Friday, February 13, 2009

A Free Soul directed by Clarence Brown (starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard)

A Free Soul (1931). Screenplay by Becky Gardiner (dialogue continuity by John Meehan) from the play by Willard Mack based on the novel A Free Soul by Adela Rogers St. Johns.

Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) may have been raised by her alcoholic lawyer father Stephen (Lionel Barrymore, a personal favorite) to be A Free Soul — much to the detriment of his relationship with his wealthy family — but that didn't mean he wanted her to hook up with his latest client, gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable); Stephen just defended him successfully on a murder charge.

Like any father, he'd rather she marry the more dependable (and unbelievably loyal) Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard). But Jan finds fiery Ace much more appealing than the bland Dwight, and Dwight loves her enough to let her go (even though he finally got her to accept his proposal after 73 tries). Stephen tries to make a pact with Jan that they both quit their vices, but of course it's not so easy for either of them, and the result is a downward spiral leading to the deaths of two people.

A Free Soul is one of the films (Strangers May Kiss is another) given a great deal of coverage in Mick LaSalle's book on pre-Code actresses, Complicated Women. According to LaSalle, "A Free Soul is a movie about lust. Jan ... lusts for her gangster lover, just as her alcoholic father ... lusts for a drink, and neither has any willpower."

Both Shearer and Barrymore were nominated for Academy Awards, along with director Clarence Brown. The terrific Barrymore won, though his performance in this film is no better than others I've seen him in. By most accounts, it was due to his captivating 14-minute monologue at the conclusion of the film — an uninterrupted take that required the splicing of film from two cameras (a reel only holds 10 minutes' worth) and got A Free Soul included in the Guinness Book of World Records.

But Shearer is no slouch here, either, giving one of the sexually charged performances that have made her a favorite of fans of pre-Code cinema. Shearer's silent-film acting may be distracting to some, with her intense facial expressions and often extreme poses (watch out for those elbows, cocked and ready to fire), but it's a skill that allows her to act with more than words, and Jan Ashe is a woman who is definitely more interested in talking with her body than with her larynx. A Free Soul turns the tables on the normally accepted male–female roles. He wants to talk about the relationship, but she brushes him off with, "Oh, dear, he wants to talk some more."

Shearer heats up the screen when she's with Gable (her kind of blatant sexiness was even rare then) and is reluctantly restrained when with Howard. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is less than memorable. Perhaps the consequences and conclusion were simply too predictable to this jaded moviegoer, but I think most viewers will primarily remember the gown Shearer wears through most of the first half of A Free Soul. It alone is enough to elicit a certain level of shock (especially when considering the 1931 release date), in that is leaves very little of Norma to the imagination, showcasing her bralessness along practically every other facet of her figure.

Still, it's fascinating that a movie like A Free Soul that is almost 80 years old still has the ability to astound audiences with its ideas and its fashions — ideas that we in the 21st century can hardly get our heads around, and fashions that no big star of today would outside of a particularly meaty Oscar-bait role. (Five years later, Shearer and Howard would reunite as Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet — though both obviously too old for the roles — and Gable and Howard would compete for the love of another free-thinking woman eight years later in Gone with the Wind.)

Historically significant films are not always the most entertaining, but any movie fan who wants to be educated about pre-Code films, or who are simply fans of the stars, will want to take time out for this second Forbidden Hollywood set from the TCM Archives. The three-disc set also includes The Divorcee (the movie that won Shearer her Oscar), Three on a Match (with Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, and Joan Blondell), Female (starring Ruth Chatterton), and Night Nurse (with Gable, Blondell, and Barbara Stanwyck).


Anonymous said...

Hi Craig, enjoyed your review. I saw this film a few months ago, after also reading about it in Mick LaSalle's book, and was impressed by how daring it is, as you say. I remember Lionel Barrymore's performance as being gloriously over the top in this one - and also liked Shearer's more understated performance. Judy

Anonymous said...

I love Clark Gable in these early pre-code films playing the bad guy. He was so good at it. Not to say that he didn't play a wonderful hero throughout his career, but I would have liked to have seen him play a few villain roles after he got big.

Also, I wanted to let you know that you're one of the blogs I'm passing the Premio Dardos award to.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the award, Katie. I'll give some consideration to whom I'd like to recognize.

The studio system was a big wet blanket when it came to interesting roles for their stars. It also reminds me of Cary Grant's character in Suspicion: they couldn't let Cary Grant (the image more than the person, probably) be a murderer!

Rupert Alistair said...

Clark, I agree with you about the studio's attitude toward a actor's image. It's one thing if they had him or her date someone to project a certain image (Young Rooney/Garland touring the east coast to promote respective films)but to diminish the power of a film to protect a personality? I don't think so. Great post.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks, Alistair.

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