powered by AFI
According to M-G-M publicity material, the story on which this film was based first appeared serially in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan starting in September 1926. Although onscreen credits list only the book by Adela Rogers St. Johns as the source of this film, contemporary reviews list both the novel and Willard Mack's play. According to New York Times, a portion of the film was filmed on location at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
A biography of Norma Shearer notes that Shearer, after reading the story, suggested it as a starring vehicle for herself to her husband, producer Irving Thalberg. Modern sources note that the character of Stephen Ashe was modelled after author Adela Rogers St. Johns's father, Earl Rogers, who was a noted California defense attorney, and who also had a drinking problem. According to a biography of Irving Thalberg, when the producer asked St. Johns if he could purchase rights to her story, she informed him that William Randolph Hearst had already secured an option on the story until the publication of the second installment; when Thalberg asked her to name her price for the property and she told him $40,000, he balked at the figure and told her that he could only afford half that amount. Thalberg then reportedly looked into St. Johns's bank account to see how much money she had and discovered that her balance was a mere $10.85. The following day, so the story goes, he left a check for $25,000 on her desk. St. Johns remained firm, however, and Thalberg ended up paying the full $40,000. Thalberg's biography also notes that St. Johns wrote A Free Soul with Joan Crawford in mind as the feminine lead and petitioned Thalberg to cast her in the part. Commenting on her failed bid to star in the picture, Crawford reportedly said, "How can I compare with Norma when she sleeps with the boss?"
Modern sources indicate that studio executives, after seeing the film's first preview, decided that Shearer had been eclipsed by Barrymore, so they decided to shoot additional scenes to build up her character. According to Gable's biography, following the release of the film, the studio received thousands of letters praising Gable's performance and asking to see more of "the guy who slapped Norma Shearer." A studio press release claimed that this role made Gable a star.
According to the file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association protested what they claimed was an unfair portrayal of druggists in the film. Minor deletions were made in the film by local censors following its release, and Ireland banned the film altogether. The MPAA/PCA material also indicates that in 1936 the PCA recommended that the studio withdraw its application for reissue certification of the picture or face a possible rejection.
A Free Soul was voted "One of the Ten Best Pictures of 1931" by the Film Daily Nationwide Poll. Lionel Barrymore's performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Shearer was nominated for Best Actress, and Clarence Brown received a nomination for Best Director. Hollywood Reporter news items note that A Free Soul was performed as a radio broadcast in 1937, with the voices of Ginger Rogers, Don Ameche and Charles Winninger, and again in 1938, with Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and Rita Johnson. The film was remade by M-G-M in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything, directed by Richard Thorpe and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Fernando Lamas.