Cast & Crew
Stephen Ashe, a famous criminal lawyer, lives in San Francisco and is adored by his free-spirited daughter Jan. One day, Stephen, a freethinker who drinks too heavily and hates everyone in his family except for Jan, is invited by Grandma Ashe to a family dinner. After extending the invitation, the snobbish Grandma Ashe warns Jan not to let Stephen drink that evening. As feared, Stephen does not heed her request, and she and the rest of the family are shocked when he arrives with Ace Wilfong, an underworld character whom Stephen is defending in a murder trial. Soon after Stephen introduces Ace to his family, he is appalled at their lack of hospitality, and he leaves with Ace. Jan, also upset with her family's reaction to Ace, follows them, leaving her stolid fiancé, Dwight Winthrop, behind. While driving home, Jan tells Ace that he is the first truly exciting man that she has met. Their drive is interrupted when their windshield is sprayed by bullets from the Hardy mob, who want to kill Ace. Ace and Jan begin a romance which results in Ace asking Stephen for permission to marry his daughter. Stephen denies Ace's request, but Jan continues to see him regardless. When Stephen comes home drunk from a casino bust one night, he and Jan make a pact to rid themselves of their vices. While Stephen promises to stop drinking, Jan swears off the troublesome Ace. Father and daughter then take a vacation in the mountains to get away from the temptations at home, but as soon as they return, they fall into their past habits. Jan's romance with Ace turns violent when he scolds her for leaving him. After attacking her, Ace demands that she marry him. Jan refuses and returns to Dwight, who has been attending Grandma Ashe on her deathbed. When Dwight witnesses Ace manhandling Jan, he becomes outraged and shoots him. Dwight then calls the police himself and, in order to protect Jan, tells them that he shot Ace over a gambling debt. At his trial, Dwight's defense flounders until Stephen arrives and takes over. Stephen immediately calls the killing a result of temporary insanity, and then declares that it is not Dwight who should be on trial, but he himself. Stephen argues that were it not for his allowing Jan to see Ace to begin with, the whole tragic affair could have been prevented. After calling Jan to the witness stand, Stephen becomes so impassioned that he collapses, suffers a heart attack and dies in his daughter's arms. The jury subsequently finds Dwight innocent, and he and Jan leave for New York, where they plan to begin life anew.
E. Alyn Warren
Irving G. Thalberg
A Free Soul
A Free Soul marked Gable's first major role under his new MGM contract, and he created a sensation as the tough guy who proves Shearer's match in the physical department, knocking her about and telling her to "take it and like it." Audiences were shocked but enthralled by the rough love-play; the movie became one of Shearer's most popular, and Gable walked away from it a major star. As in Gone With the Wind eight years later, Leslie Howard provides rather pallid romantic competition, playing the gentleman to Gable's rogue.
Despite director Clarence Brown's protest that she was playing "bedroom politics," Shearer broke a self-imposed rule by complaining to her husband, MGM production head Irving Thalberg, about the film's final scene, in which she and Gable fade into the background as Barrymore takes center stage to deliver a 14-minute courtroom speech. Thalberg disagreed, and the ending remained unchanged - which undoubtedly helped Barrymore win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Shearer and Brown also were nominated. A Free Soul was remade by MGM in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything, with Elizabeth Taylor, Fernando Lamas and William Powell in the key roles.
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Screenplay: Becky Gardiner, John Meehan (from novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Costume Design: Adrian
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Hugh Wynn
Music: William Axt (uncredited)
Principal Cast: Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), James Gleason (Eddie), Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe).
BW-94m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe
A Free Soul
The film ranked as ninth best picture in 1935 by the annual Film Daily poll of critics.
According to M-G-M publicity material, the story on which this film was based first appeared serially in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan starting in September 1926. Although onscreen credits list only the book by Adela Rogers St. Johns as the source of this film, contemporary reviews list both the novel and Willard Mack's play. According to New York Times, a portion of the film was filmed on location at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
A biography of Norma Shearer notes that Shearer, after reading the story, suggested it as a starring vehicle for herself to her husband, producer Irving Thalberg. Modern sources note that the character of Stephen Ashe was modelled after author Adela Rogers St. Johns's father, Earl Rogers, who was a noted California defense attorney, and who also had a drinking problem. According to a biography of Irving Thalberg, when the producer asked St. Johns if he could purchase rights to her story, she informed him that William Randolph Hearst had already secured an option on the story until the publication of the second installment; when Thalberg asked her to name her price for the property and she told him $40,000, he balked at the figure and told her that he could only afford half that amount. Thalberg then reportedly looked into St. Johns's bank account to see how much money she had and discovered that her balance was a mere $10.85. The following day, so the story goes, he left a check for $25,000 on her desk. St. Johns remained firm, however, and Thalberg ended up paying the full $40,000. Thalberg's biography also notes that St. Johns wrote A Free Soul with Joan Crawford in mind as the feminine lead and petitioned Thalberg to cast her in the part. Commenting on her failed bid to star in the picture, Crawford reportedly said, "How can I compare with Norma when she sleeps with the boss?"
Modern sources indicate that studio executives, after seeing the film's first preview, decided that Shearer had been eclipsed by Barrymore, so they decided to shoot additional scenes to build up her character. According to Gable's biography, following the release of the film, the studio received thousands of letters praising Gable's performance and asking to see more of "the guy who slapped Norma Shearer." A studio press release claimed that this role made Gable a star.
According to the file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association protested what they claimed was an unfair portrayal of druggists in the film. Minor deletions were made in the film by local censors following its release, and Ireland banned the film altogether. The MPAA/PCA material also indicates that in 1936 the PCA recommended that the studio withdraw its application for reissue certification of the picture or face a possible rejection.
A Free Soul was voted "One of the Ten Best Pictures of 1931" by the Film Daily Nationwide Poll. Lionel Barrymore's performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Shearer was nominated for Best Actress, and Clarence Brown received a nomination for Best Director. Hollywood Reporter news items note that A Free Soul was performed as a radio broadcast in 1937, with the voices of Ginger Rogers, Don Ameche and Charles Winninger, and again in 1938, with Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and Rita Johnson. The film was remade by M-G-M in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything, directed by Richard Thorpe and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Fernando Lamas.