Jul 19, 2013

Norma Shearer, A Free Soul

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Norma Shearer is an actress with whom I'm completely indifferent to. I'm neither excited by her nor do I dislike her enough to dread watching another one of her films--I'm just completely on the fence. So when it comes time to view another one of her performances, I'm neither expecting to be wowed or disappointed. After reviewing her Oscar winning turn and its sister nomination in the last profiled year, my perception of her performance work was that she is generally above-average with occasional moments of captivating dramatic excellence. After finishing A Free Soul, I have to give credit where it's due: Shearer's work is fantastic, and she's by far my MVP of the film.

 photo SHEARER3.pngShearer's work early on in the film is essentially indistinguishable from her Jerry and Lally. What's required of her is to act coy, cute, and sweet to her father and male suitors, and she does that well, though I must admit I've grown rather tired of the act after having seen it in three different films. So for the first half hour or so, you'd think you're watching The Divorcee or Their Own Desire again. On a side, Jan's relationship with Lionel Barrymore's Stephen is...a little uncomfortable to say the least, just because there seems to be a layer of flirtatiousness between the two of them that isn't typical with familial relations. When there's not much difference between the way you speak to your father and your boyfriend, then something's wrong, and I couldn't figure out if this was deliberate or not. I cannot get over how awkward the opening sequence was--why filmmakers thought it'd be a good idea to have a daughter be nude and ask her father to bring her an outfit, to which he brings her lingerie..is beyond me. "Ooh, we're being risque!" they must have thought. Well, it's awkward and gross. But I digress.

 photo SHEARER4.png However, I do feel that the role of Jan offers more emotional thoroughness than that of her previously nominated roles. Once her father discovers her at her gangster boyfriend's home, things really start kicking into gear and Shearer is absolutely outstanding. I loved the exchange between her and Barrymore once they return home--it's a wonderful showcase of great acting, and Shearer never goes over-the-top when she easily could have. In fact, from here on out there are a lot of tears shed on Jan's part, and I never once felt that she overdid it. From the devastating look she gives upon finding out her father has started drinking again, to finding out about her grandmother's death, to her sad exchange with Leslie Howard's Dwight after his arrest, Shearer is given blow after blow but still channels these emotions without making it seem forced or exaggerated. The final courtroom scene is the highlight of her entire performance--her strain to admit to the court that she slept with Ace, the sadness and shame in her allusion that she isn't a chaste woman--is such a beautifully acted moment.

All in all, Shearer is fantastic here, and while I wasn't wowed to the point where I've become a devoted fan, her performance is enough to heighten my overall appreciation for her.


  1. The Trial of Mary Dugan (Shearer's first talkie), The Divorcee, Idiot's Delight and A Free Soul were just some of Shearer's vehicles strenuously coveted by Joan Crawford, and their loss would foster Joan's life-long hostility to Norma. When they finally meet in The Women, Joan was more than eager for any opportunity to bitch Norma.

    The film is one of the most pre-Code of the pre-Codes. Shearer enters her sexual relationship with Gable not to get over a broken heart, not because her circumstances are dire, not because the gangster is pressuring her, not because she's in love, but simply because she feels like it. Neither is she forced at the end to go through some protracted and degrading 'redemption.' It is precisely the reason A Free Soul was not allowed re-release during the Breen censorship reign beginning in July 1934.

    "...But Adrian's boldly streamlined gowns seem to cue the performance itself. Worn without a bra, plunging fore and aft, they suggest nakedness under white satin, just as Norma covers sexual infatuation with a thin, taunt layer of composure." - Norma Shearer, Gavin Lambert, Knopt 1990. Shearer is extremely modern in this film and it holds up to this day. Gable made a dozen films in 1931 and was a front rank star by the following year, but none more soundly put on him on the map like A Free Soul.

  2. When I first saw this film and Shearer's performance as 'free spirit' Jan Ashe, I was quite surprised for two reasons. First, I couldn't believe such a daring and rather contemporary story-line was undertaken in 1931. The term 'pre-code' was still relatively new and this was a quintessential example of the boundary pushing early 'talkies' got away with before the Hays code put its foot down.

    Second, Norma Shearer, an actress who'd been unfairly forgotten or dismissed until the VHS/DVD era, turns in a daring and rather contemporary performance that belies the 'noble' moniker she'd been saddled with for decades by film scholars who'd simply never seen much of her work. She's terrific here in a performance that is surprisingly undated and expertly nuanced. Shearer's Jan is an absolute 'live-wire' who does as she pleases while taking no prisoners and Shearer is entirely believable and thoroughly enjoyable in the role. Very fine work, indeed.