#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straightlaced, respectable fiance (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)
Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes. Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success. Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.
Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge. The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.
In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.
I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Life imitates art, indeed. For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small. Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.
Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight. Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.
Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her. Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.
Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him. When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact. Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.
He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon. Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.
When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment. They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man. They make a bargain: Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.
This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father. As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking. In Jeannett’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.
In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.
In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again. But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.
Except good old Dwight still wants her. Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.
This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight. He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all. She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.
It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.
The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.
It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.
Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time. Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.
It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time. In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.
Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.
It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, but it committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.
First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives. And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.
Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage. More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.
The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.
But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system. If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.
Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.