Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pre-Code Parade: A FREE SOUL (1931)

I've been in a pre-Code mood so far this week. The two films I've watched so far have some things in common beside the time period, as you may see when I review the second picture, William Seiter's Hot Saturday. One thing I noticed in both that Paramount production and Clarence Brown's film for M-G-M is something that might define the pre-Code aesthetic better than anything else. These films aren't just about transgression against traditional mores, but deal with the conflict between those mores and the transgressors. Pre-Code may be all about the tension between those conflicting values, and may illustrate a period of belated transition from one set of values to another, so that the Code enforcement that comes in 1934 doesn't so much signify the return of traditional mores as the fact that the conflict no longer needed to be depicted on screen as starkly as in the early Thirties. Pre-Code often gives us a juxtaposition of transgressive daring and positively archaic values that themselves arguably aren't represented as much on screen after the Code crackdown.

A Free Soul is the story of a father and daughter, Stephen and Jan Ashe. Stephen (Lionel Barrymore) is an alcoholic and brilliant defense attorney, the Johnny Cochran of his time. Because of his drinking he's a black sheep of the extended family, but his daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), a true daddy's girl, defends and admires him as a nonconformist. A "free soul" herself, she's fascinated by Stephen's client, Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable, saddled with a name that might have come from the pen of Mahatma Kane Jeeves). When a tipsy Stephen brings the acquitted Ace home to meet the relatives, Jan responds to their predictable snubs by going out for a drive with the alleged gangster, and barely escapes a drive-by shooting along the way. In her mind, Ace is a free soul like she is, "a new kind of man in a new kind of world." But she keeps her distance for the moment, drawing the line at a second kiss on her first visit to chez Ace, a speakeasy and gambling parlor.

If it doesn't fit ...

During the first half of the picture, you begin to feel sympathy for a slightly Gatsby-esque Ace, who naively responds to Jan's flirting while we realize that he's really just an attraction for her, an exotic specimen of manhood momentarily more interesting to her than her actual fiancee. That's Leslie Howard as Dwight, "one of the first twelve polo players" in the country, doomed as ever to look pallid compared to Gable.

At least Howard's hat fits him -- if you could see him wear it.

So eclipsed is Howard, despite his higher billing, that he disappears from the picture for a long middle portion as Jan finally does the unthinkable and stays the night with Ace, even inviting him into her arms! What she doesn't know is that, downstairs in the speakeasy, Ace had just asked her father for permission to marry her, and had been viciously rejected. "The only time I hate democracy," Stephen said, "is when one of you mongrels forgets where you belong." From that confrontation Ace storms upstairs for what's basically a revenge-screw with Jan. Later, when Ace's flunkies have to knock out a blotto Stephen before the cops arrive for a raid, they dump him upstairs, where he finds Jan in post-erotic disarray. He is horrified, and she is humiliated -- or is that vice versa?

Anyway, the Ashes now know they've both gone too far with Ace Wilfong. Jan suggests a pact: she'll dump Ace flat if Stephen quits drinking cold turkey. Dad finds that a hard bargain, but he agrees. Their idea of detox is a three-month expedition into the mountains, where the worst effect of withdrawal Stephen suffers is sleeplessness. But as soon as they (with Stephen's faithful retainer, played by James Gleason) head for home, Stephen manages to find liquor in a pharmacy, gets wasted on it, and hops a freight before Jan's unbelieving eyes.

Jan heads home alone to find herself shunned by her relatives. Since Dad didn't keep up his end of the bargain, she decides to go to Ace for sympathy, but he's wised up. Now he demands that she marry him and warns her that he'll kidnap her off the street if she doesn't obey. This new tone revolts her and reminds her of the revulsion she felt when her father found her in Ace's apartment. "The rest of my life can't wash the filthy mark of you off of my soul," she scolds him. When Dwight reappears to call her home to her dying grandmother, Ace warns him not to interfere if he values his life. Worse, if Dwight thinks of marrying Jan, Ace will tell the world about her night in his apartment. And that's more than Dwight can stand; he can't stands no more.

So the next day Dwight shows up at Ace's speakeasy to negotiate some kind of settlement. In the privacy of Ace's office Dwight shoots him to death in cold blood. Then he picks up the phone and tells the police that he's just killed Wilfong over a gambling debt. He expects to make no defense in court and is willing to pay the ultimate penalty in order to preserve Jan's honor. That's what I mean about archaic values: Dwight has basically perpetrated an honor killing. I understand that in the now-lost Pashto-language version of A Free Soul filmed simultaneously with the American version in typical early-talkie fashion, Dwight actually kills Jan, and the director insisted on live ammunition -- but that's another story that I might tell not quite two months from now.

"See here, Wilfong, my grandaddy should have done this to your grandaddy back in Georgia. You know, ... just because!"

Since Jan knows she has no honor to preserve, she can't let Dwight go to his death. But his confession makes the case against him airtight, unless some supreme legal eagle can concoct an insanity defense. Jan knows someone who might be able to do that, and fortunately she trips over her father in a flophouse early in her search. After a drying-out process that's probably best left to our imagination, Stephen Ashe is made presentable, albeit in precarious health, and is allowed, despite Dwight's objections, to take over the defense. This defense consists of questioning Jan and revealing the truth about her relationship with Wilfong, and a closing statement to the jury in which the elder Ashe declares himself guilty of Ace's death because he didn't bring Jan up right, allowing her to get into the kind of trouble that obliged Dwight to do the right thing, albeit in an irresponsible state of temporary insanity. In a Christlike gesture of taking others' sins upon himself, Stephen Ashe turns to face the judge and immediately drops dead.

For his trouble, Lionel Barrymore won the Oscar for Best Actor of 1930-31. Shearer had to settle for a nomination, but had already won her Oscar the year before for The Divorcee. She's pretty hot, I thought, in her slinky costumes, and she's good here when she can be free and flirtatious, and on the witness stand during the climax. But when she has to utter the more melodramatic lines like the one I quoted, she suddenly seems very artificial. Barrymore is a scenery chewer, and his sudden fit of snobbery against Ace comes too far out of nowhere to make a believable plot device. Gable is still in his hunky-heel phase here (see also Night Nurse) but the moments when he expresses sincere grievance against the Ashes' emotional manipulation of him show his potential to play more sympathetic roles. As in Gone With the Wind, Leslie Howard is presented as a counter-ideal of masculinity to Gable's, and while the contrast is much more stark and dramatic in this earlier film, Howard still comes off as an obsolete ideal of refined heroism.

For all that A Free Soul has been canonized as a Pre-Code classic, it nearly founders on its assertion of pre-modern values. Let's face it: objectively speaking, Dwight is guilty as sin of premeditated murder. I doubt the kind of temporary insanity defense that Stephen Ashe offers would fly today. But the film insists that he deserves to live free, and it absurdly takes the histrionic attorney at his word that he should die to appease justice because he was too drunk to teach his daughter to stay away from gangsters. I think we're even supposed to conclude that the Ashes' snobbish relatives were right all along after all. But at the same time the script refutes Dwight's reasoning by allowing Jan to tell the sordid truth about her and Ace, presumably without being ruined. The film ends with an acquitted Dwight and Jan temporarily going their separate ways, but with a permanent reunion pretty much certain. The code that dictated Ace's death and Dwight's silence may have been vindicated in a way by Stephen's confession of guilt and quasi-suicide, but it's been shaken up a bit as well, and Jan's survived to love another day. The tension of conflicting values stretches the plot of A Free Soul almost to the snapping point, but that tension helps create the historical excitement of pre-Code cinema.


dfordoom said...

A Free Soul is a favourite of mine. I'm a major Norma Shearer fan. This movie even survives Lionel Barrymore's hamming!

Another Norma Shearer must-see pre-code movie is Private Lives.

Erich Kuersten said...

You bring up some nice things about MGM hypocrisy in the pre-code era, mon frere. Over at Warners, Stanwyck was enjoying her flings with upper class bachelors and gangsters, but at MGM Shearer was permitted only to suffer, suffer, suffer. For every night of unwed passion she had to commit to at least a decade as a suffering martyr, and usually some twit was there to sacrifice his life to keep her "honor." Still, whenever she had a few seconds to sizzle, like she does in Gable's arms during the seduction scene, whoa, can she ever!

(P.S. I wrote about this movie a few years ago on Acidemic, here)

dfordoom said...

That why I like Private Lives. Shearer isn't forced into a martyr role.