Seen Recently: A Free Soul (1931), Whirlpool (1949), The Women (1939)

A Free Soul
A Free Soul
directed by Clarence Brown

A daring (to say the least) pre-Code film, starring Norma Shearer (very good, for the most part, here), a ferocious and sexy Clark Gable, a sympathetic and noble Leslie Howard, and a masterful performance by Lionel Barrymore which reaches almost tragic proportions in his final scene. He plays a drunk, a guy who can’t stay off the booze, and the disease is treated seriously in the film, with a total lack of judgment towards those who suffer so. He wants to quit drinking, but he cannot, even if it means sacrificing his daughter. And yet he has an awareness of his own sins, and his guilt is frightful when it comes bursting out. He’s so powerful and honest, playing this fallen man, this weak man, who clearly was once so great. Wonderful stuff. Okay, so. The story is: Norma Shearer, queen of MGM, plays Jan Ashe, the free-spirited and independent daughter of Steven Ashe, a renowned defense attorney (Lionel Barrymore). Steven Ashe drinks pretty much all day, taking sips from a flask, and it’s an open secret, and Jan, the dutiful daughter, tries to keep an eye on his intake. The first scene is pretty risque, especially since you don’t know the relationship of the two: Steven is seen having breakfast in front of a window showing the city of San Francisco. Across the room, a door opens, and we see a woman’s clearly naked body in shadow on the bathroom wall, and a droll laughing voice calls out, “Bring me some clothes.” Steven goes to the suitcase, pulls some things out, hands it to the outstretched hand, who plucks out a bra and underpants from the pile. Laughing, ha ha, but the way the scene is set up is you assume, of course, that the naked woman behind the door is the old guy’s lover, or prostitute, what have you, and then she emerges from the bathroom, fully dressed, and it’s Norma Shearer, and she’s his daughter, and so you suddenly feel all dirty from what you were thinking 10 seconds before, which, of course, is the whole point. The first scene sets up the relationship, after that first fake-out. The mother died in childbirth, Jan was raised by her father, who told her she should stand on her own two feet, if she falls down, get back up, don’t be limited in your thinking, etc., all of which she really tries to take to, although the first scene just shows her devotion to dear old dad. He has a big trial happening that day, he’s defending a gambler who murdered someone (who turns out to be Clark Gable, of course), and during the spectacular trial, the entire thing hinges upon a hat left at the crime scene beside the murdered body. Inside the hat are the initials A.W. (Clark Gable’s character is named, gorgeously and absurdly, Ace Wilfong.) But then Steven Ashe has his client try on the hat in front of the jury, the results of which makes me wonder if Johnny Cochran ever saw A Free Soul.

To make a really complex story short and simple, Jan Ashe has a sort of suitor, the appropriate Leslie Howard, and a beloved grandmother who watches over all with a benevolent and yet fading smile. Meanwhile, Jan meets Ace Wilfong on the day of his trial, and sparks immediately fly (we know because we get our first closeup in the entire film, of Norma Shearer being blown away by Clark Gable’s intense sexuality). After Ace is acquitted (if the hat don’t fit, you must acquit, you understand), he and his lawyer go out and get rip-roaring drunk and show up at a party at the benevolent grandmother’s house, shocking everyone. But the most shocking event is yet to come: Jan, insouciant and gay, despite the fact that her beau Leslie Howard has just proposed to her, finds out that Ace Wilfong has had no dinner and promptly invites him to take her out to dinner. Like, right now. Like, the two of them leave the party together that instant. SHOCKING. Because we’ve seen her closeup, we know what she’s thinking. And we don’t blame her, because Clark Gable is hot. This is 1931, now, and It Happened One Night is a couple years in the future, but he was already appearing left and right in a bunch of films where he shows his likely future as gigantic star. He’s on fire here. He’s tough, he’s insolent, he’s sexy and mean, and when he says to her, “Sit down, you’re gonna take it, and you’re gonna like it”, you think, “Wow. Yes, sir.” It’s rough stuff, no kidding. And the film makes no bones about what is going on between these two. She is unleashed into a world of sexual pleasure and gratification, and he knows that he is the one who brought her down off that pedestal (shades of Stanley Kowalski here).

My pal Dan Callahan wrote a wonderful piece about Norma Shearer’s career and acting, and he writes the following about A Free Soul which is right on:

As a twelve year-old, I vividly remember seeing A Free Soul on Ted Turner’s TNT channel and being impressed, for the first time, with the idea of sex for its own sake, which Shearer expresses with total abandon, lounging around Wilfong’s passion pit apartment in a half-open robe, sinking back on pillows and commanding, “C’mon . . . put ’em around me,” to beckon her dangerous lover. There’s a class basis to the hot tensions in A Free Soul, a sense that a well-bred upper-class girl is dying to experience the rougher, more animalistic side of sex. Gable shoves her down on a couch when she starts to high-hat him, growling, “Sit down and take it and like it!”

The daring thing about A Free Soul is that it presents a life of nothing but constant, mean sex as an option, and it’s the thought of that option that gives the film its unusual charge…

And so we get two addictions here, presented blatantly side by side: to alcohol for the father and to sex with Ace for the daughter. Both are nearly undone by their addictions. To save her father, Jan suggests that the two of them go away for a couple of months, and go camping, and rough it … to cure themselves of the traps they both are ensnared in. Out in the wilderness, Lionel Barrymore is heart-wrenching as he shows the agony of a man withdrawing from alcohol. Seriously, he is coming out of his skin. And Norma Shearer bravely endures her own withdrawal, tearing up a note she gets from Ace Wilfong, etc. But when her father falls off the wagon, well, hell, what does it matter, she goes right back to Ace. But as Pauline Kael wrote in her fabulous essay about Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City”, “Clark Gable is an intensely realistic sexual presence; you don’t fool around with Gable.” Kael was making the point that women had FUN with Cary Grant, that was what he represented. You could relax with him, laugh at yourself, laugh at life, have a ball. But Gable? No, no, boy don’t play that way. You don’t fool around with Gable. But Norma Shearer here, as Jan, makes the mistake of “fooling around” with Gable, and his response is swift and vicious. There’s an amazing scene where he wants to talk to her about his feelings, and she’s having none of it, she just wants sex. She laughs in his face, basically. So when she comes running back to him, he treats her like the whore that he now believes she is. It’s nasty. It’s devastating and dangerous.

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Gable is fantastic. He’s truly scary at times. Leslie Howard rises to the occasion to save Jan, because the father is too incapacitated to protect his daughter. The ending, which sorts everything out, feels – as it often does in pre-Code films – like a hasty propping up of chess pieces. “Good” wins in the end, but you feel it all pales in comparison to the excitement of the “bad”. The bad looks like way more fun. There’s also a great effect when Jan and Ace go out to dinner for the first time, to a roadside hamburger joint out in the woods. They pull up and order “two burgers with onions” (which I immediately think: “They’re so hot for each other they don’t even care that their breath will stink when they go at it in about 10 minutes”) and then, from down the dark lane, comes barreling a couple of cars. Ace knows it’s his crime-world enemies and pulls the car behind the burger joint to hide out. Ace and Jan duck, and then comes the sound of automatic weapon fire and across the windshield blossoms an almost perfect-line of bullet holes. Directed by Clarence Brown, there are some very cool camera angles and perspectives (one close-up of a phone, with Clark Gable’s head on the desk blurry in the background, and a very good scene in the jail when Shearer and Howard talk to one another over a barrier, and we can only see their eyes.)

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The film is gritty and unsparing, and is honest about the power of sex. Really really honest. And it doesn’t judge Jan for falling sway under it. She’s not a “bad girl”. She may have been raised wrong, without a mother’s guidance, but sex is a powerful thing, and once she’s had a taste of it, she wants more. It’s treated very matter of factly.

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Whirlpool
directed by Otto Preminger

Jose Ferrer is super-sexy in this bizarre thriller with some creaky joints directed by Otto Preminger, whose camera floats around from face to face like a prosecuting attorney. Jose Ferrer plays Korvo, conman, a hypnotist/astrologer who dupes lonely women into thinking they need his help. He is a horrible person. A ghoul and a user. But his performance is so compelling, so realistic and in-the-moment, that I can’t take my eyes off of him. Even when he’s caked in sweat, and filmed from below, when he’s lying in the hospital bed (not a good angle) – there’s something so sensual and authentic about his personality that he’s captivating. His charisma is visceral, his voice is beautiful and yet natural, very expressive. I would kill to have seen his Iago.

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Whirlpool is drenched in psychobabble, which isn’t a surprise, considering the time (1949), as well as the fact that Richard Conte (excellent here, and more on him in a second) plays a famous psychoanalyst named Bill Sutton. Bill has a beautiful wife named Ann, and while we learn later in the film that she has always felt that he wanted her to be perfect, that she had to act the part of a wife, that she was totally trapped in that “characterization”, the first scene lets us know right off the bat that something is wrong with this gorgeous dame. She’s busted for shoplifting a mermaid pin that cost $300 at an upscale department store. She may be beautiful, put together, and played by Gene Tierney, but this woman appears to be a compulsive thief. Jose Ferrer’s character rescues her from the clutches of the store’s security team, with some kind of smooth explanation/promises that it won’t happen again, and she is very very grateful to him. Of course, this means she is indebted to him as well, and he immediately goes after her for his “payment”. He’s a hypnotist. He starts working with her (she keeps all of this a secret from her husband), and the treatments he gives her helps cure her headaches. But it also means that she strolls around like a somnambulist, doing whatever he says, and then having no idea what she did while she was “under”. He’s got a scary power, this hot little ghoul played by Ferrer, and she becomes more and more trapped. MEANWHILE: her husband is a psychoanalyst. Ann is convinced that he never would have married her if he had known she was, well, a klepto from way back. But the word she keeps using is “sick”, and it’s the word Korvo keeps using too. She is CLEARLY sick in the head. You get that from Gene Tierney’s performance, her dreamy distractibility, the fact that she has worked so hard to keep up a perfect facade, so much so that she cannot even admit to herself all of her uneasiness in her own domestic situation. I just love the fact that Richard Conte was cast as the psychoanalyst. Not that shrinks don’t come in all shapes and sizes (mine looks like Stanley Tucci and is from Sardinia and speaks in an Italian accent), but, you know, the movies often rely on cliches. If I had to describe Conte in cliche terms, based on his demeanor and his other roles, I’d say he was a tough guy. I’d say he has a whiff of the “street” about him. He’d fit in in Good Fellas or Casino. He can dress up nice, but there’s something about him that seems tough, an immigrant background, perhaps a criminal element. I love him in The Big Combo, he’s always good, but I love to see him here playing against type. It’s not really an interesting part, certainly not as interesting as the Ferrer part, but Conte is wonderful. He has a great line where he says he now recognizes that he “injured her”, by wanting her to be a perfect wife.

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He realizes he forced her into a role. He takes responsibility for that. It’s certainly difficult to hold your own when Jose Ferrer is anywhere near you on the screen, not to mention Gene Tierney who is so beautiful it hurts my eyeballs, but Conte adds a really nice layer of reality to the film. The whole thing is creepy, a hypnotized woman driving around the night streets of Los Angeles, following the orders of her hypnotist, and not remembering where she was or what she did.

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The film is pretty brutal about marriage. The portrait of a woman who feels as though being a wife means “playing a role”, and that this is expected of her by her husband, has major shades of Ibsen, and it’s handled pretty directly. It’s not that their entire relationship is based on a lie. Ann herself WANTED to be what her husband saw in her. She made a decision early on to be what he wanted, beautiful, poised, and his biggest fan. But that opened up the cracks in her psyche, it left her wounded and un-healed, she is unable to sleep, and she can’t stop stealing things. It makes me wonder about what happens in bed between them. The film is filled with sexual tension, tension from not being fully expressed, or whole, or known to oneself. Marriage often requires little lies to keep going, but it can’t be required of one person to ACT a certain way all the time. That’ll never work.

All of it is rather dumb, let’s be honest, but I found it entertaining and creepy.

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The Women
directed by George Cukor

A favorite. I watch it to relax. I watch it because I find it overwhelming. There are so many people in the frame at times that I pick and choose who to “track”. Rosalind Russell is a classic scene-stealer, you have to work twice as hard to keep up with her. I love in particular the scene she has with Crystal Allen (a phenomenal Joan Crawford) in Crystal;s RIDICULOUS bathroom, when she overhears Crystal’s cowboy-singer lover singing on the phone. The laughter from Russell is real. And remember, nobody’s singing on the other end. Russell is creating ALL of that. Speaking of phones: I haven’t really written about this, but I should: I love “phone work”, and I keep a running list of awesome telephone scenes in films and television. Having to believably create the other side of the conversation, all as you say your lines, and react to your imaginary person on the other end … It’s no small feat, and it’s so obvious when it’s badly done, when the actor is anticipating a moment. Russell grabs the phone, listens for one second, her eyes bug out, and she EXPLODES in laughter at what she is hearing. Brava.

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Speaking of “phone work”, Norma Shearer has a couple of EXCELLENT phone scenes in The Women, one where the camera follows her, across the room, down onto the couch, then back up, and across the room again, all in one flow, with a ton of dialogue as Shearer creates the entire thing. She’s hitting marks, doing blocking, pretending she’s listening, as well as welling up with tears at appropriate moments, and it’s the nuts-and-bolts of good acting like that that I love.

A couple of other thoughts:

— I totally want to be on that “divorce train to Reno”. It looks like a ball.

— I also want to hang out at the “divorce ranch” in Reno with all of those gals waiting for the divorces to come through.

— Little Virginia Wiedler (who is also in Philadelphia Story) gives one of those child-actor performances that cuts through the precocious bullshit. In the scene where she learns her parents are getting a divorce, she is remarkable in her reactions. She’s sad, yes, but when she cries, I also see fear which is heart-wrenching. What is this going to mean for her? So often child actors stink up the field. She’s wonderful, a huge part of the film.

— Joan Crawford has the least screen time of any of them and she makes a gigantic impression. She is cunning, wily, sexy, unrepentant, ridiculous (in the bathroom scene), manipulative, and finally, in her last great scene when she takes on the rest of the women, fierce, furious, and RIGHT. One of the most powerful things about Joan Crawford is that she did not have the “problem” of being an ingenue, where “being liked” is the most important thing. You’ll have a wicked short career if you count on being liked. Crawford understood it was more important to be interesting, it was more important that it was a good part rather than the character be “good”. So even though her behavior through the film has been often appalling, when she blows her top at the crowd in that waiting room, you find yourself thinking, “She is not only totally right, but she is the only one on that screen who is not TRAPPED by the role society has laid out for her.” She’s FREE. She’s nasty and selfish, but she’s also grateful she’s not like this crowd of gossiping bored broads. She doesn’t “chew the scenery” or anything like that. She just makes her points, buffered up by a tidal wave of indignation, pride, and fury. And. She makes it look easy. Joan Crawford worked, but it was in her preparation that she worked. Once she was onscreen, she knew exactly what she was doing. No more work. Just show up for that camera and play those scenes. (I also could watch her yank that chain to make the curtain descend around her bathtub 200 times in a row. It’s so absurd.) The Women is an embarrassment of riches. And yes, Norma Shearer’s walk towards the camera at the end is meant to be moving, and yet ends up looking rather Norma Desmond-ish, but still: it’s effective.

— And finally. Paulette Goddard doesn’t show up until that train to Reno which is more than halfway through the film, and she nearly steals the entire damn picture.

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15 Responses to Seen Recently: A Free Soul (1931), Whirlpool (1949), The Women (1939)

  1. Desirae says:

    Ros Russell may be my favourite thing about this movie. That and her increasingly ludicrous headgear. And Joan Crawford is so wonderfully serpentine here. I don’t really like Crystal but I might want to be her.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, Rosalind Russell’s hats and those glasses! I love the exercise scene at the spa.

      And yeah. Crystal is kind of terrible, but she’s no dummy and she goes for what she wants. And in the final moment when she realizes she’s not going to get what she wants, she has just a SECOND of being disappointed – and then she gets right back up again. She is a survivor.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Oh, l’amour, l’amour! What’s not to love about this movie? Like you said, there’s so much to see and hear from each character/actress. And the strength of Norma Shearer’s character through it all is rare and admirable.

    • sheila says:

      Oh l’amour l’amour! Hahaha. She’s so awesome.

      I also love Norma Shearer’s mother. She’s no dummy, either. I really like that character. She looks like an old biddy, but she’s been there, she understands.

      • Kathleen says:

        I agree. There’s some fine wisdom and excellent character. I’d love to just read the script sometime to be able to savor the language. So much of the dialogue is so… fast and articulate and intelligent and yet still so completely scathing. I love the mind(s) that strung those words together.

        • sheila says:

          … and that you never see The Men. It’s kind of a gimmick, but it totally works. With all the drama going on with these women and their menfolk – the REAL life is always happening amongst themselves!

  3. Jennchez says:

    The Women has been my “mean reds” go to movie for years. As you said RR kills it!!!! The one that always gets me is the countess. The scene at the ranch where she has fallen for Buck and she walks over and climbs the fence singing Aye aye yipee never fails to make me fall to pieces. That and at the end when Crystal knows she been had, she gets the best smirk ever and says “Theres a name for women like you, but they don’t use it outside of kennels”. Or something like that. Classic.

    • sheila says:

      The Countess in her Western garb. I absolutely love that they made that wardrobe choice. She’s sashaying around in jeans and a freakin’ vest, and it’s hysterical!

      And yes, Crystal pretty much clocks it in that moment. I love how she says that line. She’s not fuming and snarling – she’s totally above it all. Those other women didn’t “get” her at all – she is the one who walks out of there victorious. Crawford is so awesome.

      Oh and I love Ruth Hussey in her tiny part as Crystal’s pal at the perfume counter, who cracks up listening to Crystal coo into the phone. Ruth Hussey’s performance in The Philadelphia Story is dear to my heart – I just LOVE that character – and in The Women she has almost nothing to do but she totally makes the most of it.

  4. Maureen says:

    Sheila, I thought Ruth Hussey played the secretary who comes in to get the signatures for the divorce stuff. Am I wrong? I am a also a huge fan, “where’s my wandering parakeet?” is one of my favorite lines from a movie!

    • sheila says:

      Hmm – I could have sworn she was the blonde friend in the perfume store – she’s got a couple of closeups. Let me double-check.

      Yes, that “wandering parakeet” line – God, I just love that character so much!

      • sheila says:

        Now I’m wicked confused – I always assumed Ruth Hussey was the wisecracking friend of Crystal’s – her character name is listed as Miss Watts. As I recall, the secretary doesn’t have any closeups – and yes, perhaps her name is Miss Watts? Will watch closer next time. :)

        • Maureen says:

          I thought the coworker was Pat, who was played by Virginia Grey? I actually tried to figure this out a couple weeks ago, I watched it for the umpteenth time on TCM, and I was thinking about that actress and what else she might have done. Every time Crawford covers the phones mouthpiece and says “I’m gonna slug you!” to her, I bust out laughing!

          • sheila says:

            My whole life I have assumed that was Ruth Hussey. I must re-assess everything now!

            Yeah, Virginia Gray is great in that part as the friend. She totally has Crystal’s number, laughing at her behavior on the phone – but I also like that the scene shows that Crystal actually does have a friend. The friendship shown in that scene is much more natural-feeling than the dynamic between the other ladies, if you know what I mean. Interesting.

  5. Lizzie says:

    Sandra Bullock has a phone scene near the beginning of Miss. Congeniality 2 where she does one of those humorous/sad flip in the super honest, natural, not-showy way that she’s so good at. Basically, she runs a gamut of emotions in about a minute and a half and sets up her character’s emotional arc of the rest of a (pretty silly) movie. Not bad!

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