A FREE SOUL
(director: Clarence Brown; screenwriters: Becky Gardiner/John Meehan/from the novel and play by Adela Rogers St. Johns; cinematographer: William H. Daniels; editor: Hugh Wynn; music: William Axt; cast: Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), James Gleason (Eddie), Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe), George Irving (District Attorney); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Thalberg; MGM; 1931)
“Despite the talented cast, this one ends up looking preposterous.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Sexually charged pre-Code morality-play melodrama that has badly dated. It’s based on the novel and play by Adela Rogers St. Johns, who based it on her father. Lionel Barrymore delivered a 14-minute courtroom speech at the climax which helped him snag the Oscar for Best Actor. It was Clark Gable’s first starring role under his new MGM contract, and in his tough guy role he knocks around sexy star Norma Shearer, wife of producer Irving Thalberg, and tells her to “take it and like it.” Director Clarence Brown (“Chained”/”Ah, Wilderness!”/”The Gorgeous Hussy”) keeps it stagebound, but it was daring for its day. Despite the talented cast, this one ends up looking preposterous. It was remade by MGM in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything, with Elizabeth Taylor, Fernando Lamas and William Powell.
Famed San Francisco criminal lawyer Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) is divorced, a boozer and comes from a society family. The brilliant but flawed lawyer lives with his pretty free-spirited daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), in a mutual admiration relationship. Stephen, through some lawyer tricks, wins the acquittal of nonchalant gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) in his murder trial. Eddie (James Gleason) is Stephen’s assistant, who sneaks in his back pocket the bottle of liquor for the boss to drink on the sly at the courtroom. Drunk after the victory, the lawyer foolishly invites Ace to attend an evening family birthday celebration at his snobby mother’s (Lucy Beaumont) house. Jan also attends, and falls madly in love with the hunky gangster. The headstrong Jan resents her family’s and her square fiancé’s, Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), bad reaction to Ace and leaves the party with him. On the way, Ace’s car is sprayed by gunfire from a rival gang. Jan only finds this exciting, and they begin a serious romance. Stephen tries unsuccessfully to break them up after Ace asks him for permission to marry his daughter. Realizing they are drifting apart, both father and daughter try to change their bad habits; but he can’t stop drinking and when she leaves Ace–the thug turns violent and uses force to get her to marry him. Jan rejects the marriage proposal and in fear for her life goes to Dwight for help, and he responds by killing Ace in his gambling place after being threatened by him when he sees the thug at her apartment. At the trial, the noble Dwight doesn’t want to drag Jan’s name through the mud and therefore confesses to the murder without defending himself. Stephen sobers up to defend Dwight at the trial and argues that this was a case of temporary insanity and blames the shooting on himself because he was a bad father introducing his daughter to the thug and not able to stop the romance. The lurid melodrama ends on an implausible note, as Stephen has a heart attack and dies in his daughter’s arms after his vigorous defense, the jury finds Dwight innocent and Dwight and Jan are happily off to New York for their honeymoon.
The public ate it up; the film made Gable a star, Shearer remained immensely popular and the hammy Barrymore got his one and only Oscar. It was hard for me to see what the Depression-era audience saw in this set-piece studio heavy-handed melodrama, that seemed ungainly, overacted, unbelievable and awkward.
REVIEWED ON 3/6/2008 GRADE: C https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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