Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Free Soul

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

A Free Soul (MGM, 1931) – Director: Clarence Brown. Writers: Becky Gardiner, John Meehan, Philip Dunning, Dorothy Farnum, & John Lynch. Adela Rogers St. John (book). Willard Mack (play, unbilled). Stars: Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Clark Gable, James Gleason, & Lucy Beaumont. B&W, 93 minutes.

MGM, looking for a good, edgy follow-up for Norma Shearer after her big splash in The Divorcee, bought the rights to Willard Mack’s play, which was based on the novel, A Free Soul, by Adela Rogers St. Johns. St. Johns wrote the novel as a sort of memoir of her father, San Francisco attorney Earl Rogers, a pioneer of theatrical legal defense tactics and also a hardcore alcoholic.

To back Shearer’s character, Jan Ashe, Lionel Barrymore was given the role of her father, Stephen Ashe. Clark Gable, resigned by the studio to a new contract, would play the role of gangster Ace Wilfong. James Gleason was given the role of Eddie, Stephen’s Man Friday. Leslie Howard was cast as Jan’s stuffy fiancé, and Lucy Beaumont was given the smaller role of Jan’s grandmother.

Stephen Ashe (Barrymore), noted criminal attorney, adores his free-spirited daughter, Jan (Shearer). And the feeling is mutual. They represent the black sheep in a family of socially notable bluebloods. Jan has recently escaped from the family compound to spend a few days with her father and relax without having to conform to the rules laid down by Grandma Ashe (Beaumont), the head of the family. The first we see of her is a nude silhouette in the shower room as she calls out for something to wear. Shortly later, as they eat breakfast, she tells her father that they’re expected at Grandma’s 80th birthday. It’s an event both are not looking forward to attending.

Stephen is also an alcoholic, relying on his friend and employee Eddie (Gleason) to carry his flask while in court. Stephen is also in the midst of a tough case. His client, a gangster named Ace Wilfong (Gable), is accused of murder. The prosecution’s main piece of evidence against Wilfong is a hat with his initials left behind at the murder scene. It’s the final day in the trial and Ashe needs to discredit the evidence.

While court is in recess, Jan decides to pay her father a visit. While Dad is getting well oiled from a bottle supplied by Eddie, Jan makes the acquaintance of Ace. They exchange small talk as she begins commenting on how he should look going back into the courtroom, picking out a tie for him. Her glances during this scene, combined with some of the most obvious dialogue written, tell us that she’s pretty taken with Ol’ Ace, and that something’s going to happen.

Back in the courtroom, Stephen addresses the jury about that troublesome hat left behind, and with some over-the-top theatrics, he succeeds in discrediting the prosecution’s evidence and winning Ace’s acquittal.

That night, as Grandma, Jan, and the rest of the family, including Jan’s stuffy polo-playing fiancé, Dwight Winthrop (Howard), await the arrival of Stephen, Grandma asks Jan if she heeded the advice not to let her father drink that evening. However, as Stephen drives up to the family manse, it’s obvious that Grandma’s advice went unheeded, for Stephen stumbles out three sheets to the wind. Worse, he’s brought along a guest – none other than the newly-acquitted Ace. The family’s reaction to Stephen and his friend is as expected. Stephen, disgusted, leaves with Ace, and Jan follows. While driving home, Jan tells Ace he’s the most exciting man she’s ever met. Right after she makes this confession, the rival Hardy mob, as if on cue, ambushes Ace in a drive-by, but he escapes. Jan, who’s never been involved in anything remotely like this before, is totally captivated. The drive ends at Ace’s place above his casino, where the couple has champagne for dinner, and also for breakfast the next morning.

As time passes, Jan’s growing fondness for Ace is matched only by her father’s growing fondness for draining whiskey bottles. Jan, for her part, sees Ace as just another fling, but Ace doesn’t see it that way. He, unlike his new girlfriend, plays for keeps. One night, while Stephen is at his casino, drinking and losing money at roulette, Ace approaches him about marrying his daughter. This is Barrymore’s most effective scene in the movie. Until now, he has been seen as somewhat of a loveable drunk, but once Ace makes his intentions known, Stephen turns, shooting daggers into the gangster with his eyes as he tells him, “The only time I hate democracy is when one of you mongrels forget where you belong.” So, it’s no. Stephen, unlike his daughter, knows what Ace really is – a cheap hoodlum involved in activities that can only spell doom for his daughter if she were to hitch her wagon to his sleazy star.

Not that it matters, for Jan and Ace continue to be an item. But reality is beginning to impinge on this idyllic relationship. After getting the short shrift from Stephen, Ace returns to his place to find Jan there in a bathrobe. They begin to argue, during which Ace makes his demand for a long-term commitment clear while Jan’s only response is to tell Ace to cut the gab and make with the sex – the famous scene on the divan.

Soon after Ace left the casino, the cops pull a raid. Stephen, by this time six sheets to the wind, is adding a goodly dose of disorderly to his drunk. The gang, to shut him up, tosses him in Ace’s apartment, where he discovers Jan lounging in a robe. Both father and daughter are shamed by the discovery of each other in this condition. They silently leave and return to their apartment.

Back at their apartment, Jan confronts Stephen with the truth – that each of them has been indulging their worst vices. She offers to give up Ace if Stephen will give up the bottle, and suggests the two of them go on a retreat to cleanse it out of their systems. Stephen, seeing this as his last chance, readily agrees.

At first, all is idyllic, as they romp among the wilds of Yosemite, but not for long. When they return to town, Stephen makes a beeline for the drug store and purchases a bottle. This makes for one of the weirdest scenes in the movie. Jan and Eddie see him approach, bottle in hand. As they rush toward him a train goes by between them. But as the train leaves, there’s no Stephen. Did he simply grab onto one of the car handles a la Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin and cadge a free ride?

At any rate, Jan figures that if Dad is going to return to his vices, then so will she, and returns to Ace. But it’s not the same Ace she left. No, Ace is furious that Jan left him without so much as a “goodbye” months ago, only to return and make him look like a fool. Ace now has ideas, and one of those ideas is that she will marry him – the next day. He does so in manner that leaves her shocked and almost speechless. He intends to take full control of this “free soul.”

Jan tries to ignore Ace and his plans; she’s disappointed in herself for having gotten so involved. But there’s no escape, as the next day Ace returns and repeats his plans, this time with a rejoinder: he threatens to kidnap her if it comes to that. As they argue, old fiancé Dwight come in and confronts Ace. Ace brushes him off, telling Dwight, “She lost her Ritz months ago. She came to my place and stayed there.” In other words, Jan is used goods. Wilfong leaves on the note that if Jan doesn’t go along with the wedding, he’ll start spreading rumors about Jan’s sexual proclivity, which will ruin her reputation.

Dwight is gobsmacked. What’s a boy in love to do? Simple, he goes to Ace’s casino and guns the gangster down in cold blood. Then, in true melodramatic fashion, he calls the police and tells them exactly what he just did: he shot Ace over a gambling debt.

On trial for first-degree murder, Dwight has as much chance as a snowball in hell. Only a first-rate lawyer could spring him. So guess who now shows up? That’s right, Stephen returns from the society of the alcoholic hobos, or wherever he was, to make what for him will be his last hurrah.

Stephen declares the murder is a case of temporary insanity. He states that it is not Dwight who should be on trial, but he himself, as Jan’s father, for if he had not allowed Jan to see Ace to begin with, the whole tragic affair could have been prevented. After calling Jan to the witness stand, Stephen, impassioned in his defense, and what he must ask, suffers a heart attack and dies in Jan’s arms. The jury finds Dwight innocent, and he and Jan leave for New York, where they plan to pick up their lives.

Truth be told, A Free Soul isn’t a very good movie, which for some cinephiles, is akin to blasphemy. The problem lies with the writing and the plain fact that the movie only becomes interesting when Gable is in the frame.

The fame of A Free Soul comes from its shock value, especially when cited in documentaries about the Pre-Code era. When a clip from the movie is shown, it’s always the same clip, that of Norma Shearer reclining on a divan and exhorting Clark Gable to “C'mon, put ‘em around me.” Shocking? Yes, especially when taken out of the context of the movie. Watch the rest of the movie and it becomes obvious it’s another Shearer melodrama wherein Norma gets mixed up with some pretty bad eggs and has to figure a way out, if she can. From some of the almost see-through gowns Adrian designed for her, she could almost be called “Norma Sheerer.”

Although she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, this is not one of Shearer’s better performances. She seems to be working hard at being sexy and wanton, something that came rather naturally to actresses such as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow. She also lets a few of her silent movie mannerisms, especially the art of over-gesticulating, stand out quite noticeably. Mordaunt Hall, in his review for The New York Times, perhaps said it best: “Miss Shearer, who looks as captivating as ever, is called upon to act a part which is quite unsuited to her intelligent type of beauty.”

It also doesn’t help that her co-star is Lionel Barrymore, one of the greatest scene-stealers to ever live. Lionel pulls out all the stops, especially in the last courtroom scene and won the Best Actor Oscar for what was essentially one of the hammiest performances ever captured on film, especially given the awful dialogue he has to recite.

