Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by John Meehan and Becky Gardiner (based on the play by Willard Mack based on the book by Adela Rogers St. Johns)
By 1931, Clarence Brown had earned his enduring reputation as the director who'd done more than anyone to shape the career of the woman who was then arguably the biggest star in the world, Greta Garbo; and that had made him attractive to certain observers, suggesting that what he did for Garbo, he could do for another. If her name was Joan Crawford, history tells us he could. But that's for later in 1931. Right now, the other who had this in mind, when she personally selected him as her director in A Free Soul, was Norma Shearer.
It turned out that the long-term collaboration that A Free Soul kicked off was not with Shearer nor with any actress, for while it burnished Shearer's career just fine, the star it actually launched into an orbit appreciably higher than it had been beforehand was its third-billed man, a then-obscure Clark Gable. The "favorite director" thing that got attached to Brown vis-a-vis Garbo, which is sort of true but also sort of bunk, is far more apropos to Brown's relationship to Gable, really, than to any of his actresses; the two became legitimate pals, and ultimately they made more pictures with each other than they would with any other performer or director, respectively.* It feels like this ought to be important, but it was more incidental than pivotal to either man's career—the only collaboration between them that might be termed "definitive" for either is Possessed,** and that's still principally a Crawford—and accordingly their twenty-year working relationship doesn't tend to receive much attention, beyond a "hey, that's neat." Shearer, of course, had already made her career, and while I could be referring—with unnecessary cattiness!—to the unofficial status she'd secured for herself as the first lady of MGM, having eagerly pursued and eventually winning the hand of her studio's production chief Irving Thalberg back in 1927, I was, honestly, referring to one of the bigger platforms he'd arranged for her, 1930's The Divorcee, for which she'd gotten an Academy Award. Which we can suspect was not totally unrelated to her being married to MGM's production chief, though it was a big commercial and critical hit, too.
I will tell you outright that I think The Divorcee is dreadful, but then, to let the cat out of the bag here, I think A Free Soul is scarcely any less dreadful: it's kind of amazing to me that Shearer, afforded the unique privilege amongst MGM's contract players to pretty much literally pick any role she wanted and even the ability to revise it toward her own preferences, still wound up with some of the most awful fucking scripts of the hundreds her husband could have awarded her. I do not necessarily think of Shearer as someone who slept her way to the top—frankly I don't give a shit if she did, for this happened a century ago and all I care about are results—so if that was a career move, it's correct to note that Shearer never let that give her permission to be lazy about that career, having already pulled herself up from fraught beginnings and overcoming (basically through sheer willpower!) a neurological peculiarity of her right eye that would've practically precluded a screen career for anyone else. Shearer worked hard before and after her marriage, taking criticism better than you could possibly expect the boss's wife to take it, in order to be good at her job. (And for the record, I find her to be one of the more interesting stars of her day to look at: she's statuesque in a remarkably literal sense, like her face is actually carved from marble, and I can prefer this over a number of fellow 30s babes who are merely hot in typical ways.) I am happy to say I have seen her give at least one great performance, though not before 1938, in the title role of Marie Antoinette. My abiding impression otherwise, unfortunately, is that Shearer is usually exactly as strong as the scripts she chose, and she chose some scripts that perhaps can't be objectively styled "stinkers," but only because in their day they made serious money and garnered serious awards attention.
For his part, Brown thought of her as a woman who'd slept her way to the top, and the particular power dynamics at play chafed him mightily. He was still apt to talk shit thirty years later, and despite A Free Soul being the last time for twelve years one of his films would get him a Best Director nomination, he still doesn't seem to have cared much for it. It's notable that he managed to avoid ever directing Shearer again for the entire remainder of Thalberg's lifetime—Thalberg passing in 1936, and Brown only directing Shearer the one other time at all, alongside Gable again, in 1939's Idiot's Delight, one of the most obviously-indifferent non-efforts of Brown's whole career. And nonetheless I prefer it, and this rambling history lesson was always just a stall to keep from talking about this movie.
A Free Soul, anyway, concerns young Jan Ashe (Shearer), raised by her widowed father Stephen (Lionel Barrymore), a lawyer of sufficient renown in San Francisco that we later learn his fee structure starts at a cool ten grand in 1931 dollars. We meet this, ahem, duo in Stephen's hotel suite as he attempts to read the morning paper while a teasing feminine voice from the bathroom instructs him to collect her underwear, and he grouchily but dutifully does so, handing them to a coquettishly-presented hand reaching into the room, Barrymore placed at such an angle that if there's a mirror in that bathroom he can definitely see more than we can, and when the woman exits, womp womp, it's his 20ish-year old daughter. This is a vaguely unsettling way to introduce the Ashes, and does show engagement on Brown's part, in that it's probably the most complicated choreography in the whole film and he's leaning as far into a pseudo-incestuous vibe as possible without that being especially present in the script. But then, it's not especially present in the script—even the always-bizarre-sounding "darlings" and stuff that attend their dialogue either represents how daughters actually talked to their parents in the early 1930s, or at least how early talkie screenwriters believed they did—so what purpose this ultimately serves is hard to say except to underline the film's many-times-repeated thesis that Stephen, having inculcated in his daughter his own philosophy of libertine autonomy, is a bad dad, while Jan is a very, very bad girl.
