Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Free Soul (Robert Z. Leonard) *1/2

Clarence Brown

Cast: Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, James Gleason

Background: Clarence Brown received an Oscar for directing Anna Christie, which was Greta Garbo's first talkie and also got her an Oscar nomination. Norma Shearer was coming off a Best Actress Oscar for The Divorcee. This is one of Gable's earliest major roles.

Story: Defense attorney Stephen Ashe (Barrymore) wins the acquittal of a gambler (Gable) on a murder charge, but is not happy to see that his daughter (Shearer) begins dating the man.

Thoughts: This is a movie that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be about. It alternates from love triangle to father-daughter drama about alcoholism to courtroom drama. Ultimately, it is not successful at any of them. The script doesn't seem to know what to do about the various characters. At one point in the third act, the film does a complete 180 on how we're supposed to view Gable's character. It's an abrupt and jarring twist that completely derails the movie. Once Barrymore wanders back into the film for a ridiculously contrived courtroom sequence, it's hard to take anything seriously. At the very least, we get confirmation on Norma Shearer's skill as an actress. She brings an astonishing elegance to her role and her wonderful presence makes the film somewhat bearable.

Postscript: Lionel Barrymore won the Best Actor Oscar for this film. The film also received nominations for Norma Shearer and Clarence Brown. Clark Gable and Leslie Howard would late appear together in Gone With the Wind.

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