Clark Gable also manages to outshine Norma, though he’s still reduced to playing his usual (for the times) one-note heavy. Still, he does make quite an impression, as noted before, the film becomes interesting only when he’s on screen, and this is the film that catapulted him into stardom. Leslie Howard is all but invisible as the effete fiancé, and the best performance is that of James Gleason as Barrymore’s confidant-assistant-enabler.

The problem with the film is its reliance on shock value and theatrics rather than solid plotlines. The scene in the courthouse at Ace’s trial is a good example. Stephen is holding the hat police found at the scene of the crime. He muses over the initials in the hat, going over a couple of possible names before stopping and conceding that it could well belong to Ace Wilfong. 

There is only one way to be sure, he says, and calls Ace up to try on the hat. As Ace places the topper on his head, it’s evident that the hat is two sizes too small and the courtroom breaks out in laughter as Stephen drives his point home to the jury.

This scene came to me immediately when I was watching the O.J. Simpson trial. Johnnie Cochran practically had Simpson acquitted then and there when he asked the defendant to try on the gloves supposedly used by the murderer. As Simpson tried to wiggle his hands into the gloves, it was apparent that they were too small, and Johnny uttered that famous phrase, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” I have always wondered if Cochran got that line of defense from A Free Soul.

The descent into melodrama is all too frequent, as witnessed later by the scene where Jan and Stephen go on a retreat to get their vices out of their systems. Stephen’s sudden lapse back to the bottle brings about his total disappearance, leaving his daughter to her own devices, and we know where this is going. Interestingly, Jan taps into the modern psyche when, in excusing Stephen’s alcoholism, says, "Drinking is just a disease with him." And anyone who at this juncture thinks we’ve seen the last of Stephen is suffering from self-delusion, for the final descent into pure melodrama is yet to come.

After Dwight shoots Ace in cold blood and goes on trial, it looks like curtains for him. Jan scours the city for a lawyer to defend him. As the trial proceeds and Dwight is looking more and more guilty, Stephen suddenly shows up to take over Dwight’s defense, without any preparation at all, mind you. He puts Jan on the witness stand, where she confesses all about her relationship with Ace and of his threats just before the shooting. Stephen them sums up by telling the jury that Dwight is not the murderer, but himself. Yes, he is the real murderer for having neglected his daughter. And just as he finishes, right on cue, he drops dead. The jury is so moved they acquit Dwight, who goes on, presumably, to live happily ever after with Jan. It’s one of the most preposterous endings in the history of movies, but, strangely enough, one that fits with the morality of the day. Jan strayed from the moral path by getting involved with Ace to the extent she did and now must pay for it until she is sufficiently punished. To save Dwight, Stephen must sacrifice his daughter, for the moral code of the day dictated the ruin of any woman who not only slept with a man before marriage, but also practically lived with him. This is why Ace’s threats to out this behavior on her part were so daunting.

Barrymore’s final speech lasted for 14 minutes. Shearer, according to director Clarence Brown, played “bedroom politics” by complaining about the final scene to her husband, Irving Thalberg, and the fact that both she and Gable fade into the deep background during the scene. (Of course, Gable’s character is no longer with us, so I don’t know how that could have been managed, except by using a flashback.) Thalberg turned her suggestion down and kept the scene as it was shot, ensuring Barrymore the Oscar.

The film did have its strengths, which lie entirely in the hands of director Brown. His use of the camera and fast editing move the film along nicely, especially since this is a film that could easily become trapped in its own melodrama. Brown brings out the naiveté in Jan, who mistakes it for freedom and sophistication. One of the best scenes is when Gable’s henchman, Slouch (Brophy) explains the drive-by attempt on Ace’s life to Jan:

Well, the mug that was rubbed out, Miss, was a snooper of the chief’s running with the Hardy mob, slipping us the lowdown. Hardy gets hep to it and he puts the rat on the spot. They nab the boss’s 'kelly' and plants it. Your old man jaws him out and the Hardy mob grabs the typewriters and the ukeleles.”

Jan’s confused reaction is priceless, and Brown lingers on it just long enough to drive the point home.

And in the scene at Ace’s where Stephen confronts Jan, Brown uses a lingering shot of Jan noticing that the flowers on the table have decayed to the point where they crumble in her hand. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, as if seeing herself for the first time. She then spots Stephen in the mirror as he downs another drink, and the look on her face tells us that the game is up for her. It’s a beautiful look into her thought process without any dialogue whatsoever, a perfect illumination of the phrase that a picture is worth a thousand words.

The only problem is there weren’t enough of them.


The film was a smash at the box office, turning a final profit of $244,000. It was also voted “One of the Ten Best Pictures of 1931” in a poll by Film Daily.

A Free Soul was remade by MGM in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything with Elizabeth Taylor in Shearer’s role, Fernando Lamas in Gable’s role, and William Powell in Barrymore’s role.

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