I have at present described little besides a porno set-up that would undoubtedly prove better cinema, but let us continue. Stephen is a drunkard—he has a legal secretary, Eddie (James Gleason), whose sole purpose is to be carry around his booze—but according to him, this is just an occupational hazard, a function of how anxiously and zealously he pursues his cases. He's in the midst of one such case right now, defending the life of Ace Wilfong (Gable—and yeah, Wilfong?), a hood whom I guess it could be possible has been wrongly accused of murder.
He gets Ace off, but in the meantime an instant attraction has sparked between daughter and dangerous, bad-boy client. This is sealed when Ace drags the drunken attorney back to the family mansion where the Ashes are jointly celebrating the birthday of Stephen's ancient mother (Lucy Beaumont) and Jan's engagement to wealthy polo player Dwight Winthrop, despite Dwight's wan, respectable dullness (and hence a downright inevitable Leslie Howard). That engagement does not survive this second meeting with Ace, and Jan, taking exception to her snobby family's treatment of their guest and finding his underworld lifestyle far likelier to fulfill her yen for excitement, begins a torrid long-term affair that Ace takes a lot more gravely than the playgirl does, but only ends when her dumbfounded father discovers her in flagrante delicto. Mutually humiliated, they make a deal: he'll quit drinking, and she'll give up Ace.
So, yeah, this is the movie about—and when I say "about," I mean this is the whole of a pretty languid middle act—how a debilitating physical addiction to alcohol and a desire for Clark Gable's dick are pretty much the same, which I'm sure was very flattering to the actor and helped build his confidence so that he could fulfill his destiny as the John Chapman of his day, just planting his seed everywhere, but I daresay it's a stupid premise for a movie. It is not one well-supported by the movie Brown made, either: the affair is badly overclocked just so it can get to the moralizing part as soon as possible, and so, perhaps uniquely amongst the director's output, I couldn't describe this Clarence Brown fallen woman melodrama as, additionally, a romance. I just can't stand them together. Shearer's marble face doesn't really express the specific kind of panting heat A Free Soul is going for, despite her best efforts to layer that in under a front of domineering patrician reserve, and it didn't help that Gable simply didn't like Shearer and Shearer, for good reason, didn't like Gable—Shearer kicked him in the balls when he got too enthusiastic in a love scene (it's unfortunately not in the movie), and how enthusiastic this must've been is indicated by the numerous scenes where he's still pretty roughly manhandling her. It's the kind of movie where if you get even a few hours away from it you'll be sure you recall the heroine getting slapped across the face right before an implied sex scene, though you'd be misremembering that.
And yet I guess it's pointless to argue with results: audiences loved this shit. I don't get it. It's a terrible performance in every respect—Gable is saddled with the most undeliverable cartoon gangster dialogue imaginable, such as would befit a later Looney Tune and relies on an intimate familiarity with underworld slang (it deploys the phrase "take it on the run" approximately forty times, and I'm still not entirely sure what exactly that means)—but here Gable's star was born, the public eating up the prospect of the tall gorgeous guy punishing the slut. Shearer had intervened with the writers to make Ace even nastier than in their initial treatment, so they'd sympathize with her, but audiences took his side anyway, even once kidnapping and forcible marriage are on the table.
It's at this point that I will offer the hypothesis that having Thalberg's genius behind her actually might have made Shearer's filmography worse, for it is entirely possible that the couple had their finger too firmly on the pulse of the zeitgeist of the early 30s, the period of Shearer's greatest success; what the early 30s thought was the best can be suboptimal, and outside of the self-contradicting mores of that narrow window, a movie like The Divorcee, or A Free Soul, can just be the Goddamnedest hell of a drag. Pitched to an audience of people now all dead with the starkest brand of conservatism even this studio could manage, I'm not sure it exists for any reason but to titillate you, then pat you on the head with an assurance that even though you got hard and/or wet, you're a solid citizen. I obviously don't find this to be the case with most of the movies that form the studio's well-attested slut-punishing genre, but there's something about Shearer's early star vehicles that's hypocritical and ugly, and that a Clarence Brown movie could not gin up an instinctive empathy for its heroine's sexual transgressions is nuts, because that's his thing. Maybe he really did hate Shearer. But whatever the case, it's the kind of movie where you wonder how the Code Office could possibly have objected to its re-release, because the underlying morality is identical. Then you recall that under the Code it at least would've had to have been less brutish and gross.
