TOM JONES (1963)

Tom-Jones-movie-posterTonight 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 unfolding quite slowly and in a meandering way, some of the scenes were shot back and forth jarringly. Particularly the hunt scene at the beginning of the film, where the camera bounces around from wild shot to wild shot. I couldn’t help but be distracted by what looked to me slightly amateurish – but I was also captivated by the intensity of this particular scene.

Stylistically, this movie was a little hard to grasp. I will give it this- it challenged my idea of where filmmaking was at in 1963. With the jumpy editing and almost documentary-like cameras (not to mention the above mentioned racy content), it seemed to have more in common with the “New Hollywood” of the late 60’s than earlier styles. It seems like every scene ends with a wipe or iris and the entire first scene is shot in the style of a silent film, complete with intertitles. There are so many post-production gimmicks, the tone becomes almost detachedly ironic. Tom’s breaking the fourth wall hints at later meta-fictional protagonists like Alvy Singer and Ferris Bueller. And the erotic eating scene between Tom and Mrs. Waters was a real highlight, because it went on long enough to be delightfully weird.

I have to say I liked the wipes!! Also, having all the female characters discuss with one another how irresistible Tom was helped me buy in. He seemed a bit ordinary to me at first, but with a few exchanges between characters, I was sold on the idea that no woman could refuse his charm. You do end up kind of liking the guy. All in all, I enjoyed this movie – though I did have to watch it in two sittings.

So what to make of Tom Jones? I see it as the film industry figuring out a way to give people something they wouldn’t get from television (its new rival), without making people wear 3-D glasses. And just what made it the Best Picture of 1963? I’m not sure what it was up against. Browsing other releases from that year, Jason and The Argonauts was about the only title I even recognized. Not surprisingly, The Academy favored costumed wit and ribaldry while overlooking a film about fighting skeletons. It would be a bit silly to say Jason and The Argonauts should have been a best picture nominee. It’s essentially a glorified B-movie that serves as a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. But in terms of lasting cultural significance, it might just have a better case than the Oscar winner. Every time someone watches the monsters and robots in modern blockbusters like Star Wars, The Terminator or Transformers, they’re watching the direct descendant of the fighting skeletons and Talos the bronze giant from Jason and The Argonauts.

Next film: CASABLANCA (1942)


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