Program Notes: Tom Jones (1963)

It’s a funny thing about movies.

The happiest, friendliest, warmest sets can result in awful films.

And a miserable, unhappy set can produce a movie that earns millions and wins Academy Awards.

The latter was certainly the case with Tom Jones, director Tony Richardson’s 1963 film based on Henry Fielding’s picaresque comedy of 18th-century manners.

At the time Richardson (husband of Vanessa Richardson and father of Natasha and Joely, all actors) was considered one of Britain’s “new wave” directors specializing in low-budget black-and-white dramas that exposed the dark side of life in contemporary England (Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, The Entertainer, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner).

Film Screening:
Tom Jones (1963)
Saturday, Jan. 19 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

As Richardson recalled: “We thought it was time we made a really uncommitted film. No social significance for once. No contemporary problems to lay bare. Just a lot of colorful, sexy fun.”

Richardson had loved Fielding’s novel when he read it in college. Now he called upon acclaimed playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) to adopt the sprawling opus for the screen.

The book’s eponymous hero is a foundling, an illegitimate child adopted by a country squire. Tom grows to become a handsome young man, one who is kind, charitable, supremely good natured... and also irreligious and bawdy. Tom simply cannot help himself when it comes to willing women, and just about every woman he meets seems to be willing.

To play Tom Richardson tapped Albert Finney, a Shakespearean stage actor who had played a supporting role in The Entertainer three years earlier. Finney didn’t want the part – he didn’t think it was challenging enough. He was finally persuaded by the offer of a producing credit and a percentage of the profits – which were enough to turn him into a millionaire at age 27.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For while the film was being made and edited, most people involved thought it would be a disaster.

For starters, its $1 million budget wasn’t much for a big costume effort. Finney apparently was difficult and moody.

Worse, co-star Hugh Griffith (an Oscar winner a few years earlier for Ben-Hur) was perpetually drunk throughout the filming. His character, Squire Weston, is a boozing, wenching wild man, and the actor seemed determined to bring the character with him wherever he went.

Several times the crew spread out to look for the missing actor, once finding him passed out in a ditch near his abandoned car. During one take Griffith smacked Finney across back with riding crop, drawing blood. For which he received a punch in the mouth.

The actor’s antics proved particularly problematical in scenes involving horses. An intoxicated Griffith survived one spectacular on-camera fall in which he barely escaped being rolled over by his mount. Richardson kept it in the movie.

Among the film’s high points is the famous eating sequence in which Tom and Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) dine at a country inn, consuming vast quantities of fish, meat, and fowl while lasciviously smacking and licking their lips in preparation for a night of illicit pleasure.

The two actors were required to nosh for hours on end. Buckets were placed just out of camera range so they could spit out huge mouthfuls of food. And to top it off, Redman got a bad oyster and was sick for days afterward.

Even the weather didn’t cooperate. It was a very wet summer in the English countryside.

And, when it was finally all over, Richardson was disappointed by the footage, which he found disconnected and jerky. With no money for re-shoots he devoted months to cutting and recutting the film to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.

And here’s where the bad luck started to turn good. Denied the opportunity to make a conventional costume film – smooth camera movements, graceful pacing, lots of time to take in the costumes and plush settings – Richardson had to get creative.

The film’s introductory segment about Tom’s birth is presented as a silent movie with title cards and a madcap ragtime harpsichord pounding away on the soundtrack. Footage was sped up for comic effect. Or frozen like a photograph. A stentorian (but funny) narration was provided to help audiences understand what was going on.

As one Richardson biographer noted, the British critics were put off by the fact that Tom Jones was really two films in one: “The authenticity and feel of 18th-century England, perfectly captured by the settings and costumes, were juxtaposed against the technical cinematic artifice of undercranked cameras, clever dissolves and wipes, and character asides to the audience.”

Complained one scribe: “Much of the time Tom Jones looks just like a home move, made with sporadic talent by a group with more enthusiasm than discipline.”

And then the public weighed in. Your average ticketbuyer, it seemed, enjoyed the film’s cheeky approach to sex and utter lack of stodginess.

The film opened in America to rave reviews, huge business, and multiple Oscar nominations.

Finney was in the competition for best actor, while Griffith scored in the supporting category. Redman, Diane Cilento and Dame Edith Evans all were nominated for supporting actress (the only time three performers have competed in the same category for the same film).

In the end Tom Jones won no Oscars for acting, but it did take home the statuettes for best picture, director, musical score, and screenplay.

Despite these triumphs, Richardson wasn’t happy.

“I felt the movie to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution,” he wrote in his memoir.

“I am not knocking that kind of success – everyone should have it – but whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe a little inside.”

Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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