Free Soul, A (1931): Lionel Barrymore’s Oscar Winning Performance

Made in the vein of her previous film, the Oscar-winning “The Divorcee,” Clarence Brown’s “A Free Soul,” MGM’s adult melodrama, was designed as a star vehicle for the studio’s reigning queen, Norma Shearer (who was married to production head Irving Thalberg).

Though the reviews were lukewarm, “A Free Soul” was one of Shearer’s most popular films, a sensational success that could not have been made after the introduction of the rigid Production Code, in 1934. The film is also known for featuring Clark Gable before he became a major star, when he was still playing brute gangsters.

In John Meehan’s scenario, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. John, Lionel Barrymore plays Stephen Ashe, a brilliant criminal lawyer, who’s reproached by his family for his excessive drinking and “unconventional conduct.”

One day, while drunk, Ashe brings Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), a gambler and underworld leader, to the birthday gathering of his mother’s (Lucy Beaumont). When they realize they are unwelcome, they leave along with Jan (Norma Shearer), a motherless daughter, who then becomes Ace’s mistress.

Ace wants to marry her, but Ashe refuses to grant approval, claiming that it would ruin his daughter’s chances at happiness.

During a raid that night, while trying to hide, Ashe discovers Jan and Ace together. Jan consents to stop dating Ace if Ashe will stop drinking. But he cannot stop, and Jan goes back to Ace.  As brutish as he always has been, Ace tries to molest her. Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), Jan’s ex-fiancé, interferes. Ace gets killed, leading to Winthrop’s arrest.

The hysterical Jan then asks her father to save Winthrop. When Ashe realizes what anguish he’s caused Jan, he confesses to the murder and is gunned down by one of Ace’s mobster friends.  He dies with a prayer for forgiveness, and Jan and Winthrop leave together.

MGM conducted an extensive Best Actor Oscar campaign for Lionel Barrymore, as Shearer’s alcoholic lawyer-father, and it paid off. The studio publicized the fact that Lionel had shot the climactic trial scene, at the end of which he drops dead, in one take. Even by 1930s standards, Barrymore’s performance was hammy and overbaked, but a speech in which he takes the blame for not taking a firm enough approach with his daughter proved effective in its theatrical impact.

Cast

Norma Shearer
Leslie Howard
Lionel Barrymore
Clark Gable
James Gleason
Lucy Beaumont

Credits

Directed by Clarence Brown.
Screenplay by John Meehan, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. John.
Photography by William Daniels.
Edited by Hugh Wynn.

Release date: June 20, 1931.
Running time: 91 Minutes.