It would be easy to dismiss A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931) as a relic of a bygone era, both morally and cinematically, even though its dismissal would be warranted as the film is a creaky, stodgy early talkie that sets the artform, not to mention women's sexual rights, backwards 20 years. A Free Soul, a standard melodrama of its day, revolves around Stephen Ashe, an alcoholic, upper-class lawyer (Lionel Barrymore) and Jan, his free-spirited, vibrant daughter (Queen of MGM, Norma Shearer). He just successfully gotten cruel, yet completely charming gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) acquitted of murder. Jan begins a sexual affair with the gangster, much to her father's dismay. Not that she's having sex so much as she's having sex with that lowlife creep so obviously beneath him and his daughter's social class.
The story of A Free Soul is hardly its strong suit, as it was hardly revolutionary even in 1931. What fascinates me 80 years later is the surprisingly strong feminist revelation that the film leads to. The character of Jan is supposed to be this free spirit, a remnant of the flapper era in the sobering days of the Great Depression. She thinks she can do whatever she wants but, really, she's merely a piece of property passed around between various entities over the course of the film. In the first part of the film, Jan is owned by her class and all the protocol that is included. After her affair with Ace has been going on for months, Ace is suddenly angered by the fact that she will only see him late at night at his place, never out in public where others will see them. Jan's class definitely prohibits liaisons such as this, so it is her duty to hide the dirty little secret instead of flaunting for everyone else to see. She is not a rebellious character; she is simply a girl who wants a little action.
After her father learns of her affair, he forbids her from seeing him again or accepting his marriage proposal. Fearing that this news will drive him to go on another, possibly fatal, binge, Jan promises to give up Ace if he will stop drinking. So, the two of them drop everything and head off into the wilderness to deal with their addictions for a few months. Jan may say she's working on getting over Ace, but she's truly spending the bulk of their time away trying to get her father sober. She frets over it constantly, theoretically replacing one addiction with another. Jan has given up everything in order to help a man who, at the first opportunity, buys as much alcohol as he can and goes on a major bender without a care in the world for her.
When she returns home, without a father and shunned from the rest of her family, Jan returns to Ace, hoping he will provide some of the happiness she has lost. He is happy to see her, but after losing her all those months, Ace wants more than just sex from her. He wants to marry her, much to Jan's surprise. She at first accepts but quickly considers her options and realizes that she doesn't have to marry him. She's not in love with him anymore and he has no right to treat her like a possession. This idea is further explored when Ace comes to her apartment later on and says, in effect, "The ring is here, the minister has been called, we're getting married. Come on." Ace believes that just because she is a ruined woman now, she has no choice but to marry him. But Jan knows that being with him for that reason alone will never make her happy. So she makes the difficult choice to choose her own freewill over the happiness of those around her.
As a film about a woman owning her own soul, A Free Soul is surprisingly liberal for 1930s Hollywood, almost becoming a tamer version of Their Eyes Were Watching God. As a film about a woman owning her body and her virtue, A Free Soul looks dated even by 1931's Pre-Code standards. Don't forget that this is from the same studio that, one year later, showed Jean Harlow seduce a married man, marry him herself and then leave him with no punishment for her actions. A Free Soul wants it both ways--we are meant to cheer on Jan's sexual exploits but the film ultimately condemns them--but it simply doesn't work. If it's a feminist tale, then why is Jan's ex-fiancé (Leslie Howard) fighting for her honor when Ace won't leave her alone? Jan has already accepted the consequences of whatever she did and is not ashamed of them anymore, so why is the film? If A Free Soul is a condemnation of lax sexual morality, why do they make it look so fun and openly flaunt the Pre-Code sexuality that they were allowed to get away with, only to come down nearly as harshly as they would have been forced to just years later? The film can't make up its mind what it wants to be so it throws everything up on-screen in the hopes that something will stick. Nothing does, and it only makes an already convoluted film that much more preposterous.
A Free Soul looks like it was edited with a hacksaw and features Lionel Barrymore at his hammiest and Norma Shearer, as fascinating as she is to watch, at her shrieky worst. If you look beyond the surface badness, however, there's an interesting film ready to emerge and ripe for a retelling should a writer be so bold as to tackle this moldy antiquity. C-