Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Free Soul (1931)

Director: Clarence Brown                                Writer: Becky Gardiner
Music: William Axt                                         Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard

A Free Soul begins as a fairly pedestrian outing for Clarence Brown at MGM, but it does have some big stars and that is enough to hold interest. But what starts as a banal courtroom and family drama, eventually turns into something of a gangster picture. Norma Shearer is a free spirited daughter of a mob attorney, Lionel Barrymore. They’re from a rich family who looks down on Barrymore’s profession and Shearer’s lifestyle. Clark Gable is a mob boss who Barrymore gets acquitted for murder, and though Shearer is engaged to Leslie Howard--one of the top dozen polo players in the world--he’s just as upper-crust and boring as her family, and she finds being Gable’s gangster moll much more fun.

All the pre-code elements are there. Barrymore is a lush, evidently to numb his conscience, Gable is in the middle of shoot-outs and murders and runs a gambling speakeasy, and Shearer parades around in clingy silk dresses and loves to have sex but refuses to get married to do it. Barrymore, however, makes a clear distinction between work and socializing. While he’ll represent Gable, he doesn’t want Shearer anywhere near him. So she makes him a deal: if he’ll give up drinking, she’ll give up Gable. At first Barrymore agrees, but eventually he wants to make a distinction between their two situations as well, in order to serve his own addiction.

The direction by Brown is, for the most part, static. He likes to set up his camera in a two-shot and then let it roll. There are some very nice, if incongruous, outdoor nature shots when father and daughter go away to dry out. But there’s one scene that is definitely amusing for modern audiences. When Gable is on trial for murder the prosecution believes he is guilty because they found his hat by the body. Barrymore tells the jury that just because the initials in the hat are Gable’s doesn’t mean it isn’t someone else’s. When he has Gable come up in front of the jury box and puts the hat on his head it’s so small everyone in the courtroom breaks out laughing. For those of us who remember, it certainly brings to mind the O.J. Simpson trial and the glove that “wouldn’t fit.”

Gable plays his usual early-thirties tough guy, in fact, the usual character he would perfect over his entire career. Shearer is fascinating. She still has some of the stylized acting of the silent era, especially when she poses while talking with her hand on her hip. When the camera is close in on her, she has a nice dramatic style. Leslie Howard plays the upper-crust sap who winds up being the ineffectual love interest, but shows he’s more than that in the end, and along as Barrymore’s sidekick is the great James Gleason providing a bit of comedy relief. A Free Soul is a pretty standard story, told in a standard way. The pre-code elements are what raise it up to something more interesting, and ultimately it is that.

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