Though "Joseph Andrews" is sometimes tedious and lacks the robust gluttony that helped win director Tony Richardson an Oscar for "Tom Jones," it remains a very funny movie, at moments offering up subtle slapstick humor in the Woody Allen vein.
Britain circa 1740 was a nation of coverups: White powder makeup hid the ravages of smallpox; dainty social grace pretended away the private lusts of the ruling class; and popular novels like "Pamela," the tale of a prudish girl whose virtue was rewarded with a wedding ring, somehow justified marriage of the marketplace.
Armed with only a pen, Henry Fielding took on hypocritical literature such as "Pamela" and wrote "Shamela," in which he portrayed the heroine as morally mealy-mouthed, even prurient. The next year, in "Joseph Andrews," he mocked the classical restraints governing British society. The novel was a parody of epic proportion, and Fielding called it a comic epic in prose.
Whether or not Tony Richardson meant to parody the parody, he has done so, going Fielding one step further, "Joseph Andrews" on film is full of overblown comic device.
While Ann-Margret as Lady Booby waves her endowments before innocent footman Joseph Andrews (24-year-old "Equua" star Peter Firth) in the mineral bath, her porcine husband, Lord Booby (Peter Bull), drowns, his gouty foot the last appendage to sink. Somehow, through all manner of amorous overture by milady, her attendant Mrs. Slipslop (Beryl Reid) and assorted trollops, Joseph manages to remain true to his sweetheart, Fanny Goodwill, played by Natalie Ogle, a youhg British actress who has been likened to a cherubic Mary Pickford.
As the gypsy peddler, Jim Dale appears so often to save the day, like Superman, that you come to expect him to weigh in just in time, as he does in rescuing, in turn, Joseph, Fanny and later, Parson Adams' drowning son. At which point, a jovial Michael Hordern as the parson exclaims, "Deus ex machina !" just to remind us how clever the director thinks he is.
Richardson, the ex-husband of Vanessa Redgrave, has directed such films as "A Taste of Honey," "The Loved One" and "Charge of the Light Brigade." In "Joseph Andrews" he has assembled a predominantly British cast (which also includes Sir John Gielgud at the country doctor and Ronald Pickup as Lady Booby's former lover) to mock the era in costume. Characters sport pink wigs; women are thrust up and out like uncomfortable Playboy bunnies.
In this contex, Firth is adequately naive, Ogle the quintessence of virtue and Ann-Margret her usual, ample self.