Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Free Soul

It may not be Lionel Barrymore's best performance, but it's the one that won him an Oscar: that of alcoholic defense attorney Stephen Ashe in A Free Soul, airing at 9:45 PM ET tonight.

The movie starts off quite provocatively, with the lawyer wondering how his daughter Jan (Norma Shearer) can fit into some flimsy clothing. It turns out that while they have a close relationship, he's the black sheep of the family, due to his heavy drinking and the fact he has no qualms defending gangsters, while her bohemian nature hasn't won her too much sympath, either. Indeed, that work gets him in trouble when, at what is supposed to be a dinner for Jan and her fiancé Dwight (Leslie Howard), Stephen shows up with the notorious gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable, in the role that made him a star), having just gotten Ace off a murder rap.

It's fairly easy to figure out what happens next: Jan finds Ace exciting, especially compared to the strait-laced Dwight, and runs off with him. This won't do for anybody, as Stephen at least has some morals, realizing that Ace is not the right man for his daughter. So, he makes a deal with her: he'll stop drinking, if she promises to stop cavorting with Ace Wilfong. The two go to the mountains to get their respective vices out of their systems. And, it works for a while, until Stephen starts drinking again, at which point Jan decides to go back to Ace. But he's not so good to her any more, and she finds that when she wants to break away from him, he's not about to let her....

The conflict is resolved by poor milquetoast Dwight. Having lost his girl, he feels he has nothing to live for, sohe gets a gun and shoots poor Ace in cold blood. This was Hollywood in 1931. A few years later the Production Code would be strictly enforced, and Dwight would be forced to pay for his sins, with no doubt about it. However, at this time, it was still theoretically possible to get away with murder, and the writers give Dwight an unrealistic self-defense alibi that ought not hold up in a real court of law. And it shouldn't hold up in A Free Soul either -- unless Stephen can make the case for Dwight. Of course, Stephen is a drunk again, and defending Dwight may just kill him.

It's the climactic courtroom scene in which Barrymore defends Howard (and, by extension, his daughter's honor) that won him the Oscar. Norma Shearer was also nominated, although she had won the previous year for The Divorcee. Perhaps the Academy didn't want to award the same person the Oscar in back-to-back years and, fortunately for them, they had another outstanding performance they could award, that of Marie Dressler in Min and Bill. (That's Dressler standing next to Barrymore, each of them holding their Oscars.) Barrymore's and Shearer's acting may seem a bit florid today, but the movie is still worth watching, especially for Gable's performance. It's been released to DVD, as part of one of the Forbidden Hollywood boxsets of pre-Code movies.

(When I wrote about Min and Bill back in August 2008, it had not yet been released to DVD. However, TCM has since put it out as part of the TCM Vault Collection.)

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