1930/31 / Best Director

Film #630: A Free Soul (1931)

Having watch a couple of Clarence Brown’s features from the 1940’s I got the impression that he was a director who specialised in making family films based around cute animals. However, delving back into his earlier movies, it seems that he’s quite a versatile director especially where it concerns the next film on our list; 1931’s A Free Soul. This rather racy movie features sex, murder and gangsters whilst also exploring the very complicated relationship between Norma Shearer’s free-spirited Jan and her lawyer father portrayed by that year’s Best Actor winner Lionel Barrymore.

The first portion of the film sees Barrymore’s Stephen Ashe defending Clark Gable’s suave gangster Ace Wilfong who is accused of murder, with the key piece of evidence being a hat found at the scene. As Ashe is a deft attorney he is able to get Ace acquitted whilst the dashing mobster also catches the eye of Jan. At a party being thrown for Stephen’s mother we learn that both father and daughter are seen as outcasts from the rest of the wealthy family. Stephen is presented as a raging alcoholic whilst Jan is someone who makes rash decisions which include accepting Ace’s offer to return to his home. Here we witness Ace’s reputation as the boss of a rather strong gang whose life is constantly in threat, a point that is represented after he and Jan are shot at on their way back from the Ashe party. Although Ace’s life appears glamorous at first, the gangster’s controlling nature comes to the surface when his attempts to ask for Jan’s hand in marriage are rebuffed by her father. A Free Soul takes an odd turn during its second act when, after learning that her father needs help, Jan takes him to Yosemite National Park to sober up. I felt these scenes were out of place in what was, up to this point, a dark and brooding picture featuring believable flawed characters. These scenes are then rendered useless when Stephen returns to the bottle and flees from Jan who in turn returns to a rather vengeful Ace who feels that his current squeeze has disrespected him. To rid Jan of her new predicament, her former lover Dwight Winthrop kills him in cold blood and attempts to plead guilty to the crime. Thankfully, Stephen arrives just in time to defend Dwight and admits to some of the mistakes he’s made as a father as he questions Jan on the stand. The ending is a rather predictable one, but is undoubtedly what earned Barrymore his Oscar as he is delivers a stirring monologue in which his character all that he’s done wrong up to this point.

Despite an odd middle section, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed A Free Soul especially as it was a film from a director whose work I hadn’t enjoyed in the past. Brown’s direction allows us to explore the key relationships immediately as we see the intimate relationship between Stephen and Jan played out in the opening scenes. Similarly, we get the measure of Ace quickly as we see this smooth-talking gangster charming Jan despite us the audience knowing he’ll be trouble. Brown’s direction captures the mood of the film and juxtaposes the wealthy world that the Ashe family inhabit to the dank bars and casinos where Stephen finds himself most nights. As A Free Soul was made prior to the Hollywood Production Code coming into effect, the movie can get away with several salacious moments that wouldn’t have been shown in films made five years later. For example, as Jan, Norma Shearer spends most of the movie in various stages of undress from an early scene in which Stephen hands her clothes whilst she’s in the shower to being found by her father in Ace’s abode, lounging around in a robe. Similarly, it’s assumed that Ace and Jan are indulging in premarital sex, something that wouldn’t be allowed once the code was introduced. It’s this freedom which makes A Free Soul seem ahead of its time in a lot of ways as it’s not hindered by the coyness that were present in a lot of Brown’s later movies.

Another positive aspect of A Free Soul were the performances by the film’s three main players all of whom make you understand the motives of their characters. Norma Shearer is enigmatic as the free-spirited Jan, someone who’s prone to making stupid mistakes which include falling in love with the roguish Ace. Shearer also shares fantastic chemistry with Barrymore as they make for a great double act and the best scenes in A Free Soul are when they’re on screen together. However, I’m not sure if Barrymore’s performance was strong enough to earn him a Best Actor Oscar especially considering he’s absent for a considerable piece of the movie. Furthermore, I feel it’s a shame that the Best Supporting Actor category hadn’t been introduced at this point as Clark Gable deserved recognition for his fantastic turn as Ace. You can understand why A Free Soul was the movie that propelled Gable into prominence as he gives the film’s most memorable performance as the dashing mobster who wrestles Jan away from the more sensible Winthrop. The film’s only weak turn comes from Leslie Howard, who as Winthrop, is rather damp and is no match for Gable when it comes to who Jan should take as her suitor. As there’s another film from this ceremony to review, I’ll hold my opinion on whether A Free Soul should’ve been nominated for Best Picture however I do feel it’s better than the rather dated Trader Horn. Overall, A Free Soul was an interesting exploration into a father/daughter relationship and its gritty backdrop provided me with a new appreciation of Brown’s direction which I hope will carry on into the next two posts.

Next time, we look at another two films for which Brown was nominated for directing in the same year with both featuring one of the biggest movie stars of the time.

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