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