By all accounts, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) producer and boy wonder, Irving Thalberg didn’t have the eye for talent that the studio’s chief, Louis B. Mayer had. But Thalberg was a whiz at developing talent. In 1931 much of Thalberg’s energies in that regard were focused on a young actor in whom he placed high expectations. The actor’s name was Clark Gable and MGM hoped that in him they would find a future star that would appeal to both male and female audiences. Thalberg signed Gable to a $650-a-week contract that year and paired him with all the major female stars at MGM at the time – Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer among them. Thalberg was so invested in the potential of the brusque, overtly masculine Gable that he was known to be at theaters where Gable’s films were screening to get immediate audience reaction to the future star. As we all know, Thalberg need not have worried. Gable would go on to become not only the “rock upon which MGM was built,” (Scott Eyman), but the King of Hollywood.
Among the thirteen 1931 releases in which Clark Gable co-starred – most MGM pictures, but a few were for other studios that Gable was loaned out to – is a pre-code gem directed by Clarence Brown called A Free Soul. This film stars Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, Lionel Barrymore, James Gleason and Mr. Gable in a role perfectly suited for the aura he projected – that of a man as likely to kiss a woman as slap her.
“the free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it – basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.”
A Free Soul is the story of upper crust alcoholic, Stephen Ashe (Barrymore), a hotshot attorney who successfully defends Ace Wilfong (Gable), a notorious mobster. Ashe’s
daughter, Jan (Shearer), who’d met Wilfong prior to the trial is immediately taken with the gangster’s look and energy.
On the evening after the trial Stephen Ashe’s mother is having a party celebrating her 80th birthday. The usually late attorney shows up to the party dunk and accompanied by Wilfong, who disgusts all the high society attendees. All, that is, except for Jan Ashe, whose eyes brighten upon seeing Wilfong again. While the family protests Wilfong’s attendance in her grandmother’s home, Jan decides to leave the party with the gangster. Much like her father, she can’t stand the “greater-than-thou” attitude. Of course, the excitement of a night on the town with Wilfong has a lot to do with it as well and as Jan leaves among the shocked is Dwight Winthrop ((Howard), her intended.
That night on the town, during which the couple is shot at by a gang out to get Wilfong, turns out to be the most exciting of Jan’s life. She’s completely entranced by a new kind of man in a new kind of world – a night of
excitement that send the couple into an illicit affair. Madly in lust with Wilfong, Jan breaks it off with Dwight Winthrop and says nothing of her relationship with with the gangster to anybody – not even her beloved father with whom she has a close, open and accepting relationship. Ashe raised his daughter to be a free-thinker, a liberated woman in a world of stuffiness and judgment.
One night Stephen Ashe goes to Ace’s gambling establishment with hopes of getting as much to drink as possible, since his daughter and best friend, Eddie (Gleason), are constantly trying to restrict his inbibement. Greeted with utmost respect by the thugs in the place since he’d ensured the boss’ freedom, Ashe has total run of the bar if he wants it. Once he finds out Ashe is in his joint, Wilfong comes to greet the attorney and dares to ask for Jan’s hand in marriage. Ashe is outraged by Wilfong’s gall. While he doesn’t judge those he defends and taught his daughter to accept all people, Stephen Ashe draws the line at allowing a criminal to marry his daughter.
“The only time I hate democracy is when one of you mongrels forget where you belong… a few illegal dollars
and a clean shirt and you move across the railroad tracks. Tell your boy to bring me some libations, and don’t insult the guests!”
Ashe goes about drinking and gambling in Wilfong’s establishment despite what he considers his host’s insult when all of a sudden the alarm goes off indicating a raid of the place is about to take place. Now drunk, Ashe is about to make a scene when one of the thugs knocks him out and orders others to take him to the upstairs apartment where Wilfong lives. The man is tossed upstairs where his daughter sits, partially clad just having had sex with Wilfong. As Ashe stands and sees her his heart breaks and Jan wilts in shame. The father, a lush barely picking himself off the floor and the daughter a lush barely able to face her father. Without saying a word the two walk out together.
Back now in Ashe’s apartment, father and daughter plead with each other to let go of their vices. He, drink. She, Wilfong. Jan then proposes a bargain – that the two should go away together for a while to see if they can forget about what ails them promising she will never see Ace Wilfong again if her father agrees to never take another drink.
Fast forward now to after the three-month hiatus that doesn’t turn out well for either.
Stephen Ashe has disappeared to live the life of a fully realized alcoholic, sleeping wherever he finds a mattress, no longer practicing law. And Jan goes back to see Ace, but the gangster is not the man she was previously enthralled by. Humiliated and furious that Jan left him without a word so many months before only to return and make him look the fool, Ace demands and plans their wedding for the next day in a manner that leaves Jan speechless – no romance, no sexiness, just shoving and pushing. Jan is horrified. And worse, he intends to take control of the free soul, the woman whom no one had ever told what to do.
“You’re through. You’re mine and I want you!”
Jan tries to ignore Wilfong’s horrible plans while being highly disappointed in herself for having given herself to him so fully. The next day Ace shows up to force Jan into marriage, manhandling her again and threatening to kidnap her if he has to. While the two are arguing, Dwight Winthrop, who’s still in love with Jan walks in and confronts Ace. Ace turns and spews vile telling Dwight, “she lost her ritz months ago. She came to my place and stayed there.” Holy pre-code! Jan is damaged goods!
Ace Wilfong leaves his threat lingering in the air for both Jan and Dwight to ruminate. But the threat doesn’t last long as Dwight goes to visit Ace at the gambling hall and shoots him dead – cool as a cucumber for the woman he loves.
Charged with first-degree murder, Dwight has only one chance for freedom – a defense led by the best attorney ever, Stephen Ashe. Ashe makes a show in the courtroom for what is to be his last hurrah, forced to question his own daughter in the trial of the murder of the man for whom he’d once successfully plead innocence. The final courtroom scene, which has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (2002), as the longest take ever in a commercial film at 14 minutes, is duly memorable, credited by many as the reason why Lionel Barrymore won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading role for his depiction of Stephen Ashe in this film. And Barrymore is damn good in it. The outcome of the trial, the film’s climactic scene, is for you to find out, should you be interested in watching A Free Soul.
Adapted from the book by Adela Rogers St. John and subsequent play by Willard Mack, A Free Soul received a total of three Academy Award nominations. Aside from Barrymore, both Norma Shearer and the film’s director, Clarence Brown received nods from the Academy. Critical reviews for A Free Soul were initially mixed but aside from its Oscar recognitions, the film was chosen as one of the top ten “best” of the year in audience polls.
I’m not sure I’d have concurred with 1931 audiences hailing A Free Soul as one of the year’s best, but I really liked the film for all its pre-code offerings, which kick off from the film’s very first scene. As the film opens we see Barrymore as Ashe reading the morning paper as a woman’s voice is heard saying, “C’mon, give me something to put on.” The camera pans over to a door as it opens to reveal the sexy silhouette of a woman. Ashe looks around asking what particularly he should hand her to wear and she replies, “undies.” As we soon see the woman is Jan, Ashe’s daughter and the pre-code opening has no merit as far as inappropriate behavior goes, but pure pre-code in suggestion it still is – and nicely done.
There is also a great scene between Jan and Ace Wilfong that’s worth mentioning. While the rich socialite and the crininal are in the midst of their affair, it’s Jan who states in a not so subtle manner that she is in the relationship for nothing more than pure pleasure. One day the two talk about their future together with Wilfong contemplating the differnt worlds they come from. Jan, wants to hear none of it. Instead, she’s eager to get on with her purpose so she lays back on a day bed in Wilfong’s apartment, stretches out her arms and invites Ace to, “c’mon, put ’em around me.” When we next see Jan she’s clearly had an entertaining night as she’s disheveled, sitting on that day bed ashamed before the eyes of
her father. It’s worth noting that the Hollywood censors demanded the day bed scene be cut out from the final version of the movie, but MGM ignored the demand and released the film uncut. (IMDB)
Norma Shearer is good as Jan Ashe although in certain instances she stages it up a bit far, understandable (I guess) in early talkies. It’s not a style I like overmuch, but she certainly is a natural in the environment. I read the 1931 New York Times review of the film, which stated the role of Jan is not worthy of an actress of Shearer’s intelligence (paraphrasing), but I thought she was well suited for the role. Also enjoyable is James Gleason as Eddie, Stephen Ashe’s assistant/friend who keeps tabs of the attorney’s drinking. And, I enjoyed the period dialogue in the film quite a bit. One scene in particular comes to mind. Right after Ace and Jan arrive at Ace’s gambling joint after being shot at, Ace asks one of his men to explain to Jan what just happened. Here’s his colorful explanation, which made me laugh out loud:
“Well, the mug that was rubbed out, Miss, was a snooper of the chief’s running with the Hardy mob, slipping us the lowdown. Hardy gets hep to it and he puts the rat on the spot. They nab the boss’s “kelly” and plants it. Your old man jaws him out and the Hardy mob grabs the typewriters and the ukeleles.”
As for Clark Gable, audiences loved his portrayal of the manhandling Ace Wilfong and with good reason, he’s perfect in the role. But in truth, they just couldn’t get enough of him playing opposite all the famous, braless pre-code stars of 1931, like Shearer, Crawford and Harlow – regardless of the pictures or stories. A couple of years after making A Free Soul, Gable would refuse another similar role, longing for more of a challenge and as punishment, MGM head, Louis B. Mayer would loan him out to Poverty Row and Columbia Pictures, a place where few actors wanted to work. Fate intervened, however, and Mayer would be the loser as Gable’s assignment at Columbia would pair him with Claudette Colbert under the tutelage of Columbia’s ace director, Frank Capra to become, It Happened One Night (1934), the film that saved Columbia Pictures winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Clark Gable. Gable now had major pull as a Hollywood player and his star would continue to rise toward that of the man who would be king.