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A Free Soul

(1931 b 94')

En: 5 Ed: 5

Based on a novel by Adela Rogers St. John, who also wrote a biography of her famous lawyer father, Earl Rogers, this story portrays an alcoholic lawyer and his free-spirited daughter.

Supplied with liquor by his friend Eddie (James Gleason), Stephen Ashe (AA-winner Lionel Barrymore) manages to get gangster Ace (Clark Gable) off on a murder charge by using a hat trick. At the 80th birthday celebration of Jan's grandmother, Dwight (Leslie Howard) announces his engagement to Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer), Stephen's daughter. Ace comes in and is snubbed by the society family for being a gangster, but Jan goes out with him. They survive a drive-by machine-gun shooting, and Ace takes her to his secret gambling club and residence. Jan tells Dwight she does not want to marry, and Ace summons Stephen Ashe to his club, where he tells him he wants to marry his daughter. Jan acts coy with Ace, not saying she will marry him but fawning on him. As the place prepares for a raid by the police, the drunk Ashe complains of chips being taken from him. He discovers Jan there and calls her cheap and Ace a rat. Jan has refrained from criticizing her father's drinking, but now she promises not to see Ace if he will stop; he agrees.

Jan, Stephen, and Eddie go camping in Yosemite valley. After a week Stephen is regretting he made a bargain for a mobster, but after three months he feels great. On the way back though he gets drunk. Jan is turned away by her family and has only Eddie. So she goes to see Ace, who angrily says they will get married in the morning and tells her to forget her father. Offended by his insensitivity, she leaves. Dwight visits Jan's grandmother, who tells him to marry Jan and dies. Ace pushes aside Eddie and orders Jan to marry him, but she says no. Dwight comes in, and Ace tells him she has been staying there and belongs to him, threatening Dwight if he interferes. In the next scene Dwight goes to see Ace and shoots him dead; then he calls the police and confesses he did it over a gambling debt. Jan visits Dwight in jail, saying she loves him and hates herself. She finds her father among the drunks, and he manages to take up Dwight's trial defense at the last moment, pleading that he was temporarily insane. He calls Jan to testify how Ace made threats. In his dramatic summation Ashe pleads for the noble Dwight and then collapses. In the final scene Jan and Dwight are talking as though they will meet in the future.

This strong story based on real people reveals the dangers of addictive alcoholism, gambling, and mob violence, all criminalized and made worse by prohibition. Unfortunately murder is not much of a solution to these problems. Even Jan has lost her innocence succumbing to Ace; but she seems to have learned from her experience, and the audience can too.

Copyright © 1999 by Sanderson Beck

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