Instead of taking the much needed step of clearing something off my DVR tonight, I watched A Free Soul (1931) on DVD. Lionel Barrymore picked up his Best Actor Oscar here for playing an alcoholic lawyer who gets a young, sans mustache, Clark Gable off on a murder rap. The star, Norma Shearer, drives all the action here, as devoted daughter to Barrymore but at the same time enamored of Gable's Ace Wilfong, who while no murderer, is a criminal at the head of a gambling ring.
Shearer's Jan Ashe is a sophisticated young woman of proper upbringing who likes to have a good time. She and her father, Stephen (Barrymore) are the black sheep of the upper crust Ashe family, though at the start Jan seems to have their acceptance. There's no doubt that the family has had enough of Stephen Ashe, who arrives before them stumbling drunk as they had all pretty much expected. Key to Ashe's stumbling arrival in this early scene is his companion, Wilfong.
There is a lot of heat here between Jan and Ace, one could easily watch without prior knowledge and conclude A Free Soul is a pre-code film, which of course it is. While Norma Shearer received a Best Actress nomination for her role, I honestly think the two men in her life stole the show from her here. Barrymore and Gable were their characters and I believed every second of them, while Jan Ashe came off as Norma Shearer acting like I'd expect her to act in public and running through a roll call of emotions when with either of the men in private.
Leslie Howard also has a major part here, though he doesn't figure too much until the end of the picture. Beloved character actor James Gleason is excellent as Eddie, playing what I guess would best be called Stephen Ashe's sidekick. I'm actually not too clear as to whether Eddie actually held a position of some sort under Ashe, or if his only purpose was to carry around a bottle of booze in each of his back pockets for Stephen Ashe. If you're paying attention you get to see another fun character actor as part of Ace Wilfong's crew, Edward Brophy. He's the one who spits out all of the hip lingo that sails over Jan's head (and ours) before calling her baby and earning a brief stare-down from Miss Shearer.
In closing, without giving too much away, there's a moment near the end of the film which really shocked me and then A Free Soul concludes with Lionel Barrymore's Oscar scene. I mean, no doubt, this is where he cements the award.
The IMDb crowd doesn't love A Free Soul, which surprised me a little. It has some strengths. Shearer's performance, while not exactly screaming with skill, does ooze sex appeal, and combined with her aggressive behavior, especially in her early pursuit of Wilfong, does elevate the movie by turning it into a feminist film landmark. Also there are a lot of class issues explored here, though more under the surface than overtly. Stephen Ashe angers his entire family by bringing around trash like Ace Wilfong. It's okay to Stephen as he and Ace are just palling around. But the idea of Ace with his daughter infuriates Stephen and he quickly delivers some really stinging lines. Typically you'd expect some shallow irony to develop as the daughter goes with Ace to spite her father. But no, Shearer's Jan loves her father and wouldn't dream of hurting him. Instead, she's rebelling against the same societal expectations as Stephen was by associating with Ace.
What's your take on A Free Soul? Feel free to share below.