Tom and Sophie arrive separately in London. There, Tom attracts the attention of Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood), an older, nobler woman. Rich, beautiful, and amoral, she seduces Tom and rewards him for his services.

Tom ends up at Tyburn Gaol, facing a hanging mob after  agents of Blifil frame him for robbery and murder. Allworthy learns the contents of the mysterious letter: Tom is not Jenny’s child, but Bridget’s illegitimate son and Allworthy’s nephew.  As Blifil concealed this, and tried to destroy his half-brother, he is disinherited. Allworthy gets Tom a pardon, but Tom has already been sent to the gallows.

Tom’s hanging is interrupted by Squire Western, who cuts the rope down and takes him to Sophie. All ends well, when Tom embraces Sophie with Squire Western’s blessing.

Oscar Context: 1963 Weak Year

Though not distinguished, Tom Jones was slightly superior to the other nominees in 1963, a rather weak year artistically.

The other contenders were Kazan’s dreary autobiographical drama America, America; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s troubled, overlong and excessive Cleopatra, which almost sank its studio Fox; the tired, old-fashioned anthology, How the West Was Won; and “Lilies of the Field,” a simple story. for which Sidney  Poitier earned the Best Actor Oscar, thus becoming the first Black thespian to achieve that.

Cast

Tom Jones (Albert Finney)

Sophie Western (Susanna York)

Squire Western (Hugh Griffith)

Miss Western (Edith Evans)

Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood)

Molly Seagrim (Diane Cilento)

Squire Allworthy (George Devine)

Mrs. Walters/Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman)