“A FREE SOUL” (1931) Review
A good deal of time has passed since I last saw a movie released during the Hollywood era known as Pre-Code. Just recently, one movie caught my attention, while watching a documentary about the era on YOU TUBE. Intrigued, I found myself watching the 1931 film, “A FREE SOUL”.
This 1931 movie became famous for a good number of reasons. It marked leading lady Norma Shearer’s first role, following her Oscar winning performance in “THE DIVORCEE” and solidified her reputation for starring in provocative films about modern women in the early 1930s. The movie not only proved to be the first time American film audiences took notice of future star Clark Gable, it also marked the first time that the latter would co-star with Leslie Howard. The two actors reunited some eight years later in the 1939 Oscar winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. “A FREE SOUL” also became famous for a scene that featured a monologue from Lionel Barrymore that may have led to the actor’s Best Actor Academy Award.
Adapted from co-writer Adela Rogers St. Johns’ novel and Willard Mack’s play, “A FREE SOUL” told the story about the relationship between an alcoholic San Francisco defense attorney and his free-spirited daughter. When Stephen Ashe successfully defends mobster Ace Wilfong from a murder charge, he inadvertently introduces the latter to his daughter Jan. Although the Ashe family expects Jan to marry the also well-born Dwight Winthrop, she becomes romantically involved with Wilfong. The affair comes to an abrupt end when Ashe learns about it from a lovesick Wilfong. Disgusted over his daughter’s affair with the gangster, Ashe makes her promise to end it, and he promises to stop drinking. Jan, Ashe and the latter’s assistant named Eddie; spend a long vacation in the Sierra Nevadas. But Ashe, still longing for alcohol abandons Jan and Eddie at a small town in search for booze. And when Jan returns to San Francisco, she finds herself abandoned by the Ashe family and faced with an angry Wilfong, who demands that she marries him.
I really did not know what to expect of “A FREE SOUL”. Despite the hulaballoo over Pre-Code films during the past two decades, I have found some of them a bit overrated. Happily, I cannot say the same about “A FREE SOUL”. Some have said that the plot was a loose adaptation on the life and career of Adela Rogers St. John’s alcoholic father, Earl Rogers. It was probably a very loose adaptation, since I doubt that St. John ever dated a gangster. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I enjoyed this movie a lot. Well . . . most of it. I have one or two quibbles about the film. I found some of the performances in the movie a bit theatrical. Although Lionel Barrymore, Norma Shearer and Clark Gable all gave first-rate performances, there were moments when they came off as a bit theatrical . . . or seemed unable to shake the pantomime style of the silent era. Only Leslie Howard and James Gleason managed to avoid this. And there was also that brief moment in the movie’s first scene in which Stephen Ashe was handing Jan her lingerie, while she dressed in another room. Huh. Were director Clarence Brown and the screenwriters trying to be provocative? Or did interactions between St. John and Rogers actually happened? Personally, I found it odd and a touch incestuous. I really wish producer Thalberg had ordered it cut or altered.
There is one major aspect of “A FREE SOUL” that truly bothered me. I got the feeling that both Stephen and Jan Ashe were being punished for their actions in this film. Ashe’s alcoholism was treated as some kind of criminal misdemeanor or social affrontery, instead of the disease that it truly was. The screenplay’s treatment of the Jan Ashe character really annoyed me. At first the movie allowed her to revel in her sexuality, portraying her as a sexual and free-spirited woman. But apparently, sexual and free-spirited women – especially those from among San Francisco’s high society – are not allowed to be that. The screenplay made sure to punish Jan for her approach to life by allowing her to have a disastrous affair with a gangster. In the end, she has become a more somber and “respectable” woman who ends up married to the very respectable Dwight Winthrop. So much for the independent woman of the Pre-Code Era.
Despite these drawbacks, I must admit that “A FREE SOUL” is good melodrama. Screenwriters Adela Rogers St. John, Becky Gardiner, Willard Mack and John Meehan created a fascinating tale of sex, crime, family conflict and alcoholism. I may have been a little upset at how the movie treated Ashe’s alcoholism as some kind of social disease at times, I must admit that I was impressed by how the movie also showed the level of his decline in scenes that featured his inability to overcome his alcoholism during the Ashes’ vacation and Jan’s discovery of him inside a seedy flophouse back in San Francisco. And Norma Shearer really strut her stuff in scenes that featured Jan’s sexual desire for Wilfong. I was amazed at how she made it all look fluid and natural, despite a few scenes in which she clung to silent pantomime. The screenwriters did an excellent job in allowing the plot to flow naturally. But they were not the only ones responsible for the movie’s natural flow. I also have to give credit to director Clarence Brown for maintaining the film’s steady pace . . . and preventing me from falling asleep out of sheer boredom. Many films from the early 1930s, especially those from MGM, tend to come off as filmed plays. Thankfully, I could never accuse “A FREE SOUL” of being one.
“A FREE SOUL”, like any other film is not perfect. It had its flaws. But I believe that a first-rate narrative, solid acting from an excellent cast led by Norma Shearer and Oscar winner Lionel Barrymore, and well-paced direction from Clarence Brown allowed the movie to hold up very well after eighty-odd years.
Filed under: Movie Review | Tagged: clarence brown, clark gable, early 20th century, great depression, james gleason, leslie howard, lionel barrymore, literary, movies, norma shearer, old hollywood, politics, pre-code, travel |