Stephen Ashe, an upper class alcoholic defense attourney, successfully defends local mobster Ace Wilfong in a murder case. After his daughter Jan Ashe breaks her engagement to polo player Dwight Winthrop and starts an affair with Wilfong, she finds that the liason is not easily severed when she wants out. Winthrop earns Miss Ashe's true affections by killing Wilfong to break his grip on her. Now the question is, can Stephen Ashe save Winthrop with an impassioned defense speech to the jury?
Norma Shearer ... Jan Ashe
Leslie Howard ... Dwight Winthrop
Lionel Barrymore ... Stephen Ashe
James Gleason ... Eddie
Clark Gable ... Ace Wilfong
Lucy Beaumont ... Grandma Ashe
Like almost all of the movies released in the 30s, A FREE SOUL has become little more than soap-opera, but at the time, the inclusion of violence against the leading lady who in turn was the one who initiated a sexual tryst with a man from the wrong side of the tracks was ground-breaking, and Norma Shearer, the quintessential Modern Woman thanks to her portrayals of headstrong, complicated women, was up for the challenge.
She plays Jan Ashe, a young woman who falls for her father Stephen Ashe's client Ace Wilfong and breaks her engagement to Dwight Winthrop, but soon finds out that Ace is a dangerous man. Gable, playing Ace with his preternaturally masculine energy which hasn't been matched since (although Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell are clearly up for the challenge), macho's Shearer in every scene he shares with her and walks away with the entire movie. There is no one else you can think of in this movie -- certainly not the usually quiet, bland Leslie Howard who plays Dwight as the long-suffering, patient second man in Jan's life, and until the end when he outshines them all, Lionel Barrymore doesn't generate anything as much as an afterthought with his Stephen Ashe. However, his fourteen minute monologue stands in cinema history as one of the most riveting, and gave him his only Oscar nomination and win for Best Actor even though technically he was not the male lead, but shorter performances have won the Academy Award.
Not a great movie by all means but it did give Norma yet another Oscar nod and was remade as THE GIRL WHO HAD EVERYTHING starring Elizabeth Taylor. However, it has some strong moments, especially a tense scene between Gable and Shearer as he threatens her into marriage, and to some that can seem a little disturbing, especially when he played the hero in subsequent films, most notably of course Rhett Butler. It would have been a feast for the people who saw how badly his character treated Shearer here to see the tables turned in GONE WITH THE WIND, but of course, all intrigues and stories would fall by the wayside and Vivien Leigh would play Scarlett.
For those of you who did not have the dubious pleasure of seeing one of Elizabeth Taylor's lesser films, The Girl Who Had Everything, here's the original film it was taken from. A Free Soul is the story of a girl who misuses the freedom her father gave her in her upbringing.
The film is based on a story Adela Rogers St. John wrote, that drew from her relationship with her father, famed criminal defense attorney Earl Rogers. Rogers set the mold for the famous criminal attorneys we've seen in action down to today. Unfortunately he was a man with a severe drinking problem which in the end got the better of him.
He did not come from the upper crust that Lionel Barrymore as Stephen Ashe comes from. In fact the real Earl Rogers's father was a minister. Yet Barrymore creates a compelling and brilliant, but dissolute figure who raises his daughter to be broadminded and tolerant and to despise some of the snobs from her class.
Norma Shearer takes the lessons to heart only too well. She leaves stalwart beau, polo playing Leslie Howard, for gambler/racketeer Clark Gable. Gable's a client of Barrymore's who Barrymore got off on a gambit that Johnnie Cochran used successfully defending O.J. Simpson and he's rather full of himself.
Barrymore turns out to be a bit of a snob himself in the end, telling Gable he's not good enough for his little girl. Of course Norma has her own ideas.
This film was the first really big break for Clark Gable. Movie audiences went for his animal magnetism in a big way. Even though Barrymore won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance by virtue of an unforgettable courtroom speech at the finish, it was Gable who got all the newspaper print.
Norma Shearer got a Best Actress nomination, but lost to fellow MGM contract player Marie Dressler for Min and Bill. A Free Soul which was a pre-Code film, explored the theme of sexual satisfaction ever so gingerly, but in a way after 1935 could not be seen for thirty years on the screen. Shearer is also giving one of her best screen performances.
Leslie Howard I'm afraid had real little to do, but look patient and noble as the society polo player. Howard exuded class and distinction even when he's penniless as in The Petrified Forest. So much the better for him when he's dressed in tails.
A Free Soul is light years better than The Girl Who Had Everything and holds up very well for today's audience.
Johnny Cochrane must've learned some legal tricks from this old movie. For example, at the beginning of the movie, Lionel Barrymore gets Clark Gable acquitted of first degree murder when he places the hat found at the scene of the crime on Clark's head ... clearly the hat is too small. The court and jury laugh, and Clark is set free!
This entire movie was great -- much better than I had expected. I saw two Norma Shearer movies recently with a similar-sounding plot recap: Their Own Desire (Norma Shearer falls for the son of her father's illicit lover), and this one, A Free Soul (Norma Shearer falls for her lawyer father's mobster client). Having watched Their Own Desire first and not being impressed with it, I wondered if I should even bother with A Free Soul. But bother I did, and I'm glad for it. It was an excellent movie.
Lionel Barrymore is the black sheep of his snooty, well-heeled family. His wife died while giving birth to their only child, Jan (Norma Shearer). Being the black sheep, Lionel raised Norma to be a "free soul", to not be afraid of anyone or anything, to not be afraid to make mistakes, and to pick herself up and dust herself off whenever she did find herself in trouble. This has apparently worked well for Norma, until she meets and eventually tries to get away from Clark Gable. Norma finally learns there are consequences to all actions, that one can't be a "free soul" without it having some type of repercussion on one's life.
We also have Lionel Barrymore (whom I always love in anything I see him in) this time very compelling as a brilliant alcoholic lawyer who loves his daughter more than anything but who ultimately doesn't know how to protect her. He disappoints her, and he disappoints himself, but in the end he seeks to right his wrongs by defending Norma's ex-fiancé (to say more would be to possibly spoil the movie).
This movie was fresh, and the characters were sympathetically developed without ever resorting to being maudlin or melodramatic. This movie was also chock-full of great lines. For example:
(Lionel to Clark, upon learning Clark wants to marry Norma) - "The only time I hate democracy is when one of you mongrels forgets where you belong!"
(Norma to Clark, trying to get Clark to quit talking and make love to her) - "Men of action are better in action; they don't talk well."
* The film ranked as ninth best picture in 1935 by the annual Film Daily poll of critics.
* According to the Guinness Book of World Records (2002), the movie holds the record for the longest take in a commercial film. It contains a 14-minute uninterrupted monologue by Lionel Barrymore. Since a reel of camera film only lasts 10 minutes, it was achieved by using more than one camera.
* Willard Mack's play, based on Adela Rogers St. Johns's novel, opened on Broadway in New York City, New York, USA on 12 January 1928 and closed in April 1928 after 100 performances. The opening night cast included Melvyn Douglas as Ace Wilfong and Kay Johnson as Jan Ashe.
* When the final version of the movie went before Hollywood censors, they demanded that MGM cut the scene where Norma Shearer lays on the bed and suggestively asks Clark Gable to put his arms around her. The studio ignored the demand and released the film uncut.