Review: A Free Soul (1931)

>> Monday, July 30, 2012

USA/B&W-93m./Dir: Clarence Brown/Wr: Becky Gardiner & John Meehan, from a book by Adela Rogers St. John/Cast: Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), James Gleason (Eddie), and Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe)

In response to a series of highly publicized Hollywood sex scandals, the U.S. film industry began a policy of self-censorship in July of 1934.  Film historians have chosen to refer to movies produced between the advent of sound and the enforcement of this Motion Picture Production Code as “Pre-Code,” because these pictures often display lascivious sexuality, drug and alcohol use, intense violence, and other salacious behavior that would be unthinkable a few years later.  A Free Soulis a good example of a Pre-Code film, in that is flaunts frank depictions of pre-marital sex, racketeering, murder, and alcohol abuse.

Lionel Barrymore and Norma Shearer star as Stephen and Jan Ashe, an alcoholic attorney and his free-thinking daughter.  Ashe’s best years as a lawyer are behind him due to his drinking, but he scores a great success in his Johnny Cochran-like defense of gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable).  When a soused and celebratory Ashe brings Ace to a family dinner party, he unintentionally sparks a scandalous affair between Ace and his daughter.  When relations between the unwed lovers sour, Jan’s former fiancĂ©, Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), takes the law into his own hands.  Only the legal skills of Jan’s pickled pater can save the rash Dwight.

Time has blunted the shock value of this moldy melodrama.  The immodest suggestion of sex between Shearer and Gable (She went to his apartment and stayed—GASP!) is pretty tame by today’s standards.  The depiction of Barrymore’s alcoholism, while frank for the period, is also not alarming in the eyes of present-day audiences.  However, what do retain the power to shock are Norma Shearer’s costumes (or lack thereof).  In particular, she wears a thin, slip-like dress to a family dinner party and to Gable’s apartment afterwards that clings to her body in a most immodest way, making it obvious that nothing is worn underneath.  The nightgown is more indecent than anything Jean Harlow wore onscreen during the same era. Based upon this dress alone, the movie would have a hard time obtaining a PG-13 rating today.

While the sudsy story doesn’t hold up well, A Free Soul holds a special place in film history for a few reasons.  Firstly, Lionel Barrymore won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the alky attorney, beginning a tradition of awards going hand-in-hand with portrayals of dipsomaniacs struggling against their obsession with the bottle.  More importantly, Clark Gable made such an impression in his supporting turn in A Free Soul that it catapulted him to leading man status, where he soon proved to be the 1930s’ top male sex symbol.  Finally, the first pairing of Gable and Howard is sure to draw interest from fans of Gone with the Wind (Norma Shearer was also one of the many actress considered for the role of Scarlett).

A Free Soul is not great drama, but general audiences will find it worth their time based upon Norma Shearer's costume choices and Barrymore’s boozing.  Of course, for fans of Pre-Code flicks, it is more or less essential viewing.   
Drinks Consumed--Champagne, gin martinis, whisky and soda, and unnamed liquor

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, slurred speech, hiccups, staggering, stumbling, bickering, and bar tossed

Potent Quotables-
-JAN: Tell me, Eddie.  Has he been drinking?
EDDIE: Well…
JAN: A lot?
EDDIE: Well, it wouldn’t be a lot for a camel or one of them things.

Video Availability--A Free Soul is available on DVD as a part of the TCM Archives - Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 2(Warner Home Video).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--For a more modern tale of a lawyer struggling with alcoholism, check out The Verdict (1982), featuring Paul Newman at his finest. 

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2 (The Divorcee / A Free Soul /      Three on a Match / Female / Night Nurse / Pre-Code Documentary)


Booze News: More W.C. on DVD and Pegg/Frost Pub Crawl Film Greenlit

>> Saturday, July 14, 2012

Greetings, fellow inebriates,

Here at Booze Movies, we consider W.C. Fields our patron saint; so any new video release from the Great Man's filmography is a cause for celebration.  Consequently, I'm delighted to announce that Field's most surreal film, Million Dollar Legs (1932), will make its U.S. DVD debut on August 6th as part of the Turner Classic Movies and Universal box set 1930's Rarities.

Million Dollar Legs was only Fields' second sound feature, and Hollywood had not quite figured out how to showcase the talents of its greatest screen comedian.  W.C.'s role is secondary to the amiable but lesser comic actor Jack Oakie, and it is a rare role in which the Great Man does imbibe or even discuss demon alcohol.  Still, I greatly encourage soused cinema enthusiasts to seek out Million Dollar Legs, because the film is hilariously loony, and the Great Man makes the most of every second he's given to perform.

The movie is more akin to the comic insanity of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) than to most of W.C. Fields' later work (although Never Give a Sucker an Even Break shares a similar surrealist streak).  The story takes place in Klopstokia, a small country populated by impossibly talented athletes (almost all named either George or Angela).  Fields is the President, a post determined by arm wrestling matches.  The nonsensical plot involves anarchists, spies, goats, the 1932 Olympics, and attempts to sing an old Klopstockian love song.  If you like bizarre humor, this is the film for you.

The DVD box set also includes three other sought-after 1930's flicks:

  • Mae West's Belle of the Nineties (1934)
  • Jack Benny's Artists and Models (1937)
  • Gary Cooper's Souls at Sea (1937)

In other booze news --

The World's End, Edgar Wright's pub crawl film starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost has been officially greenlit (an outcome that was never really in doubt).  Although the film won't begin shooting until fall, a teaser poster has already been released.  You can check it out to the left.  It seems very appropriate for a film about a pub crawl.


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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

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