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Norma Shearer enjoyed another of her glamorous, sexually charged pre-Code roles in A Free Soul, in which the onscreen eroticism gains added heat by the casting of virile young Clark Gable as the object of Shearer's attentions. She plays the daughter of a famous lawyer (Lionel Barrymore) who regrets allowing her to become entangled with gangster Gable. Swathed in bra-less gowns that suggest nudity beneath white satin, Shearer is not shy about telling Gable what she wants. In one scene she lies back suggestively and commands, "C'mon, put 'em around me."
A Free Soul marked Gable's first major role under his new MGM contract, and he created a sensation as the tough guy who proves Shearer's match in the physical department, knocking her about and telling her to "take it and like it." Audiences were shocked but enthralled by the rough love-play; the movie became one of Shearer's most popular, and Gable walked away from it a major star. As in Gone With the Wind eight years later, Leslie Howard provides rather pallid romantic competition, playing the gentleman to Gable's rogue.
Despite director Clarence Brown's protest that she was playing "bedroom politics," Shearer broke a self-imposed rule by complaining to her husband, MGM production head Irving Thalberg, about the film's final scene, in which she and Gable fade into the background as Barrymore takes center stage to deliver a 14-minute courtroom speech. Thalberg disagreed, and the ending remained unchanged - which undoubtedly helped Barrymore win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Shearer and Brown also were nominated. A Free Soul was remade by MGM in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything, with Elizabeth Taylor, Fernando Lamas and William Powell in the key roles.
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Screenplay: Becky Gardiner, John Meehan (from novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Costume Design: Adrian
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Hugh Wynn
Music: William Axt (uncredited)
Principal Cast: Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), James Gleason (Eddie), Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe).
BW-94m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe