>> 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 Soul is 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 fiancé, 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?
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)