Rhett Vs Ashley
I find Clarence Brown is not a terribly remarkable director with many of his films being by the numbers but he does have has a few worthwhile movies under his belt. A Free Soul isn’t a great film as the plot is on the ordinary side but it does have enough to elevate the film above this – plus I am a sucker for the MGM product of the 1930’s. The common elements of a contemporary, pre-code melodrama are here; alcoholism, adultery, gangsters, corruption of authority etc.
Norma Shearer’s nude silhouette in the first shot sets the tone of A Free Soul; a movie full of lust and sexual desire. One of the biggest stars of the film itself is the slinky silk dress Shearer wears to Grandma’s party and Clark Gable’s apartment. The dress is sexually suggestive, to say the least, and shows off a lot of skin. The design of the dress is cut to slide over her body in all the right ways to make her appear naked without actually being so as well as show off her assets. It’s clear that costume design was taken very seriously in the days of old Hollywood as well as the art of how to wear clothes.
Outfits are one thing though, with Shearer and Gable’s scenes together steaming things up, in contrast to her fiancé played by Leslie Howard of whom she shares nowhere near the same level of sexual chemistry with. Gable played a number of gangsters in his career but none as such a player as Ace Wilfong (his gangster’s hideout and apartment are to be envied). Likewise, there is an unusually intimate relationship between Norma Shearer and her father played by Lionel Barrymore. Their interactions feel more like what you would expect between husband and wife as she refers to him as “darling”, ”dear” and ”sweetheart” while also being extremely affectionate with him such as the scene at the very beginning of the film in which she asks him to fetch her undies.
I’m astounded at Norma Shearer’s ability to burst off the screen with her sheer presence and I do wish I could call myself a bigger fan but her filmography is a bit lacklustre in my view. Regardless there is enough melodramatic theatrics to keep A Free Soul interesting including a character’s much-unexpected death by the last character you would expect and a courtroom finale in which Barrymore tears the scenery (I just have to ask though would questioning your own daughter not be a conflict of interest?). The only scene which really disrupts the tone of the film is the moment in which Barrymore pulls a Buster Keaton by grabbing onto a train as it goes past and disappears out of sight, very odd.