Tom Jones, 1963

A silent film-inspired, quick edit, slapstick prologue punctuated by explicative intertitles and a sprightly harpsichord accompaniment sets the irreverent, whimsical tone for Tony Richardson’s freeverse adaptation of Henry Fielding’s beloved eighteenth century novel, Tom Jones, transforming the beloved comedy of manners satire as a giddy fusion of burlesque and Keystone Kops epic adventure. Unfolding as a broad, sweeping chronicle of the handsome and roguish Tom Jones’ (Albert Finney) remarkable journey from his humble origins as an abandoned infant of nebulous parentage at the home of the good-natured Squire Allworthy (George Devine) and his sister Bridget (Rachel Kempson), to his life of privilege as the ward of the unmarried country gentleman, to his youthful indiscretions with the women around town (as well as along the long and winding road to London), to his tortuous romantic pursuit of the beautiful Sophie (Susannah York), the virginal daughter of the boorish and opportunistic Squire Western (Hugh Griffith), and finally, to the coincidental pursuit of uncovering his true identity, the film eschews the conventional framework of a traditional period piece (or more precisely, a highbrow British production of one) to create a bawdy satire with innovative touches that have stretched the bounds (if not altogether redefined) the possibilities for modern adaptations of classical literature. By idiosyncratic framing Tom Jones’ picaresque adventure through an amalgam of traditional film comedy conventions, Richardson creates an inspired duality that paradoxically underscores the film’s conventionality even as it subverts it: from the breaking of fourth wall address (and symbolically, the distance to the spectator), to integrating innovative wipe cuts that consciously introduces an element of anachronism (and consequently, reinforces its contemporaneity), to sardonic, tongue in cheek narration (a strategy that anticipates John Hurt’s wry commentary in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), to self-referential parody (creating an underlying lightness and humor that Michael Winterbottom’s subsequently incorporates to good effect in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story).

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