TCM Pick for July: Pre-Code
My TCM pre-Code pick of the month stars one of my favorite pre-Code actresses – Norma Shearer. I first saw Shearer in The Women (1939), which (1) I believe I have seen more times than any other movie, and (2) if you have not seen, you simply must. It wasn’t until years after seeing The Women, though, that I had the pleasure of discovering Shearer’s pre-Code films, including The Divorcee (1930), Let Us Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), and my TCM pick for July: A Free Soul (1931).
Airing on July 17th, A Free Soul boasts a stellar cast that, in addition to Shearer, includes Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, and James Gleason. It also offers 93 minutes that are chock full of everything you could want in a pre-Code feature. Trust me.
Jan Ashe (Shearer) is the devoted daughter of Stephen Ashe (Barrymore), an alcoholic lawyer. The free-spirited and vivacious Jan breaks her engagement to a polo player and turns her back on her upper-crust upbringing when she leaps into an affair with a local mobster, Ace Wilfong (Gable), whom her father has successfully defended against a charge of murder. Jan comes to learn, however, that defying convention is not all it’s cracked up to be – and that’s just the first half of the film!
As the scene begins, Stephen Ashe arrives at Ace Wilfong’s (do you just love that name, or what?) subterranean gambling casino, having been personally invited by his former client. When Stephen inquires about the nature of the invitation, Ace informs him that he wants to marry Jan, prompting Stephen Ashe to let loose with one of the best, and most succinct, put-downs I’ve heard in a while: “The only time I hate democracy is when one of you mongrels forget where you belong. A few illegal dollars and a clean shirt and you move across the railroad tracks. Tell your boy to bring me some libations, and don’t insult your guests.” (Zing!) But that’s just the start of this awesome scene. Stunned, insulted and in need of wound-licking, Ace stalks off to his hideaway, where Jan is waiting, clad in a silken robe and eagerly waiting for the evening’s delights to be revealed. (If you know what I mean.) Without fanfare, Ace presses her for a declaration of love, telling her he wants to marry her. And what is Jan’s reaction? She gives a chuckle and asks, simply, “Why?” Throughout their exchange over the next few minutes, Ace is demanding and humorless, while Jan is flippant and amused. When Ace angrily points out that none of Jan’s friends know about him, she tosses her head and responds, “Of course not. It’s my own business.” As Ace’s tone increases in volume, insisting that he is deciding their future, Jan remains smiling and calm: “Oh, no you’re not,” she says, almost pleasantly. “Nobody is.” And finally, after she sparks Ace’s palpable fury by pointedly laughing at him, Jan effectively brings an abrupt end to the discussion by reclining on a chaise lounge, holding out her arms, and saying to Ace, “Come on – put ‘em around me.”
Here’s two (and a link to a third, as a bonus!)
“I just don’t want to get married, Dwight. I don’t want life to settle down around me like a pan of sour dough. I don’t want it one little bit.” Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer)
“Men of action are better in action. They don’t talk well.” Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer).
And another quote can be found here.
A Free Soul was taken from a stage play by Willard Mack, which was based on a novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns. The character of Stephen Ashe was based on St. Johns’s father, who was a noted defense attorney in California and also had a drinking problem. In addition to her novels, St. Johns wrote original stories for the movies, including What Price Hollywood?, and later became a well-known newspaper reporter. She was also the second cousin of Humphrey Bogart (her grandmother and his grandfather were siblings). The twice-wed writer was once quoted as saying: “I think every woman is entitled to a middle husband she can forget.”
The play A Free Soul opened on Broadway on January 12, 1928, and played for 100 performances. The opening night cast included Melvyn Douglas as Ace Wilfong and Kay Johnson as Jan Ashe. Kay Johnson signed a contract with MGM in the late 1920s and went on to appear in such films as Madame Satan, Thirteen Women, and Of Human Bondage. One of her two sons is actor James Cromwell, who was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in Babe and was also featured in HBO’s Six Feet Under and such films as L.A. Confidential (1997), The Queen (2006), and The Artist (2011).
The film was directed by Clarence Brown, who also helmed such beloved features as Anna Christie (1931), Letty Lynton (1932), Sadie McKee (1934), Anna Karenina (1935), Wife Vs. Secretary (1936), Idiot’s Delight (1939), and National Velvet (1944). Brown has the distinction of earning the most Oscar nominations for best director (six) without winning. Among the six films for which he was nominated was A Free Soul – the award was won that year by Norman Taurog for Skippy. (Skippy?!?!) Brown died in 1987 at the age of 97.
Lionel Barrymore received his only Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor, for his performance in this film. He won. Norma Shearer was nominated for Best Actress as well, but she lost to Marie Dressler for Min and Bill.
A Free Soul was remade in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Fernando Lamas.
Check out a couple of goofs in the film: the first comes in an emotionally charged scene between Jan and Stephen, where Jan strikes a bargain with her father. If you look close, you’ll see that Lionel Barrymore’s hair changes several times, between the medium shots and the close-ups. And the second one is in the very next scene, which depicts Jan and Stephen in the mountains with Stephen’s “Man Friday,” Eddie, played by James Gleason. Watch for the point where Gleason says, “Alright, alright – have it your own way.” Right after this line, Gleason and the donkey take off running, but Gleason falls just before he exits the shot. You can tell from the reactions of all three principal players that the fall was not a planned part of the movie.
Reportedly, when the final version of A Free Soul was screened, the censors wanted to cut my favorite scene, the one where Shearer tells Gable to “put ‘em around me.” MGM refused, and released the film without the requested change. (Lucky for us!)
A Free Soul is a first-rate example of the pre-Code era – when I tell you that it’s got it all, you can believe it. So tune in on July 17th and see what all the fuss is about.
Do I have to tell you why?