The first hour of A Free Soul is this extremely engaging, if occasionally melodramatic, story about Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore. They’re rebellious blue bloods–Barrymore’s Shearer’s father and he’s raised her to be an independent woman. He’s a defense attorney and a drunk. She’s his ambassador to their disapproving relations. She takes up with mobster Clark Gable, throwing aside her more appropriate suitor, polo champion Leslie Howard.
Shearer and Gable have great chemistry from their first scene. She and Howard come off like brother and sister. It’s not miscasting as much as John Meehan and Becky Gardiner’s script doesn’t do any work establishing them. All the work goes into Shearer and Gable for the romance.
Shearer and Barrymore are fantastic together too. So when Barrymore disappears for about twenty minutes, only to return in a wonderful delivery of high melodrama at the very end, Soul suffers for it. Shearer stops being the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject. While the film never actually condemns her, it flirts with the idea as an excuse. It’s lazy writing from Meehan and Gardiner, who are wrapping things up quickly.
Director Brown doesn’t do much to help in the last third either. He’s got some great work earlier in the film, but he encourages the histrionics by the end. He and editor Hugh Wynn treat Shearer differently after she breaks off with Gable to support the drunken Barrymore. They rely on her for exaggerated reaction shots, which walls Shearer off.
Barrymore’s great. Shearer’s good; good enough to weather the bad editing. And Gable’s really good. Howard’s okay. James Gleason’s good, but has nothing to do as Barrymore’s sidekick except be James Gleason. Lucy Beaumont, as Barrymore’s mother and Shearer’s grandmother, is ineffectual, which is a problem.
Most of A Free Soul avoids melodramatic tropes, only to lazily implement them for its resolution. Still, the cast makes the most of it.
Produced and directed by Clarence Brown; screenplay by John Meehan and Becky Gardiner, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Hugh Wynn; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), James Gleason (Eddie) and Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe).