A FREE SOUL
Produced and Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Premiered: June 2, 1931 (New York)
Released: June 20, 1931
Featured cast: Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard
Producer: Bernard Hyman
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenwriters: Becky Gardiner (adaptation); John Meehan (dialogue)
Source: the play by Willard Mack, which was based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns
Cinematographer: William Daniels
A gangster comes between a hard-drinking lawyer and his free-thinking daughter.
“There is an interesting battle going on out at Metro these days. At least, people call it a battle. Friends say that Joan Crawford holds Norma Shearer responsible for her own poor pictures. It is well known that Joan has wanted to play many of the pictures Norma has drawn. But she doesn't blame Norma. Norma married Irving Thalberg, the producing boss of the lot; Norma secured the advantage through that marriage. Joan's picture, Our Dancing Daughters, put her to the fore. Norma immediately secured The Divorcee which Joan wanted to play. Oh, how she wanted to play it!
“Joan countered by packing the box-office with Paid. Norma followed with Strangers May Kiss, and then Joan had two mediocre pictures, Laughing Sinners and This Modern Age. To her intimates and some times not to her intimates, Joan blames Norma Shearer for those bad pictures. She feels Norma influenced her producer husband to give her bad stories. Joan didn't want to stay on the lot—we wonder if Norma wasn’t just shrewd enough to keep her? After all, Joan Crawford on the home lot can be watched and kept in check; Joan Crawford on another lot might be given the very stories which would seriously compete with Norma’s.
“Ah, it's an interesting battle, with Joan making the mistake of all impulsive women who have trained themselves to be selfish rather than being born selfish. No one could ever persuade Norma to say an unkind word about Joan. She is too subtle. She plays a silent game of poker. And yet—who can blame either woman? Had they met in any other walk of life, they might have been friends. But meeting on the same lot in the motion picture profession they have fought their way to the top by slow, painful steps which have been carpeted with bitter disillusions. They cannot be expected to love one another.”
- Frances Denton, “Must They Be Selfish to Win Screen Fame?” Photoplay, November 1931
“Talking pictures are by no means elevated by the presentation of A Free Soul. Nevertheless, it should be stated that Lionel Barrymore does all that is possible with his role. In fact, his is the only characterization that rings true, the other players being handicapped either through miscasting, a false conception of human psychology, or poorly written lines. Norma Shearer may be the star of this film, but Mr. Barrymore steals whatever honors there may be. Miss Shearer, who looks as captivating as ever, is called upon to act a part which is unsuited to her intelligent type of beauty. Clark Gable is all very well as a gangster, but it is problematical whether a woman of Miss Shearer's type would become enamored of an individual who behaves as he does here.”
- Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, June 3, 1931
“Some people may think they have had their money’s worth when they have seen Norma Shearer silhouetted in a doorway, wrapped in a skin-tight gold lame negligee, her knee archly kinked, her hair coyly fluffed, and her chin in her palm—but I don’t. I resent that A Free Soul is a preposterous, illogical, over-talkative, motionless motion picture, and not even Lionel Barrymore’s melodramatic wig-wagging convinced me.”
- Creighton Peet, Outlook, June 3, 1931
LETTER FROM REGIONAL THEATER OWNER
“If there was ever a picture that was worth $2.00 admission, A Free Soul is that picture. In my nineteen years as an exhibitor, this was the most pleasant evening’s experience I ever spent. It is this kind of picture that will make box-office records.”
- M.S. Fine, Associated Theatres, Cleveland, Ohio, Motion Picture Daily, July 6, 1931
LETTER TO MOVIE MAGAZINE EDITOR
“Connie Bennett and Lil Tashman are the best dressed women on the screen, in my opinion. Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer vie for honors as the best undressed.”
- Mrs. E. Campbell, Troy, Ohio, “The Audience Speaks Its Mind,” Photoplay, October 1931
“There were several roles I wanted badly but Norma got. One was A Free Soul. I was dying to do it. And Adela wanted me to. But Norma got it anyway.”
- Joan Crawford to Bob Thomas, 1968, quoted in Mark A. Vieira, Irving Thalberg
“A Free Soul was a sophisticated tale which, for better or worse, established the gangster as a glamour boy, not just a villain, on the screen. The effect of this on the morals of our world leaves some room for doubt, but it did start a rush of fascinating films. One of the reasons was Clark Gable, who got his first real chance to practice his arrogant charm in front of the camera. Another reason was the film’s final scene, a tour de force in a courtroom that won Lionel Barrymore an Academy Award. And A Free Soul brought me one of my six Academy Award nominations.”
- Norma Shearer, Memoir Notes
A Free Soul cost $529,000 and grossed $1,422,000.
(These figures have not been adjusted for inflation nor do they include profits from reissues, television syndication, and home entertainment formats.)