And we find ourselves, for the fourth time*, with a lavish period epic capturing the attention of the audiences while the Oscars said “No, we prefer this quaint comedy.” This wouldn’t feel odd if it weren’t for the comedy angle of it all… I’d be able to say “It appears sword-and-sandal, sometimes-biblical epics were the Marvel movies of the 50s and early 60s, audiences loved ’em but the Oscars felt a need to be more serious,” but the Best Pictures they’re choosing are so light and fluffy, not what we’d consider Serious Oscar Movies now.
*Or fifth, depending on how funny you found All About Eve.
And still they said “Look we’ll give your big box office flick a nomination, but for the big prize, we’re thinking…”
And The Oscar Goes To…
If Tom Jones has a thesis statement, it’s this line from the narrator: “Heroes, whatever high ideas we may have of them, are mortal and not divine. We are all as God made us, and many of us much worse.”
It’s Not Unusual for the Oscars to lean to a period pic, but they usually go for something less… deliberately goofy. Tom Jones is born a foundling, a baby abandoned in the bed of wealthy Squire Allworthy (get it? He’s ALL WORTHY), who Allworthy chooses to raise as his adopted son after kicking Tom’s supposed parents out of town. Tom grows into a young Albert Finney, and is loved by all in town except his tutors and his jealous, scheming, asshole adopted cousin Blifil (B-movie mainstay David Warner). Of everyone in the Green, Green Grass of Home, Tom’s heart most belongs to the girl next door… or rather in the neighbouring estate… Sophie Weston. She’s A Lady alright, whoa-oh-oh she’s a lady, but the two are kept apart by circumstance, Blifil’s schemes, and Tom’s inability to keep away from any maiden who gives him a come-hither “Love Me Tonight” look. Yeah, being raised in wealth but without the expectations of “legitimate birth,” Tom likes to party, and after saying “What’s New Pussycat” to the local hussy one too many times, Tom’s enemies succeed in getting him kicked to the curb, so that Sophie’s extremely prissy aunt can try to marry her to Blifil. Seriously, she’s the worst, she makes ultra-judgemental Angela from The Office look like horny jail lifer Delilah (comma Samson and).
The narrator explains, “To those who find our hero’s behavior startling, the answer is simple: Tom had always thought that any woman was better than none.” Yeah, well, it does Tom no favours, because while Sophie goes on the run to avoid marriage to the loathable Blifil, every time she and Tom nearly cross paths he’s paused his endless pining for Sophie to be Thunderballs deep in some other woman, and Sophie once again questions her fondness for him.
Anyhoo the last ten minutes get busy, as there’s a false murder accusation, some revelations about Tom’s true parentage, and some rushing to get us to a happy ending, where we close the film on a (cover of) Kiss (by Prince), but what I really want to get into is the weird tone of the whole thing. There are false accusations that ruin lives, including a framing for murder and robbery, there are true and vile villains, Sophie’s boorish father and horrid aunt are very terrible in opposite ways, there’s a hunting sequence that would be more at home in Apocalypse Now or The Wicker Man*, Sophie finds a London benefactor who’s so eager to marry her off to have Tom all to herself she actually says to a suitor of Sophie’s “Are you frightened by the word ‘rape,'” dark, dark stuff is happening, but everything is played as this light, goofy comedy. The score, the performances, the sped-up chase sequences, actors mugging to or even speaking right to camera, everything, literally every moment, is being played like an episode of Benny Hill no matter how dark the actual plot has gotten. The comedy can fall flat when you have this kind of tonal dissonance happening, and since they’re all-in on this being a comedy, there isn’t much else there.
Also they denied me way too much comeuppance. There were five enemies of Tom calling for a smack in the final sequence but they only implied comeuppance for two of them. I don’t care for that.
*I wanted to say Midsommar to sell how disturbing it got, but I haven’t actually seen Midsommar, that might not be accurate, it might be disturbing in a different way.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It comes 74th, right above Gigi. Yeah, lumping those two together makes sense to me.
What’s Good, Hays Code? Look there’s a lot of premarital whatnot happening, but Tom and a lady he’s rescued from a scumbag soldier (Julian Glover, who would later sell out Indiana Jones to the Nazis and the Seven Kingdoms to the Lannisters) share a meal of seafood and it is, without exaggeration, the horniest sequence I’ve seen in this entire project so far.
But the audiences preferred a different Sexbomb.
The Box Office Champ
Ah yes, Elizabeth Taylor’s costume epic, one of the earliest Notoriously Troubled Productions–
You know what no.
No no-no, no, no, hell no, NO. NO. I spent half the 50s in sword-and-sandal epics. I have already done two hours of Samson and Delilah, five total hours of Roman centurions finding Jesus, four hours on Moses’ entire life story, two and half hours on Ben-Hur getting his revenge and a third hour watching him learn that the real just desserts is the love of Jesus Christ, three hours on Spartacus starting and losing a slave rebellion, and… and this is the key part… and I already watched a Cleopatra movie with the exact same story, only half the length and apparently better.
So you know what, no. I’ve done my time, I have done my time, I am not sinking four hours into the worse Cleopatra movie. I watched Cleopatra, I do not need to watch Zack Snyder’s Cleopatra.
And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A low 62% with critics, and a mere 69(nice)% with audiences. I feel I’ve made the right call here.
What’s Good, Hays Code? Honestly don’t know if this was or even could have been sexier than Claudette Colbert’s version while still being Code-approved.
Other Events in Film
Okay, Dan, we know something major happened in 1963, a certain special someone graced screens for the first time, and you want to talk about it, but this is a film history blog series, not British TV blog series, so… keep it in your pants.
- Directly behind Cleopatra at the box office was the epic How the West Was Won.
- Obviously Cleopatra topped the box office but it still lost money, the only time the year’s top grosser was also cinema’s biggest box office disaster, nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox and ruining careers.
- Collecting the biggest all-star cast for a comedy was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
- The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine reunited for Irma la Douce.
- Oscar for Best Actor in 1963 went to Sidney Poitier, the first black person to win Best Actor. First black Best Lead Actress took… a while longer. Oscars, you so white.
- Recently split from Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis released The Nutty Professor.
- With the UK premiere having already happened, Dr. No brought James Bond to America, and there was no going back.
- Hard to discuss The Birds without getting into Hitchcock’s mistreatment of its star, so… let’s just mention it and keep going.
- Over at Disney, King Arthur went kid-friendly in The Sword and the Stone.
There. Didn’t even mention any adventures through time and space with– oh. Oops.
Next Page: Battling Musicals