I’m reviewing all five films (and one documentary) in the Forbidden Hollywood volume two box set:
Review of Night Nurse
Review of The Divorcee
We get to the last Norma Shearer film in the Forbidden Hollywood volume two box set and honestly, I should have stuck with watching The Divorcee because A Free Soul is a frustrating hour and a half of confusion. The plot is all kinds of convoluted literally starting in one relationship and taking a complete 360 into introducing another relationship that never gels because it’s not set-up. Add that a last-minute move from a romantic drama to a courtroom procedural and it proves A Free Soul is all gimmick, no substance.
Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) is a wealthy social whose drunken father has recently gotten mobster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) off for murder. Ace takes a shine to Jan and as the two fall in love Jan forsakes her reputation and breaks her engagement to society equal Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard). Trouble stirs when Ace becomes too possessive of Jan leaving Dwight in hot water for murder.
Reading that synopsis you should know the first lines of this review: PRE-CODE CLARK GABLE! We saw him in Night Nurse so this marks his second pre-Code in the Forbidden Hollywood box set and his third on this blog (I previously covered Red Dust). I will say Gable is the only reason to watch this film and only continues my appreciation of his range. It’s sad that Gable really settled into the macho leading man role because his pre-Code work is diverse and his grandiose personality is so fun to watch. I loved Gable in this because despite him playing a bipolar cad who one minute is nice to Jan, joking about how he knows her family hates him, then turn into a Lifetime depiction of the possessive boyfriend. Had Ace remained a mobster who was snarky and pulled down the curtain to show how snobby the rich were it would have been great, instead director Clarence Brown and screenwriter John Meehan turn him into a stereotypical mob guy.
I’m getting ahead of myself, let me try to write out this review chronologically to show my confusion. We’re introduced to Jan and an older man played by Lionel Barrymore. I knew nothing about A Free Soul’s plot so when the film opens you assume the two are a May-December romance of some kind and that’s the scandal. You’d continue to see this by how the two kiss each other on the mouth and Jan asks him to get her “undies” and other clothes. After all this you’re told the two are Stephan and Jan Ashe….father and daughter! Yes, they call each other “darling,” he gets her panties, and THEY KISS ON THE MOUTH. By this point, about ten minutes into the film, I was pretty sickened and figured the film couldn’t rise above this and while it didn’t, the Ashe’s relationship was forever incestuous in my mind throughout the runtime. The relationship between these two is disturbing to say the least and I’m not sure exactly but I believe they allude to the fact that Jan’s mother died when Jan was a little girl leading the audience to believe that Jan has been taking her mother’s place (without the sex….God I hope so). A key scene has Stephen finding Jan in Ace’s apartment. Jan’s half nude and starts to cover herself. The scene is meant to ask what’s worse: Jan seeing her father drunk or Stephen seeing his daughter openly flaunting her sex life. Personally, I read it more as two lovers realizing their secret lives and the film leaves that on the table. Told you they were creepy.
As the film progresses these two become the key sources of melodrama. Stephan is a drunken hypocrite who refuses to let Ace marry Jan, and calls Ace a “mongrel” who doesn’t know his place. Yeah this guy kisses his daughter on the lips, I don’t think he knows his place too well. Jan on the other hand is the woman torn between a multitude of men who love her enough to kill for her. Shearer grows by leaps and bounds in this film. She’s natural and relaxed more than she was in The Divorcee and she embraces her promiscuous side in this film, finding it funny that Ace “wants to talk some more.” It’s obvious she’s gained confidence in her acting and is able to embrace her sexuality to the point she wears a dress that is beyond see-through. It’s gorgeous but I’d go so far as to label it a nude scene because you can prominently see her breasts through it. Sadly the gif above only gives a glimpse of what you see on-screen. That’s not to say Shearer is perfect. There’s still a silent era quality to her acting that limits her range. Case in point, as the film turns to the murder trial of the third act Shearer is supposed to convey a tortured soul, anguish and suffering and to do that she relies heavily on putting her hand over her face. You can get pretty blitzed if you played a drinking game during this film for every time Shearer puts her hand on her face in a tense situation.
