The story of "Tom Jones, of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged," begins with the foundling discovered by Squire Allworthy (George Devine) in a scene played like a silent slapstick comedy and accompanied by a bouncy spinet accompaniment (which continues throughout John Addison's playful, Oscar®-winning score). Rising star Albert Finney plays the adult incarnation of the "incorrigible hero" who would rather hunt than study and dally with the "disreputable" peasant girl Molly (Diane Cilento) than just about anything else. Yet his devotion to his adoptive father is sincere and unflagging and his affection for his lovely neighbor Sophie Western (Susannah York, with a sunny smile and a playful spirit) never waivers, even if he never manages to steer clear of other women in the interim. But it's the conniving lies of his hypocritical cousin, Blifil (David Warner in his film debut), a stiff, sour-faced man who schemes behind a show of piety and enlists the household's two tutors in his campaign to discredit Tom, that finally banishes our lively hero from his country manor home and sends him on the road to London, where many more adventures await.
"Heroes, whatever high ideals we may have of them, are mortal, not divine," our narrator (Micheál MacLiammóir) reminds us. "We are as God made us, and many of us much worse." Tom drinks, carouses and duels. He's as quick to save a woman's honor as he is to take it, with her consent and collaboration, of course, and his weakness for the ladies lands him into more scrapes and scandals than Casanova. Finney plays Tom as a rascal, to be sure, but also a kind soul and a brave man and his rakish good looks and devilish smile make him more earthy and errant than immoral or uncaring.
Richardson directs it all as a rollicking romp full of comic escapades. A country stag hunt has all the dignity of a bacchanal, with riders mercilessly drawing blood as they spur their horses on (don't worry, it's fake), tumbling over in drunken sloppiness and leaving a wake of destruction behind. A "dinner date" with one Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) at a roadside inn turns eating into a sexual invitation, sucking the meat from lobster shells, slurping fowl lasciviously from bones, devouring fruit like it was the food of love, all the while flirting through mouthfuls and making come-hither eyes over the dishes. This display of lusty appetites, which film critic Arthur Knight called "the funniest and lewdest eating scene ever set to celluloid," is accomplished with nary a hint of nudity or even physical contact. The collision of characters later that evening becomes a bedroom farce filmed to give the actors the accelerated movement of a Keystone Kops comedy. And at any given moment, Tom and other characters may turn to the camera for a cheeky aside, a winking look of conspiratorial indulgence, or even a small speech to the audience to set the record straight.
Tom Jones was the biggest project to date for Richardson, both financially and physically. His previous features Look Back in Anger (1958), The Entertainer (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and A Taste of Honey (1961) - were contemporary black and white productions set in the dreary realities of working class life. This big period production, shot in color, called for costumes and wigs, props and set dressing, numerous locations and a sprawling cast. There were horses and hounds to hire for the hunt scene, city streets and extras to dress, manor houses to find. Unable to finance it completely through Woodfall, his own production company, he turned to Hollywood and found a willing investor in United Artists, but he maintained control himself. He asked the acclaimed playwright John Osborne, who adapted his plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer for Richardson's film versions, to adapt Tom Jones for the screen. It was "as near as John and I got to collaborating successfully on film," according to Richardson in his autobiography, "The Long Distance Runner." He loved the wit that Osborne brought to the script, but Osborne was resistant to do rewrites and Richardson was forced to rework the screenplay himself through pre-production and even during shooting.
Albert Finney had made his screen debut in The Entertainer and became a leading man in the Richardson-produced Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Richardson thought the part was ideal for the rising star but "Albie didn't like the role," wrote Richardson. "He complained, sulked, and created scenes, and only fitfully... did he display the kind of buoyancy of temperament that his characterization so effectively portrayed on screen." For Squire Western, Sophie's heartily uncouth father, he cast Hugh Griffith: "unique, original, and Welsh." Western lives to hunt and to wench with red faced, wild-eyed bluster, which only becomes wilder when he discovers that Tom, his favorite hunting partner, is the object of his daughter's affections. "Part drunk, part amateur, wholly child, Hugh lives the part of Squire Western in real life," wrote Richardson. He recalls that Griffith was drunk through much of the film, and a terror with the whip that his character carried, mercilessly snapping at other actors until Finney hit back and punched him in the face.
In his autobiography, Richardson confesses that "I felt the movie too incomplete and botched in much of the execution" (in 1989 he trimmed the film by seven minutes for a re-release). United Artists thought the finished cut was a disaster, the London reviews were scathing and purists were appalled at the liberties taken with the literary classic. Yet Tom Jones became a popular box office hit, making an estimated $40 million (in 1963 dollars) on a budget of around $1 million, and won four Academy Awards out of ten nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. (As a side note, the success of the film turned Henry Fielding's novel into a bestseller more than two centuries after it was first published.) Tom Jones was fresh and facetious and young, reinvigorating an 18th century work for a new generation and making the classic swing with a modern sensibility. While it may not feel quite so modern more than forty years after its first release, its cheek and energy are just as entertaining.
Producer: Tony Richardson
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: John Osborne; Henry Fielding (novel)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Art Direction: Ted Marshall
Music: John Addison
Film Editing: Antony Gibbs
Cast: Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Susannah York (Sophie Western), Hugh Griffith (Squire Western), Edith Evans (Miss Western), Joan Greenwood (Lady Bellaston), Diane Cilento (Molly Seagrim), George Devine (Squire Allworthy), David Tomlinson (Lord Fellamar)
C-122m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Sean Axmaker