Not only are Stephen (Lionel Barrymore) and Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) father and daughter, but they comprise a team of two against the world. Stephen has raised his daughter to think for herself, stand on her own two feet and to live free of the trappings of his high society family.
Stephen’s work as a criminal defense attorney introduces the independent Jan to gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable). Their instant attraction causes Jan to end her engagement to her long-suffering and faithful fiancé Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard). Jan’s obsession with Ace blinds her to his true character. But even still she keeps their relationship hidden from her father. When Ace pushes for marriage, Jan balks. But her hand is forced when her drunken father finds her in Ace’s apartment late one night.
Jan’s shame is only outweighed by her concern for her father. She strikes a bargain with him that she will stop seeing Ace if he will quit drinking. She is scared that he is close to ruining not only his career, but his life with his addiction to alcohol. Stephen very reluctantly agrees. Will father and daughter be able to keep their bargain or will their individual addictions ruin their lives?
Ever since I watched Gone With the Wind I’ve been a Clark Gable fan. Even though he was a popular actor in his day he doesn’t seem to have as many fans these days. Perhaps it’s because his roles are all a variation of the tough he-man whose love for his heroine reveals a secret soft spot. But Gable is not the only actor who could be accused of playing the same type of character over and over. Cary Grant has been accused of the same and yet he is maybe more revered now than when he was alive.
Maybe it’s because Gable’s type of hero is no longer popular in today’s culture; tough talking, rough around the edges and with the women, brash and aggressive. This hero stereotype is a hard sell in the modern film environment. But if you think about it, that is exactly what makes his talent so astounding. Here is a man who could portray a character on the edge of acceptability and make men admire him and women adore him. Is there anyone but Clark Gable who could get away with what he does on screen? I think not.
A FREE SOUL
Gable’s gangster Ace Wilfong is one such character. Filmed in 1931, A Free Soul is one of Gable’s earliest starring roles. It is also one of fourteen movies he made that year. It is unique in that it is one of the few films where he plays the villain. After 1931, his onscreen persona would become what we are familiar with today; a rough and tumble man yes, but one who was always redeemed by the love of a good woman.
Although Gable had been in films since 1925, the powers that be did not quite know what to do with him. So, he put in his time playing extras and small supporting roles.
Gable’s female lead in A Free Soul was Norma Shearer, queen of the MGM lot. She was already a popular actress with years of leading roles behind her. The year prior to A Free Soul, she had supercharged her career and transformed her image with a turn as a sexy, independent modern woman in The Divorcee.
Gable would later become one half of popular onscreen pairings with Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Lana Turner. But I would argue that it is his pairing with Norma Shearer in A Free Soul which really launched his career as a leading man. In their first film together, they are electric, magnetic and shocking as the mismatched, obsessive and dysfunctional couple Ace Wilfong and Jan Ashe.
Shearer slinks around the screen and Ace’s apartment, tempting him and the audience in her sexy gowns and free thinking mentality. Gable lures her and us in with his smooth veneer hiding his brutal nature. Even knowing what he is, we think that maybe these two people from opposite spectrums can make it work. That they belong together. Ace’s apparent love for Jan seduces us (and her) into thinking that his character can be tamed if not redeemed. This in spite of the evidence of his violence and corruption.
Gable and Shearer play their roles with courage and honesty, emphasizing their flaws, weaknesses and lack of character. In the process, the viewer is gripped by the force of emotion on screen. We become invested in discovering how this cautionary tale will end.
There were other films taking risks and pushing the boundaries of good taste in the Pre-Code era. However, the quality and intensity of the main performances are one of the things that make A Free Soul stand apart and remain entertaining today.
But it’s not just Gable and Shearer which make A Free Soul such a great film. It’s also the other talent of the famous star-making MGM studio. Lionel Barrymore’s supporting performance as the alcoholic Stephen Ashe is nuanced and stunning. So much so, that it won him his only Oscar. I also enjoyed seeing character actor Jackie Gleason as Stephen’s sidekick and enabler. Leslie Howard has a small but important role as Jan’s loyal fiancé. It’s interesting to see Gable and Howard together years before Gone With the Wind would make them immortal. Credit must be given to MGM’s costume designer Adrian. His wardrobe for Jan Ashe really displays her transformation from good society girl to a gangster’s girlfriend. Dependable director Clarence Brown (who is a personal favorite) keeps the tension strung tight and the scenes moving along briskly until the shocking finale.
A Free Soul really is a special film for all these reasons. Norma Shearer is indeed mesmerizing. But mostly, I find it interesting because of Clark Gable. If you are used to seeing Gable as an edgy but soft-hearted hero, then this film will blow that image out of the water. Or if you are someone who questions Gable’s acting skills, a look at his portrayal of Ace Wilfong just might change your mind. Whatever your thoughts, A Free Soul is sure to challenge your pre-conceptions of both Gable and classic film.
This is my entry for the Clark Gable Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Please head on over to read other entries on this famous actor. And while there, take your time and browse around Michaela’s wonderful website.