Jan is the light by which all the relationships circle so let’s look at the two men she’s squabbling over. You have pre-Code Clark Gable and bland as white bread Leslie Howard. Ace is a smart aleck who despite being on trial for murder is doesn’t seek approval from the rich. He knows they hate him so he’s not going to try to impress them, “not a lot of people believe that gag about being born equal.” Ace’s relationship with Jan introduces the story of an illicit romance meeting resistance from societal expectations. Keep in mind this plot goes nowhere by the third act as we’re supposed to hate Ace for his bipolar “I’m going to control women by stalking” persona. In the first half of the film you can’t blame Jan for falling for Ace, he’s fun and diverse compared to Dwight who sits there and looks pained. It’s easy to see in the first act why Howard’s character is so boring. You’re not supposed to like him because he represents the oppressive world of the rich; the safe world that Jan is supposed to marry into and you want her to be with Ace. It only makes the third act so head-scratching because apparently that’s not how you were supposed to see Dwight now that Ace is a dick but it only makes Dwight look even more poorly written.
The third act really is a travesty starting with the implications that Ace is a total douchebag. All of a sudden characters mention Ace’s side jobs as a murderer, an opium dealer and a white slave trader (wow don’t sugarcoat him. Did you forget his indulgence in cannibalism and puppy kicking?). The problem is we’re never shown any signs of this. In fact before these are mentioned Ace is perfectly sweet to Jan so when this is revealed its unbelievable because we’re simply being told he’s a dick. I didn’t understand the severe push to make Ace so bad and so controlling. At one point Jan shows up to see him after breaking off the relationship. Ace becomes a completely new character and so does Jan! Even though she showed up to see him, she acts as if he forced her there! I honestly believe A Free Soul is made up of two half-written scripts because the transition is so jarring as to be painful.
Of course we see the reintroduction of Dwight after a complete removal of him for over 75 minutes of screen time (he’s in the opening half and then doesn’t show up till the third act). I didn’t find him any better than Ace in the third act because he also wants to control Jan through marriage, telling Ace at one point he’d “tie her up” and marry her. The problem is Ace is a man of action and Dwight is all talk which I’m assuming is meant to make him a better suitor for Jan’s hand? Really I found him annoying. To add insult to injury, Jan says she doesn’t want to marry either of them (yes, not Dwight or Ace) but their fighting over her proves neither one cares how she feels. It all boils down to her marrying “the right one” when really both are tools. Jan isn’t a free soul at all but neither is she as strong-willed and action-orientated as she was in The Divorcee. If she channeled her character in The Divorcee, Jerry, she’d probably tell both of them to go F-themselves.
Once Dwight murders Ace (to prove his love to Jan or because Ace was an ass, take your pick) I guess Dwight and Jan fall in love. I say “I guess” because we’re never ever shown this. Jan just shows up at the prison to see Dwight and they profess their love for each other. See what I’m saying about this feeling like two different scripts? The actual trial is where the lunacy hits its peak as we’re apparently supposed to forget the entire first half of the movie! When Jan is testifying at Dwight’s trial she admits she loved Ace yet no one brings up their prior relationship. You’d think the prosecutor would use that as a way to seal Dwight’s fate; that he was jealous of Ace for having Jan. Instead the past relationship between Ace and Jan is irrelevant and Jan acts like she was a poor, kidnapped girl in this situation! I know Ace wasn’t a saint but the trial vilifies him as a stalker of a poor woman who didn’t return his advances and the audience knows that’s not true. Critics cite Lionel Barrymore’s speech in the courtroom as his best and while it’s a good bit of acting it has no business being in this courtroom scene. First off, I’m not even sure Stephan is Dwight’s lawyer so why is he taking the reins on this case? And his entire closing argument is him recounting his failings as a father and how he forced Jan into the relationship?! Barrymore plays the character so grandiose I assumed he was playing Stephen as a drunk because why would he turn the trial into his need to confess? I could understand maybe him revealing he’s in love with his daughter but that’s not necessary in the end.
Oh and the end, here’s my exact conversation I had with myself while watching this: “Did Dwight get acquitted? I mean he’s sitting with Jan and they’re kissing. Wait it’s over?! WHAT!” Yes it simply ends with Jan and Dwight sitting together in a house kissing. I don’t know if Dwight got acquitted or what but thank God Stephen unburdened himself in that courtroom. If his speech got Dwight off for murder I want to know how he’s not raking in the dough for doing absolutely no lawyering and freeing felons.
The first half made me like A Free Soul better than The Divorcee but that last half is pure awful. There’s nothing scandalous in this, not compared to The Divorcee or other pre-Codes. A Free Soul is a straight melodrama cobbled together to create one good half and another that’s dreck. If you have to watch this at all do it for the pre-Code Clark Gable and turn it off after 60 minutes.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.