Plot: Jan (Norma Shearer) considers her father Stephen (Lionel Barrymore) to be her best friend, as the two spend a lot of time together and seem to have a distaste for the usual social graces. While the Ashe family has wealth and affluence, Jan and Stephen are the black sheep of the group and have little concern over other relatives. This is because the two like to live free, not inhibited by high society’s rules, nor do they want the scorn of their more stifled family members. Stephen is a lawyer and a good one, though his rampant alcoholism does cause him some issues, both in the courtroom and in his personal life. His latest client is Ace (Clark Gable), a young man accused of murder with some organized crime ties, with an important piece of evidence being a hat that was left at the scene. When Jan meets Ace, she goes gaga over him and her father is none too pleased with her histrionics. As Jan falls in deeper with Ace and Stephen becomes consumed by his liquor vice, the two clash and their once strong bond threatens to be severed once and for all.
Entertainment Value: A Free Soul is a good example of pre-code cinema, filled with elements that drove the censors wild and wouldn’t have passed once the code was up and active. This one has a woman openly pursuing her sexual impulses, crimes that go unpunished, and a very dark, bleak vision of alcoholism that relents only long enough to allow deeper wounds. While Jan’s escapades are bound to capture a lot of the attention here and with good reason, I think Stephen’s grim relationship with addiction is almost as vital to A Free Soul. After all, the movie has the relationship between Jan and Stephen in a prominent position and as each collapses under the weight of their impulses, both are taken on a dark ride. But Jan’s tale is given more of a focus and at a certain point, Stephen almost seems to vanish without much explanation. In any case, I think both threads are well handled and Stephen’s reaction to Ace is especially interesting, given his usual disposition toward the social elite. The narrative is a good one, if a little shaky in places, always able to keep attention reeled in. I found the pace to be effective and the movie never feels slow or drawn out. I had fun with A Free Soul, as it tells an engaging story, has some colorful characters, and a nice dose of melodrama, not to mention some terrific performances.
At the lead of the cast is Norma Shearer, fresh off an Oscar win the previous year and given the spotlight to shine here. While her performance is perhaps a little stylized at times, I think those broad moments work well, given that A Free Soul has a current of melodrama involved. She brings the free spirited Jan to life in a charismatic, fun to watch effort. I can see why some might find her turn here a little forced, but she still shows immense charm and strong presence. She does tend to be overshadowed, but to be fair, Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore are on point here. Gable radiates charm and has a natural, memorable performance, while Lionel Barrymore is excellent and tends to steal most of the scenes he is present in. I like the chemistry between Shearer and Barrymore, but I wish the development of how that bond breaks down was handled a little better. The supporting cast is quite good, with Leslie Howard, James Gleason, and Lucy Beaumont in prominent roles. A Free Soul might have some issues, but I think the movie more than compensates for those concerns with fun melodrama, a strong cast, and a mostly effective narrative.