A Free Soul (1931)

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Lionel Barrymore won his only Oscar for his role in A Free Soul (1931), as an alcoholic attorney with an admirable devotion to his daughter, played by Norma Shearer. He’s the black sheep of a famous family, a single father, “brilliant, stormy and always late for dinner,” more friend than parent, who’s allowed his girl a little too much freedom. He created for the two of them a tight little unit, disconnected not only from the stuffy family name and values, but also from a good example of responsibility, since he lives dangerously in denial of his problems. He taught Shearer independence, nonconformity and directness, and as a result she’s a headstrong, bright, beloved and confident young woman who lives as she pleases. Like father like daughter; both are good people at heart, but both will learn that doing as you please all the time can have a steep downside.

Shearer starts fooling with a gangster (Clark Gable) for whom Barrymore has just won an acquittal. That night, Barrymore and Gable are given a sour welcome and cold shoulder by the family, which brings out Shearer’ long-simmering disgust with them. She sees contempt for her father’s alcoholism, rejection of his success in court, disapproval of her values and disrespect of a man to whom she’s strongly attracted. She lectures them on their snobbery, then impulsively (and immaturely) walks out on boyfriend Leslie Howard, right after his marriage proposal, to spend the night with Gable. Independent thinking is one thing, but now she’s playing with fire. Shearer ends up wrecking lives by toying with people’s emotions and tragically underestimating Gable’s danger.

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Gable eventually asks Barrymore for Shearer’s hand in marriage, but Barrymore is horrified and refuses to let his daughter marry the “mongrel.” Shearer echoes the rejection when she laughs in Gable’s face and bristles at his desire to control her. Like father, like daughter; Barrymore drinks and gambles thinking it won’t damage him, and Shearer enjoys secretly playing the gangster’s moll without consequences or commitment.

Now things have finally caught up with us, Barrymore tells Shearer. He admits to having done her harm by teaching her life is a plaything, a sport with no rules. After we’ve seen all the affection and respect between them, their confrontations are painful to watch. It’s a striking scene when Barrymore finds Shearer in Gable’s suite and his face registers shock, disappointment, heartbreak and shame. They fight with slaps, names and accusations, and they make a deal. Shearer will drop Gable if Barrymore quits the bottle. It fails. They both fall off the wagon and go back to their respective addictions, the bottle and the beast. This time their lapses are also failures of their love for each other, and of commitments to their futures.

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Barrymore includes many memorable details in his performance, like an inebriated hiccup when he introduces Gable as “Ace Wilf–fong,” venom in his voice when he describes Gable the “rat” or glee and shame when he grips a bottle after weeks of difficult sobriety. He’s absent from the big event section of the movie, when Gable threatens murder, when elegant Leslie Howard icily blows Gable away, when Shearer and Howard somberly prepare for his conviction. But Barrymore returns for the big finale in court. To save Howard, Barrymore convicts his own character and parenting, explaining to the jury that he raised Shearer wrong and abandoned her when she needed him most. His guilt, regret and his cracking voice wring out maximum emotion as Shearer “testifies” how much she loves him and blames her own bad decisions. It’s so heavy and melodramatic, but is it ever fun to watch Barrymore pull out all the stops as he desperately tries to atone and set his daughter’s life right in the last act of his own.

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This post is a part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

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17 thoughts on “A Free Soul (1931)”

  1. As pre-Codes are pretty rare in Brazilian TV, this is another gap in my film culture. But it does seem marvellous: I mean, Shearer, Barrymore, Gable and Leslie Howard together? Sheesh. I’ve got to see it!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!
    Le

    1. You can’t beat the cast, and it’s also also known for Norma’s wardrobe being revealing, in typical pre-Code style. Hope you see it and will visit! thanks!

    1. Ha! such a great way to put it! that scene is so quick and brutal, shot in really harsh noir-style lighting, very memorable. Thanks for reading!

  2. This movie is so echt pre-Code, with Shearer lustfully pursuing Gable, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. I remember the beginning scene as QUITE risque: Shearer is shown undressing behind a scrim in a bedroom with Barrymore nearby; their flirtatious conversation makes you think that they’re actually lovers (good-time girl with sugar daddy), before being revealed as father and daughter. That must have raised a few eyebrows!

    1. That’s right about the opening scene, and her pursuit of Gable, she just defies all the rules and goes for what looks like dangerous fun. I didn’t even mention the shootout when they’re in Gable’s car. She just loves the excitement but doesn’t want the strings. Which was shocking enough behaviour for that age. Thanks for reading!

  3. Great review! I have tried to watch the movie but the copy I found online is not very good and it’s not available in the country I live. But I will watch it sometime .

  4. Loved reading this Kristina! Have been wanting to see this for ages – Barrymore / Shearer / Gable are a dream team – but I can only find poor quality copies here. I love the ‘no consequences’ trope that’s so popular in pre-code. Somehow it makes the characters a lot more ‘real’.

  5. Hi Kristina. Hope you’re going well. I’m not sure if you received my message a few days ago, but I just thought that I would drop by to let you know that I’ve announced my Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. At the moment I’m currently going through last years roster of participants and contacting them to let them know it’s on this year. Anyway I would love to invite you to join in. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/announcing-the-second-annual-barrymore-trilogy-blogathon/

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