A Free Soul Reviews
It's interesting to compare what shocked people who saw this movie in 1931, and compare it to what shocks us today. The fact that Shearer's character is sexually liberated and seeks out a physical relationship, turning down Gable's offer to marry her, was scandalous. As she slinks around in a thin white dress, she purrs "Men of action are better in action. They don't talk well ... Why, I take it on the run right into your arms, don't I, darling? ... Ace, darling, I'm head over heels mad about you, but what's in the future I don't know...".
We, on the other hand, are shocked at Gable's arrogance when she meets up with him three months later, after having ended their relationship. He shows his nasty side, manhandling her and making it clear that he'll make it known that they've had sex, therefore 'she's mine, she belongs to me'. His behavior isn't condoned of course and others stick up for her, but the idea that's she's ruined in some way and 'not fit for any other man' was the view in society at the time, and part of Leslie Howard's heroism is to attempt to protect her honor.
Worth watching for challenging the morals of the day, and for the star-studded cast, which shine almost a century later.
This is the movie that made a minor character actor into a romantic superstar. Famous defense attorney (and alcoholic), Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) is defending a murder suspect and gangster, Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable). An interesting "If the hat doesn't fit, you must acquit" causes Ace to get released. Here is where Ace meets Stephen's free-spirited daughter, Jan (Norma Shearer).
Flighty Jan is bored with her nice-guy boyfriend, Dwight Wintrhop (Leslie Howard) and goes for the bad boy, Ace in a big way. The only problem is that Ace has fallen for Jan and when she wants to get out of the fling, Ace objects in a big way. To top that off, her dad, Stephen is hitting bottom with his drinking problem.
Although, this isn't a great movie for Gable, his man-handling of Norma Shearer touched a nerve with females audiences that caused MGM to try to duplicate Gable's persona throughout the rest of his career.
Unlike the legend that Gable's slapping Norma Shearer's character made him hot for the ladies (he actually only pushes her down on the couch), I think it was that him telling her that he loved her and he wasn't going to let her go that sealed the deal with his new found fans.
We associate Gable with the dashing romantic leads of "It Happened One Night" and "Gone With The Wind" so it's a shock to see him playing a nasty scoundrel here. As a mob boss he's quite intimidating, not someone you want to cross. Shearer finds him utterly seductive though, practically orgasming at first sight of his rugged looks. After the introduction of the code, criminals couldn't be portrayed as glamorously as Gable, and good girls like Shearer certainly couldn't be shown falling for them.
Shearer isn't portrayed as being anyway likeable so it's hard to sympathise when she gets herself in trouble. Even when Gable starts roughly man-handling her she doesn't seem all too bothered anyway. More focus should have been placed on her fiance, the always great Howard. He goes to great lengths to help her but loses his dignity in so doing, eventually ending up in the climactic courtroom scene on a murder charge.
The movie is based on a novel by Adela Rogers, daughter of Earl Rogers, a brilliant but alcoholic lawyer of the time who was famous for the sort of showboating techniques displayed here. Barrymore and Shearer are basically glamorised versions of the father and daughter. She later wrote a biography which was adapted for the screen in 1991 as "Final Verdict" starring Treat Williams.
Despite Barrymore picking up a Best Actor Oscar, the movie has faded into obscurity and is really only of interest to film historians (or those who insist on writing about Pre-Code Hollywood).