TOM JONES may not be the worst movie to take home the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture, but it certainly is in the running for being the most ineptly directed. Tiresomely clumsy and terminally long-winded, this so-called rollicking comedy barely merits a legitimate smile, let alone any laugh-out-loud moments of glee. Under Tony Richardson's amateurish direction, the film suffers from having little sense of comic timing, a lack of the astute use of editing or camera placement or even the slightest hint that the famed director had ever been behind a camera before.
It is easy to see what Richardson was going for; he wanted to cut the historical epic as a genre down to size. The austere, pretentious, pompous Hollywood-style history lessons that were once a staple -- and a symbol of what in Hollywood passed for class -- were often humorless and self-aware of just how "important" they were. With actors giving solemn, coldly pious performances, the characters they played were placed on pedestals as being morally and intellectually superior to the commoners who served them -- and who sat in the audience watching. TOM JONES' purpose -- if indeed it has a purpose -- is to show that the nobility was no better than the peasant class -- other than maybe having lived in a slightly better quality of squalor.
So be it -- but by the same token, big deal! The tendency of the movies to alternately worship and mock the rich and powerful has always been a given. There isn't much here that hadn't already been made fun of before (and better) in the period parodies made by Danny Kaye or Bob Hope. Or for that matter, the Three Stooges. The best you can give TOM JONES credit for is being a forerunner of the snob-and-slob comedies of later generations; move the story to contemporary Beverly Hills and cast some refugee from "Saturday Night Live" in the Jones part and you'll have a modern day CADDYSHACK. I mean is Hugh Griffith's over-the-top vulgar nobleman really much different from the below-the-belt nouveau riche vulgarians that made up Rodney Dangerfield's film career?
The simple-minded attack on the upper class is nothing new or different, but that wouldn't matter if the film itself were, well, funny. It's story is the standard picaresque adventures of a young rogue's life among his social betters -- jazzed up with all the cheap sexual innuendoes, mistaken identities and misunderstandings that farce requires. For the most part, the film seems to be a desperate attempt to blend the gritty realism of the various European "new waves" with the orchestrated anarchy of the Marx Bros. -- while not succeeding at doing justice to either. It is like a rough cut made up of poorly chosen outtakes; instead of a work of slick, carefully crafted chaos, it is comprised of one poorly staged scene after another, a soundtrack of disconnected voices and a droning narration that always seems to be describing missing material. Impressed with Richardson's use of silent movie gimmicks (title cards, speeded up action, iris fade outs, etc.), the film critics of the time lavished the film with praise for being new and fresh -- by using tricks that even then were old and cliché!
The cast of distinguished British stage notables tend to mug for the camera as if they were in a Jerry Lewis movie. Even Albert Finney in the title role fails to give any real performance, his character is jerked from scene to scene by circumstance rather than by dramatic motivation. Indeed, lovingly photographed as though he were in a spread for a fashion magazine, Finney has never looked so unrelentingly handsome and dashing -- and, yet, been so vacuously lacking in personality. Amoral and callow, there is little reason to care for Jones' fate other than the fact that he is so gosh-darn pretty.
Even granting that 1963 was a remarkably weak year for movies, TOM JONES' winning of the Oscar (among several other prestigious awards) is a puzzlement. These things rarely go to comedies, unless it is perceived that they somehow represent something groundbreaking (like ANNIE HALL or AMERlCAN BEAUTY). Yet, even if TOM JONES was seen as some sort of bold departure from the norm, it didn't stop the Academy from soon going back to form and giving their top prize to such stiff, shallow and self-important historical epics as A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, GANDHI, THE LAST EMPEROR, THE ENGLlSH PATIENT, BRAVEHEART and GLADIATOR -- all of which carry at least some glimmer of high-tone British superiority. So I suppose that even the thinnest patina of British class somehow, in their eyes, raised this low-brow mess to the level of high-brow social commentary. Or worse, art.