A Free Soul (1931)
A Free Soul is often cited as an example of pre-code films for its explicit eroticism. The main character, played by Norma Shearer, is a real seductress. Besides, the film helped to launch Clark Gable as a male sex-symbol. In this film Gable plays the “tough guy” opposite to the “sweet boy” Leslie Howard.
Leslie Howard, in fact, plays a supporting role: he’s the sensitive boyfriend Dwight Winthrop, who in the end will become a murderer for love, killing the thug his fickle fiancée cannot get rid of. The character is very consistent with Leslie Howard’s stereotyped image: the noble, refined, cultivated man, the soft-voiced, well-dressed aristocrat, the romantic lover. This stereotyped role, while making of him an idolized star, was an encumbrance to his artistic growth in the long run. During the following decades, the actors who more often played strong and aggressive male roles ended by stealing the film to their sweeter rivals, and often enjoyed greater popularity and better critics. In fact, these roles became stock characters too, often blocking the artistic growth of promising actors into the “harsh-voiced, bad-mannered, tough guy” frame.
From this point of view, A Free Soul is a sort of anticipation of the Rhett-Ashley contrast; the contrast worked so well that the two factions still count many followers.
The most important role in this film is Stephen Ashe, the alcoholic lawyer who redeems himself with the final courtroom speech. Stephen Ashe in the end takes center stage, and this role gained Barrymore a Best Actor Oscar. Norma Shearer and Clarence Brown were also nominated.
Talking pictures are by no means elevated by the presentation of “A Free Soul,” […] Nevertheless, it should be stated that Lionel Barrymore does all that is possible with his role. In fact, his is the only characterization that rings true, the other players being handicapped either through miscasting, the false conception of human psychology or poorly written lines.[…]
Miss Shearer, who looks as captivating as ever, is called upon to act a part which is quite unsuited to her intelligent type of beauty. Leslie Howard is lost in the shuffle for some time, but he finally turns up as the hero in this lurid, implausible affair. Clark Gable is all very well as a gangster, but it is problematic whether young woman of Miss Shearer’s type would ever become enamored of an individual who behaves as he does here. […]
Undoubtedly all the members of the cast have ability, but the doings in this film benefit but little by their talents, except, as has been set forth, through Mr. Barrymore’s portrayal…
(Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, June 3, 1931)
The picture follows, almost exactly, Adela Rogers St. John’s splendid novel of the same name. Lionel Barrymore’s performance in the role of a brilliant but heavy-drinking criminal lawyer is magnificent.
Norma Shearer is excellent and handles the part of his daughter perfectly. Her clothes are breath-taking in their daring. But you couldn’t get away with them in your drawing-room.
Clark Gable and Leslie Howard are both grand.
(Photoplay, July 1931)
A Free Soul
Director: Clarence Brown
Writer: Adela Rogers St. Johns
Screenplay: Becky Gardiner, John Meehan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Costume Design: Adrian
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Film Editing: Hugh Wynn
Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe)
Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop)
Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe)
Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong)
James Gleason (Eddie)
Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe)