The first day of Lent compels me to make Joseph Breen, the fanatical Production Code Administration honcho, roll over in his grave. Before Easter I’d like to watch as many new-to-me pre-Code movies as possible.
Consider it anti-Lent—a celebration of excess. Or grateful recognition that so many movies buried for years by censorship have arisen and joyously outlived their censors.
Somehow I’d never watched Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul until last night (I know, I know), so I’m atoning now with a lengthy rumination on its equivocal MGM decadence.
Warning: This movie may make you want to wear slinky bias-cut gowns and/or dishonor your family. Talk to your doctor about whether pre-Code movies are right for you. Unless your doctor doesn’t know what pre-Code movies are, in which case you have my permission to give him a lecture on film history, tie him up, and force him to watch TCM.
Raised by her father Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore), a brilliant trial lawyer plagued by alcoholism, Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) lives a free-spirited life (hence the title). Rejecting her snobbish family and her respectable fiancé Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), Jan starts a steamy romance with her father’s gangster client, Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable).
That’s a step too far for dear daddy, who’s horrified by the affair. So, Jan makes a bargain: she agrees never to see her lover again if her father quits drinking. He gives it up at first… but when he weakens, so does Jan.
She returns to Ace, who insists that she belongs to him, body and soul, and must marry him—or else. Disgusted, Jan flees for her life. To protect Jan, Dwight shoots Ace and stands trial for murder. Guess who turns up to defend him in a spectacular Oscar-bait courtroom finale? (Hint: It’s Lionel Barrymore, who won his Best Actor gold for the performance.)
My two cents:
A Free Soul adds to the grand pre-Code tradition of adventurous society girls undone by hommes fatals. For that reason, the movie recalls Letty Lynton (1932) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933). In all three films, reckless high-class dames fall (or are forced) into abusive relationships with charismatic but depraved men from the wrong side of the tracks.
Are these movies conservative cautionary tales that punish women for seeking sexual fulfillment? Or are they subtly feminist films that reveal how rebellious women suffer in a world where they’re almost universally viewed as possessions?
Probably both, to varying degrees.
Of the three movies I’ve mentioned, A Free Soul particularly glorifies forbidden pleasures. We’re invited to enjoy—and almost to take part in—Jan’s liaison with bad boy Ace. When she outstretches her arms and whispers, “Put ’em around me,” she beckons to the viewer as well as to her lover. It’s a ménage à trois between Shearer, Gable, and the camera. All the last-minute regrets and preachments can’t erase the silken, candlelit delights of those scenes in Ace’s penthouse.
Shearer is at her most sublime when radiating desire. Her ladylike coyness melts into unabashed yearning, transcending the good-girl-bad-girl duality that society loves to impose upon women. The image that will haunt me most from A Free Soul is this shot of Shearer, her head tilted back, welcoming the moment to come. From this angle, her haughty beauty is serenely sculptural. A marble goddess breathes for the first time.
Sure, she’s savoring the closeness of Gable and his moustacheless early 1930s smolder. But her elation is both spiritual and physical. What really intoxicates Jan is the freedom she seized for herself when she ran out on her closed-minded, blueblooded family. Anticipation is five syllables long, but it’s still too small a word for what Jan’s experiencing.
A few reels later, Ace’s proposal of marriage—or ultimatum of marriage, rather—sours the relationship and kills Jan’s dreams. Oddly enough, I can’t think of many other movies where it’s the guy who insists on getting hitched, while the woman prefers a no-strings-attached arrangement. We’re meant to notice this oddness, I think. That’s because, in A Free Soul, sex is a metaphor for independence, and marriage a metaphor for captivity.
Even a man who lives outside the law cannot accept a woman’s threatening freedom. Ace wants to own Jan, even though she craves no such control over him. In fact, Jan loved Ace because he represented a break from the stuffy constraints and contracts of upper-class romance. She discovers that, once the swagger and the aphrodisiac power of machine-gun fire wear off, there’s nothing to separate Ace from her repressive relatives. Except bad manners. And a propensity for violence.
Watching her exotic playmate turn into a brutish would-be jailer, Jan mutters, “And then the moonlight turned to worms.” Her disillusionment breaks my heart. As does the rest of the movie, which rushes to blame Jan’s “new woman” philosophy for her suffering and ruin.
The script also points the finger at Stephen Ashe, as though only a drunken failure of a father would dare to teach his daughter to follow her heart. Yuck, right? This moralizing twist undermines the teasing, equal-terms relationship between father and daughter that helps to draw us into the film. In the opening scene, we see Jan in silhouette getting dressed as Stephen reads the paper at the breakfast table. When Jan asks him to pass her some lingerie, he hands it to her through the bathroom door—without looking, of course.
Is this an illicit affair between an older man and a younger woman? Nope. Just a normal day for the Ashes. Creepy though that sounds, the frankness between father and daughter shows how much they trust and love each other. Their affection actually reminds me of intimate mother-daughter relationships in the movies, which makes sense since Stephen has been both father and mother to Jan.
They’re so close that dad’s not mortally embarrassed by the knowledge that—gasp—his daughter wears a lacy bra! That overshare rapport strikes me as much more convincing and much less creepy than the surgically distant exchanges you see between fathers and daughters in many movies of the 1930s and 1940s. I’ll take a confidant dad over a symbolic patriarch any day, thankyouverymuch. But no, argues A Free Soul, that’s wrong. I’d better forget everything my father taught me about being a person in my own right.
Worst of all, the third act of A Free Soul denies Jan the agency to defend herself. In the similar pre-Code movies I alluded to earlier, Letty Lynton and Temple Drake powerfully reclaim control over their lives and bodies by executing the men who’ve tormented them. However, Jan Ashe leaves poor Dwight Winthrop to do the deed and shoot Ace.
When Jan visits gallant Dwight in jail, she wishes that she had executed her beastly lover instead. I couldn’t help but agree. Without the visceral revenge granted to Temple and Letty, A Free Soul devolves into a great big perfidious “told ya so.” A sermon trying to pull off silk stockings.
Although it leaves you with a craven, bitter aftertaste, A Free Soul is redeemed by its sensuality. Even the stark prison scene crackles with sexual tension, heightened by close shots of hands and eyes. Jan gives Dwight one hell of a passionate kiss to thank him for slaying Ace. (Tangentially, in what universe does Leslie Howard have to kill somebody before he’s attractive to you, girl? Way to undersell your leading man, movie.)
This film betrays most of what I like about it, but I still can’t help but like it. I guess you’d better keep me away from your rakishly charming gangsters.