I began writing “Movie of the Month” posts in July two years ago, to start something new to celebrate the first anniversary of the site. For the first one, I selected Wife vs. Secretary because it’s one of my personal favorites and the following July I selected It Happened One Night because of its importance. I’m continuing the tradition of selecting an “important” Gable film in July with A Free Soul, the film that made Clark Gable a star.
Gable is Ace Wilfong, a gangster on trial for murder being represented by upper class defense attorney Stephan Ashe (Lionel Barrymore). Stephan, while successful as an attorney, is an alcoholic who is frequently an embarrassment to his family, including his high spirited daughter, Jan (Norma Shearer), who catches Ace’s eye at their first meeting. Stephan gets Ace cleared of the charges and Ace starts pursuing Jan once he is free, much to the chagrin of Jan’s stuffy fiancé, Dwight (Leslie Howard). Jan is quickly swept up into a passionate affair with Ace, excited by his dangerous lifestyle. When Ace tells Stephan he wants to marry Jan, Stephan is furious. Jan makes a deal with her father that if he agrees to give up drinking, she will give up Ace–each giving up their vice. Ace doesn’t take this well and Jan finds that she can’t untangle herself from him so easily.
Roughneck Clark Gable, fresh from a little Houston stock company and small Oregon stage school, seemed hardly destined to be the next lothario. The movie stars women were swooning over in 1930-31 were the likes of John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks–suave and svelte, romantic and tender. Most women were still dabbing at their eyes recalling the tragic death of Rudolph Valentino, the uncrowned king of movie lovers. Enter Clark, with his snarly voice, broad shoulders and hair flopping in his face. His Ace Wilfong was supposed to be the villain, the evil corrupt criminal that you are supposed to root against–it’s Leslie Howard you are supposed to hope Norma ends up with–plain vanilla Leslie Howard.
Well, the fans spoke and spoke loudly–the 1931 woman didn’t want plain vanilla and no longer wanted “powder puff” men with styled hair and ruffles on their shirts–they wanted a real man, a rough man, a man who was a bit dirty and not afraid to put them in their place. Norma’s Jan even says it in the film, “You’re just a new kind of man in a new kind of world.” A new era of leading man began and Clark’s onscreen persona was from then on set in stone. After A Free Soul, Clark went on to threaten Joan Crawford with a hairbrush, trade barbs with Jean Harlow, swing Claudette Colbert around like a bag of feathers and, most memorably, tell Vivien Leigh he could rip her apart with his hands.
When reflecting about Clark at his death in 1960, Norma Shearer was quoted as saying, “Perhaps that was where Noel Coward got the idea for his line: ‘Every woman should be hit regularly—like a gong.’ And for that sort of thing it was Gable who made villains popular. Instead of the audience’s wanting the good man to get the girl, they wanted the bad man to get the girl.”
Clark was fourth billed in the film, behind Shearer, Barrymore and even James Gleason. Clark’s Ace appears about seven minutes into the film and is immediately suave and charming–you can’t blame Norma’s Jan for being instantly smitten.
Some sixty years before the OJ Simpson trial, Ace gets found not guilty because the hat of the murderer doesn’t fit his head–if it don’t fit, you must acquit!
Starting out as suave and charming, Ace becomes angry and violent when Jan runs out on him for three months with her father. Now he is messy- looking, threatening and growls like a bear. “The rest of my life can’t wash the filthy mark of you out of my soul!” Jan proclaims.
Clark’s co-star Norma Shearer was married to MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg. Like the new guy wasn’t nervous enough and now he has to seduce the boss’ wife! Norma had been a star since the mid 1920’s and her marriage to Thalberg had solidified her status as Queen of the MGM Lot. She had been cast in rather virginal, lily-pure parts until 1930, when she desperately wanted the lead role in a rather scandalous film MGM was producing about a woman who slept around to get back at her cheating husband, called The Divorcee. She posed for some sexy photos to earn the role, proving to her husband she could play a sexpot. The role not only changed her screen persona, it also earned her an Academy Award. In this film, she goes from preppy Daddy’s girl in her cloche hat to seductive rebel pretty quickly. In fact, her first scene has her asking her father for clothes and he comments that they are only enough to cover a sparrow! The “pre-code era” fits Norma like a glove, as it turns out.
Norma is indeed at her sexiest here. Hair untamed and obviously without underwear, she is perfectly alluring. “Put ’em around me,” she purrs as she reaches her arms out to Clark. She makes fun of him when he wants to talk one night and says that men of action should stay in action. No mistaking it–he is her booty call! She is “a free soul” and wants to do what she wants to do.
Norma tends to call upon her silent era roots too much. Especially in a scene when she theatrically smacks her father and then is horrified immediately afterward. A bit over the top. But the scenes with Clark have sizzle, much more than in their two other films, Strange Interlude and Idiot’s Delight.
This being the “pre-code” era, before the crackdown on film content, this film is the definition of pre-code taboo. There is no mistaking that Norma’s Jan is spending the night at Ace’s place and that they are not exactly playing checkers up there.
One of my favorite lines here is when Ace is telling sweet innocent Dwight why he won’t want to marry Jan now. “When I get through you won’t have the guts to marry her. Let me lay it on the line for you: She tossed all her ritz overboard months ago. She came to my place and she stayed there, you get that? She’s mine, she belongs to me.” In other words, don’t expect a bride in white…
Even though audiences had now grown accustomed to seeing Norma in sultry roles such as Strangers May Kiss and The Divorcee, it was quite shocking for them to see their Queen of the Lot being pushed around by this relative newcomer. “Sit down and take it and like it!” Clark snarls as he pushed her onto the sofa.
Lionel Barrymore earned an Academy Award for his role as Jan’s falling-down-drunk attorney father and he is a bit hammy but pulls off the pain a father would feel discovering his little girl has become a “loose woman.” His last scene, in which he delivers a long monologue, is still counted as being the longest take in a commercial film at 14 minutes.
This is a pre-code but still, bad behavior must be punished. You can’t go running around sleeping with dangerous gangsters and not pay the price. Jan gives up Ace to care for her alcoholic father, which enrages Ace. In the end, she must repent for her sins. As for Ace, well, he gets what’s coming to him–courtesy of Leslie Howard! Eight years before Rhett and Ashley were intertwined with Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Clark and Leslie face off for the affections of Jan. Yet again, Clark is the bad rogue and Leslie is the pure and perfect gentleman–it’s always struck me how their names ae so fitting even; Ace Wilfong is definitely a gangster’s name, while Dwight Winthrop is no doubt a preppy goody-two-shoes! Well, Leslie gets the last word in this one…shooting Clark square in the chest!
Quite a gutsy and unexpected move in the last moments of the film. Imagine, Ashley shooting Rhett!
Famous writer Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote the book this film was based on about her own experiences with her alcoholic father. After she met Clark on the set of this film, they became lifelong friends. The play was on Broadway in 1928 for 100 performances, with Melvyn Douglas in the role of Ace.
In addition to Barrymore being nominated for Best Actor, Norma Shearer was nominated for Best Actress and Clarence Brown as best director.