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Tom Jones: film (1963) and book (1749)

Tom Jones won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1963, and picked up another three: Best Director (Tony Richardson), Best Substantially Original Score (John Addison) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (John Osborne). Five of the actors got nominations, which I think may be a record (I haven't been counting) - Albert Finney in the title role for Best Actor, Hugh Griffith as Squire Western for Best Supporting Actor, and three (which is definitely a record) for Best Supporting Actress - Edith Evans as Miss Western, Diane Cilento as Molly Seagrim, and Joyce Redman as Mrs. Waters/Jenny Jones.

The other Best Picture nominees were America America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won and Lilies of the Field, none of which I have seen. On the two IMDB rankings of 1963 films, Tom Jones does not rank highly, 32nd on one list and 22nd on the other. The only Oscar-winning film so far that does worse on these metrics is Cavalcade (25th and 40th). Seventeen films are ranked ahead of Tom Jones on both systems; I have seen four of them, From Russia With Love, The Sword in the Stone, The Pink Panther and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The other 1963 film I am sure that I have seen is Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday, which is (rightly) ranked lower. The Hugo was not awarded that year.

Here's a trailer.
It's a Bildungsroman of Merrie England, based on a famous 18th-century novel, and starring good-looking up-and-coming English actors. I liked some aspects of it, but I was ultimately a bit dissatisfied - perhaps it fitted the 1960s Zeitgeist, by fitting that into an older boisterous tradition - and for the first time in ten years I'm adding this to my bottom ten films, just ahead of The Greatest Show on Earth (the plot is less boring and cinematography more interesting) and below Gone With The Wind.

We have just one actor here who has already been in an Oscar-winning film, Hugh Griffith as Squire Western. He blacked up as Sheikh Ilderim for an Oscar-winning performance in Ben-Hur four years ago; here he has perhaps rouged up as the alcoholic squire (he was apparently not acting the alcoholic bit).


This was the film debut for two actors who both went on to become significant in Doctor Who and (in one case) Game of Thrones. Both play bad guys here. Julian Glover is the nasty Lieutenant Northerton; two years later he was in Doctor Who as Richard the Lionheart, again in 1979 as Count Scarlioni in City of Death, and finally in GoT as Grand Maester Pycelle.



And David Warner, here the unpleasantly priggish young Blifil who almost gets Tom killed, has done several Doctor Who voice roles and appeared on screen as Professor Grisenko in the Matt Smith episode Cold War.


A bit more obscurely, James Cairncross is Parson Supple here, and also appeared twice in black-and-white Doctor Who, as Lemaitre in the William Hartnell story now known as The Massacre (which is lost from the archives) and also with Patrick Troughton as Beta, one of the Gonds in The Krotons (which survives).


There is a lot to like about this film, and I'm trying to identify why it didn't really work for me. As with All The King's Men, I watched it on Eurostar after a long day in London, which possibly didn't help. In the end it comes down to two things, I think. First, there are lots of brilliant scenes and little bits and pieces, but it somehow doesn't come together. The director, Tony Richardson, himself described it as "incomplete and botched in much of its execution". Second, a lot of the characters simply are not very nice - Tom Jones himself is a completely irresponsible casual user of women, and we cheer his rescue from hanging at the end not because he is good but because he is innocent of that particular offence. Grotesques can be funny to watch but are usually difficult to relate to. Somehow the characters in the original book came over as more three-dimensional.

An awful lot of Oscar-winning film adaptations have erased or minimalised non-white characters from the original books that they are based on. This is the first one that I have noticed actually adding a non-white character, though it is a very small non-speaking and uncredited role - a boy servant in Lord Fellamar's house in London.

Although three of the cast received Best Supporting Actress nominations, the film is not especially enlightened on the battle of the sexes - we are invited to admire Tom's behaviour and the damage that he does is treated humorously. Having said that, the actresses all deserved their nominations. Here's the famous erotic dining scene with Albert Finney in the title role and Joyce Redman as Jenny:

Diane Cilento absolutely smoulders as Molly:

And Edith Evans hits the mark as Miss Western:

But I actually think Susanna York was robbed of a nomination - even though she is the Good Girl, I think she carries it off awfully well and has very convincing chemistry with Albert Finney.

The cinematography is tremendously quirky. There are a lot of innovative cuts between scenes, stop-motion interludes, the opening sequence done as a silent movie (though in colour), occasional breaking the fourth wall. Micheal MacLiammoir's voice provides a lovely warm narration. It's a shame that it doesn't really come together. The classic scene is the hunt, expanded from about three lines in the book to six minutes on screen - a tremendous bit of filming.

Finally, a couple of historical trivia: this was the last film that President Kennedy saw before he was assassinated; and the singer Tom Jones took his stage name from the title. You can get it here.

Next up is My Fair Lady, a film I know well.

I went back to reread the book as well (am slightly regretting this policy decision after both this and Lawrence of Arabia turn out to be very long). Second paragraph of third chapter:
And true it is that he did many of these things; but had he done nothing more I should have left him to have recorded his own merit on some fair freestone over the door of that hospital. Matters of a much more extraordinary kind are to be the subject of this history, or I should grossly mis-spend my time in writing so voluminous a work; and you, my sagacious friend, might with equal profit and pleasure travel through some pages which certain droll authors have been facetiously pleased to call The History of England.
When I read the book back in 2012, I wrote:
The classic novel of 1749, whose prose style is in places a bit tedious but also in places very funny. The plot is a basic romantic comedy, but it is enlivened by the authorial asides which open each of the individual books within the novel, and by the author's grasp of character which must have inspired Dickens. There are also a couple of passages which pastiche Homer, Vergil and I think the King James Bible, and there must have been others that I missed.

Some social points of the 1740s that I found interesting: women had few enough rights, but in Fielding's account retained an absolute right to accept or refuse an offer of marriage. Presumably coercion was a ground for divorce or annulment, and there must have been enough cases for it to be a real issue. I was also interested that Sophia's father is depicted as having much the thickest West Country accent of any of the characters, despite being the local squire. A hundred years later, I guess all gentlemen of his class would have been assimilated into poshness by public school; but in the 1740s you only needed to communicate with the locals in your rural fastness. Mr Western of course has no time for education or politics (his sister, who serves as comic relief, is also the most politically aware character in the book). I was also struck by the relative lack of animus to the Irish (cf Shakespeare, who scores rather badly there):
Sophia heaved a deep sigh, and answered, "Indeed, Harriet, I pity you from my soul!----But what could you expect? Why, why, would you marry an Irishman?"

"Upon my word," replied her cousin, "your censure is unjust. There are, among the Irish, men of as much worth and honour as any among the English: nay, to speak the truth, generosity of spirit is rather more common among them. I have known some examples there, too, of good husbands; and I believe these are not very plenty in England. Ask me, rather, what I could expect when I married a fool."
It was a bit of a slog in places but I am glad to have read it.
Slightly cheating here, as I haven't finished rereading it yet, but I stand by what I previously wrote - Fielding's characters are much more solid and three-dimensional than the grotesques of the film.

One bit of context worth noting is that the book is set firmly during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and its characters (including the soldiers) are widely dispersed along the spectrum of allegiance to King George or Bonnie Prince Charlie - and remember that this isn't ancient history for Fielding and his readers, it was only four years before publication. Fascinating that a writer could depict loyalty to a treasonous (if defeated) cause in such a sympathetic light, and get away with it.

You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

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