approximately 66 minutes and 4 seconds
71.6% of the film
An alcoholic lawyer who successfully defended a notorious gambler on a murder charge objects when his free-spirited daughter becomes romantically involved with him.
Norma Shearer as Jan AsheCall me subjective and given that this is the first Norma Shearer Oscar-nominated performance I see, I’m definitely not informed enough to give such verdicts: but, oh I like this lady. Maybe I’m seduced by her prettiness, her status as Hollywood royalty or that lovely smile… but it’s clear: I like her and everytime she came on screen in this 1930s melodrama I was either smiling or very moved by that emotional scene.
Norma plays Jan Ashe, the rich, free-spirited daughter of an alcoholic lawyer who breaks-up with her fiancé after she falls in love with a gambler that her father defended. Jan tries to save her self-destructive father, while also realizing the mistakes she’s making in her romantic life. It’s a role with plenty of drama attached to it, that becomes lighter and more romantic everytime Norma smiles and Jan starts flirting with one or another.
So for the most part it’s not a tense performance, and this fits Norma perfectly. Often enough she is radiant, elegant, joyous, as she charismatically nails both the aristocratic side of Jan, and also the down-to-earth happy girl, so easy to fall in love with. The film puts a lot of focus on the idea that Jan is a very strong minded, independent woman, given her more liberal education.
That doesn’t hurt the character, and again: it fits what Norma has to bring, as her own persona does give the impression of an emancipated, modern woman. The way Jan flirts is also well done, leaving the impression of a fun young woman, confident in her charms, playful but never too aggressive.
While this is all easy to admire, her best acting comes in her scenes with her father. The father-daughter relationship is the most emotional one in the film and it also feels unusually honest. Often enough, I don’t fall for this, but in the case of A Free Soul this family connection feels very authentic and it’s the emotional core of the film. There are plenty of scenes to prove it and in which to admire Norma’s more dramatic abilities, but the most impressive one has to be the final courtroom scene.
Jan taking the stand in the murder trial (which I won’t spoil) is probably the best scene in the film, with Norma equally great throughout; you’ll see tears, big revealing, shame and beautifully acted devotion and love towards her father. That scene is good, complemented by Lionel Barrymore’s impressive performance.
Norma gives a fine performance, ranging from flirtatious and fun to dramatic, teary-eyed and very emotional. I’m sure some would say she’s overacting at times, but I enjoyed it; it’s not the most challenging role ever, nor a masterpiece of a performance, but a damn good one. An easy from me.