Classic Film Guide

Free Soul, A (1931)

A pre-code classic starring Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, and Leslie Howard. The first 45 minutes or so (don't blink, it sizzles) and the dialogue are especially great. Directed by Clarence Brown who, along with Shearer, earned an Oscar nomination; Barrymore won (on his ONLY acting nomination!) as Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Gable is Ace Wilfong, a mob leader that lawyer Stephen Ashe (Barrymore) successfully defends in a murder case (in a manner strikingly similar to Johnnie Cochran’s "if it doesn’t fit, you can’t convict" defense of O.J. Simpson some 60 years later). After the trial, Ashe’s daughter Jan (Shearer) meets Ace and, looking him up and down, is instantly infatuated with him. Later, there’s a party at the Ashe family mansion, run by Grandma (Lucy Beaumont) who does not approve of the gangster. But Ace responds to her dressing down saying "a lot of people don't believe that gag about being born equal". Stephen, who’s assistant (James Gleason) is always there to provide him with adequate lubrication, shows up drunk and upsets everyone. Jan leaves with Ace who’s fast life gives her a thrill.

Jan breaks her engagement (to Howard) and begins a secret, dangerous affair with Ace, becoming a loose woman and saying things like "don’t talk, be a man of action" and laying back, reaching up to him uttering "put ‘em around me" insisting that he "take" her right then and there. However, she is discovered by Stephen, who obviously doesn’t approve. Stephen then dresses down Ace saying "the only time I hate democracy is when one of you mongrels forget where you belong ... a few dollars and a clean shirt and you move across the railroad tracks". When Jan realizes she can’t handle the situation she’s gotten herself into, she makes a deal with her father to go away with him if he’ll stop drinking. So it’s off to the wilderness where father and daughter, with Gleason in tow, have some quality bonding time. Eventually, however, the temptation is too great for Stephen, and he disappears.

SPOILERS

Jan returns to find an angry, clueless Ace, who wants her back else he’ll ruin her high society reputation. To protect her, Howard kills Ace and turns himself in, refusing to say why he killed him to protect Jan’s honor. Stephen is found on skid row but is revived long enough for (Barrymore to earn an Oscar, giving) a speech to the jury in which he says Howard acted when he, a failure as a father, couldn’t. And then collapses (dead?). Howard is freed and says (unearned and unwarranted): "the secret of my success is 'never say die'". I mean, the guy just got saved from the gallows because of his own noble silence whence he had clearly given up.

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