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.
diane byrnes says
Just love “A Free Soul”. I always try to imagine what my reaction would
be if I was sitting in a cinema around 1931 – and I would have been
blown away. I don’t care about the snooty people that think Norma
Shearer got a free ride, I like her just as much as I do Joan Crawford
and that’s a lot!! She just sizzles with Clark Gable. And Lionel Barrymore,
in his end monologue, I know it is probably over the top acting but I am
always moved and do not wonder that he won the A.A. for his performance.
Leslie Howard never does much for me and it is easy to see why Gable’s
Cliff Aliperti says
Wow, this post is an oldie! I’m not quite sure I’ve watched this one since I posted but if I recall anything it is Lionel’s speech. He can go over-the-top but he can also be quite intense when given reams of solid dialogue to work which, as I agree with you, is the case here. My memories here are of Norma lounging with Gable with all the sizzle you mention and Lionel stealing the movie at the end.
S Lopez Metta Bexar says
I’ve been binging on Lionel Barrymore films for a few weeks now (while I’m working on an article or two on his influence on perceptions of disability circa WWII, I’m all about watching everything else!), and between “America” and “A Free Soul” I’m blown away by his work! I’ve always (since about 9) loved his brother, but watching Lionel was really revealing. I actually put together a list of films for my boss (a psych prof) in which LB plays a father of some type with a weird relationship with his daughter.
“A Free Soul” was really astonishing for me throughout–some of the actions (lots of violence! Dad handing kid negligee! Slaps dad! Alcohol rampant! Dad dumped on the floor in gangster’s bedroom where daughter is! Dad in grimy saloon!) seemed really modern. I paid close attention to the small moments in LB’s performance, both his tics like the inevitable hair-mussing and the really excellent use of his hands as he faces some horribly difficult choices. It’s interesting to think what film criticism would have been like had critics had DVDs and pause/rewind.
Overall, I think there’s some dated material there, mostly the gangster stereotypes, but oddly Shearer I thought annoying in exactly the right privileged way, while Barrymore’s gradual realization of what he wrought while trying himself to be free from his family and raise a ‘free soul’ is a wonder. Around this same time John demonstrated another dad/daughter wrecked relationship in A Bill of Divorcement, though that ends so much more happily!
Thanks for all!
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sam. It’s been over seven years since I posted this now, and I’ve watched it again once or twice since my reply to Diane just above: I enjoyed it more than I expected when I returned. I wanted to point you to my Lionel Barrymore tag, which will list all of the Lionel-related posts and reviews on the site. Based on what you’re looking for, I’d recommend The Valley of Decision (1945) and A Family Affair (1937) – the latter is actually the first of the Hardy family movies (Lewis Stone takes over for Lionel beginning in the next one) and is interesting in that includes a character (eldest daughter) who’s written out of the series after just this first entry. I also love him as the patriarch in Sweepings (1933), but the daughter gets the short-shrift there in favor of his disappointing sons. Thanks again for the meaty comment!