Tonight we watch Tom Jones. No, not that Tom Jones, keep your undergarments on. This is the 1963 adaptation of the 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, a comedic story about a good-hearted, if hedonistic young man raised a gentleman, but of dubious parentage. Young Tom adventures across England, all the while hoping to end up winning the hand of his true love- but not without a few amorous diversions along the way.
It’s difficult to watch this film and suspend the use of a gender-lens – after all, our hero brazenly cavorts with an array of women throughout the film, yet he is a protagonist supreme and we are meant to get the sense that he is one of the good ones. Tom Jones is indeed a charming fellow in this film, but we are reminded of how different the times are – we are led to assume that his undoing is the fact that he was born a “bastard.” To a viewer in 2013, this doesn’t seem to be that huge a deal – but you have to remember, we are talking 1749 societal code here.
Yes, it seems we’re already stumbling across one of the great dilemmas of enjoying work form way back. To what extent do we use contemporary standards to judge works of art from a time when social norms were fundamentally less fair? I know this won’t be the only time we run into this. It’s doubly hard in our case, in that we’re watching a movie made half a century ago, itself based on a much older story. The lighthearted tone suggests some satire is taking place. I’m ready to laugh at these archaic mores, but I confess I’m never sure when the film-or the novel-is laughing with me.
When I watch an old movie, part of the game for me is trying to figure out how well it serves as a barometer of standards of taste and morality at the time. For example, I was surprised to see that Wings showed actual (albeit fleeting) nudity, something that never would have happened a few years later under the Hayes Code’s spoilsports. Tom Jones features no explicit depictions, but it is very much a movie about sex. Was this movie ahead of its time? Or was 1963 a less uptight time for popular culture than I’ve imagined?
I wonder the same thing. I was shocked that Sophie didn’t seem more upset that her paramour was sleeping with a slew of other women. I was also disturbed by the scene in which a nobleman tries to rape her as a means of locking her into marriage. There were other strange elements of the film. The pace was odd – while the plot Continue reading