Norma Shearer, Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore star in “A Free Soul,” a 1931 film directed by Clarence Brown. Shearer plays Jan Ashe, a modern and free-spirited woman who carries on an open affair with Ace Wilfong, a notorious gambler. Barrymore plays Jan’s lawyer father, Stephen, who battles alcoholism while defending Wilfong in court. Leslie Howard plays the soft-spoken and safe Dwight Winthrop, who loves and desperately wants to marry Jan.
Stephen disapproves of his daughter’s scandalous affair with Ace, so she makes a deal with him — she’ll stop seeing Ace if Stephen promises to never drink again. Stephen reluctantly agrees and the two go off to the mountains for 3 months so Stephen can dry out and Jan can forget Ace. All goes well for a while until Ace finally comes back into their lives. A stirring courtroom scene involving the alcohol-impaired Stephen brings the film to its compelling conclusion.
Shearer made a nice transition to talking films, especially with another pre-code film, “The Divorcee,” which came out a year earlier. She won an Oscar for The Divorcee but A Free Soul provides her with an even better cast. It’s sometimes difficult to hear the dialogue in these early talkies unless the actor’s speaking voice projects clearly over the sound hiss. Shearer, Barrymore, Gable and Howard all possessed great elocution, so that’s not a problem here. Also, MGM seemed to produce better sound in their early talkies than most of the other studios.