And this is all very rushed anyway, dumping Shearer and Barrymore into that long second act which sends them out into the wilderness to get away from their respective compulsions, and it has extremely little to recommend it beyond some modestly great set design courtesy Cedric Gibbons's art department, inasmuch as until the nighttime scenes happened I was struck by the "location footage" (it's rear projection with an unusually large screen, and footage taken with an unusual attention to using fog to create a sense of three-dimensional verisimilitude, though I believe the set must be a one-to-one recreation of this Yosemite hillside from this angle). Okay, it has one other thing to recommend it: it's pretty funny when Stephen falls off the wagon and Brown arranges it as a gag wherein Barrymore vanishes behind a train headed back to San Francisco where he can get even more booze.
The drama also ends up in laughter in the third act, though at least this gets kicked off with what I'm willing to describe as its best scene, whereupon Dwight proves to be this story's sole unpredictable element—if I cared more, I would take up the contrarian position that Howard is plausibly giving the film its most finely-tailored performance—but I do care enough about the coolness of this cool bit to suggest (not even facetiously!) that no less than Star Wars ripped it off. The finale comes in the courtroom, never a good sign for any old movie, and not the best sign for this—you could teach it in trial procedure class for "when to move for a mistrial," except it's so melodramatically-executed that I don't know who'd need to be taught that—and it is, almost literally, an actor's reel for Barrymore, tasked with pounding the message home through Stephen's alcoholic collapse, and in one of the least-admirable things I've learned about Shearer, she's alleged to have attempted to sabotage Brown's direction of this scene because she was worried Barrymore would overshadow her. The attempt didn't take, but she was kind of right, as Barrymore did win an Oscar on the back of a flawlessly-delivered monologue captured in real time with a multiple-camera set-up (Shearer was but nominated). I have no technical objections to the scene, but I'm afraid "fathers, don't let your daughters grow up to be whores like mine" does not move me.
It's not clear, otherwise, how much technical care Brown lavished on A Free Soul. It's one of his more impersonal efforts, with flashes of skill and very rarely flashes of brilliance, but it's also hard to see how this screenplay would have supported brilliance. (What was very noticeable on this rewatch is Brown's treatment of the "comic relief" of Ace's "Chinese" butler Bottomley (E. Alyn Warren), who appears to be in the movie solely because he's in the script rather than because Brown recognized his yellowface caricature as something that was supposed to be amusing. And it's not like the movie doesn't have dopey comedy otherwise: Gleason's gin mule can be modestly funny; a drive-by shooting that interrupts a guy taking a shit, somewhat less so. And while it's not impossible that "rewatching a movie I didn't like in the first place" has made me uncharitable to A Free Soul, it's only with a second spin that I did notice one of those few "flashes of brilliance," when Shearer, after her father's discovery of her shame, fondles a bouquet of flowers on a table that's given up the ghost, its petals most symbolically disintegrating right between her fingertips, a gesture worthy of a much better film than this.)
Anyway, it looks nice: William Daniels is on hand for erotic shadows and smoke-filled speakeasies, and as far as a 1931 movie this much about talking in rooms goes, it's not completely devoid of kineticism, though be aware this is grading on an inordinately generous curve and it's not a patch even on Romance, let alone Inspiration, Brown's last two films. (Surprisingly, Norma's brother Douglas Shearer's sound recording is possibly worse than it was on either—certainly less interesting and ambitious sound recording—and by mid-1931 I'm not sure I should need to be grading "the sound recording of undemanding shots of people sitting in chairs" on any kind of curve. Meanwhile, Brown and editor Hugh Wynn permit some startling discontinuities in a key emotional scene between Shearer and Barrymore, which could seal my "Brown cared intermittently at most" argument.) Well, I'm not necessarily laying anything at Brown's feet, or, really, anybody's feet—I suppose if I did, it'd have to be the feet of source novelist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who is a very famous author, but between this and Garbo's The Single Standard, the movies that MGM made out of her books sure do suck in suspiciously similar ways. If there ever was a soul, so to speak, in St. Johns's novel, Brown and MGM sure managed to mash that out of this incredibly didactic parable of a film. At least Shearer got to fix The Divorcee later, with its more-or-less remake, Riptide, a pretty great movie. I don't know if fixing A Free Soul would even be possible.
*At least I think so, but correlating this is drudgery. Anyway, depending on your accounting, Brown directed either eight of Gable's films or nine, and was a very-involved producer on one more.
**I adore Brown's Night Flight, but it's hard to meaningfully call it "a Gable film" even if he's in it.