A Free Soul (1931)

Rhett Vs Ashley

I find Clarence Brown is not a terribly remarkable director with many of his films being by the numbers but he does have has a few worthwhile movies under his belt. A Free Soul isn’t a great film as the plot is on the ordinary side but it does have enough to elevate the film above this – plus I am a sucker for the MGM product of the 1930’s. The common elements of a contemporary, pre code melodrama are here; alcoholism, adultery, gangsters, corruption of authority etc.

Norma Shearer’s nude silhouette in the first shot sets the tone of A Free Soul; a movie full of lust and sexual desire. One of the biggest stars of the film itself is the slinky silk dress Shearer wears to Grandma’s party and Clark Gable’s apartment. The dress is sexually suggestive to say the least and shows off alot of skin. The design of the dress is cut to slide over her body in all the right ways to make her appear naked without actually being so as well as show off her assets. It’s clear that costume design was taken very seriously in the days of old Hollywood as well as the art of how to wear clothes.

Outfits are one thing though, with Shearer and Gable’s scenes together steaming things up, in contrast to her fiancé played by Leslie Howard of whom she shares nowhere near the same level of sexual chemistry with. Gable played a number of gangsters in his career but none as such a player as Ace Wilfong (his gangster’s hideout and apartment are to be envied). Likewise there is an unusually intimate relationship between Norma Shearer and her father played by Lionel Barrymore. Their interactions feel more like what you would expect between husband and wife as she refers to him as “darling”, ”dear” and ”sweetheart” while also being extremely affectionate with him such as scene at the very beginning of the film in which she asks him to fetch her undies.

I’m astounding at Norma Shearer’s ability to burst of the screen with her sheer presence and I do wish I could call myself a bigger fan but her filmography is a bit lackluster in my view. Regardless there are enough melodramatic theatrics to keep A Free Soul interesting including a character’s much unexpected death by the last character you would expect and a courtroom finale in which Barrymore tears the scenery (I just have to ask though would questioning your own daughter not be a conflict of interest?). The only scene which really disrupts the tone of the film is the moment in which Barrymore pulls a Buster Keaton by grabbing onto a train as it goes past and disappears out of sight, very odd.

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It’s Love I’m After (1937)

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The Taming of the Shrew

It’s Love I’m After draws many parallels to the earlier screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934) with Leslie’s Howard’s Basil Underwood drawing a number of similarities John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe. Basil Underwood is an egomaniacal actor who is as big a ham off stage as he is on. Like Barrymore in Twentieth Century he can never describe something in a conventional matter but rather has to do it poetically with his constant references to Shakespeare, with Howard’s English accent making him sound all the more pretentious. He’s clearly a man of the theatre to the point that he doesn’t even know who Clark Gable is (yes they actually mention an MGM star in a Warner Bros movie when studios where keen to usually only promote their own contract players). Likewise his sparing with Bette Davis as his bride to be Joyce Arden is similar to the screaming and shouting between John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, yet in a movie with Bette Davis Howard is still the bigger drama queen.

Although Basil is engaged to marry Joyce despite the two hating each other one minute and then are in a loving embrace the next, the real unforgettable dynamic is between Howard and Eric Blore. It’s implied throughout the film that Basil and the effeminate Diggs are gay lovers through much gay subtext (“Do we know anyone called Marsha West Diggs?”, “Not unless you’ve been cheating on me sir”). This occurs even though Basil is set to marry Joyce, thus is Joyce even aware of this and are they involved in a three way relationship or is Basil cheating on Joyce with Diggs? Why does Basil even need Joyce if he has the perfect partner in Diggs? Either way the dynamic between the entire cast of It’s Love I’m After is effortless.

Olivia de Havilland’s Marcia West is an early example of what we would now call fanboyism, having a fanatical love for Basil Underwood. Yet despite her bursts of hyperactivity and her ditzy manner, she does have a smarter side to her. She does cleverly get her way into Underwood’s dressing room at the theatre and even has the common sense to just talk to him about her feelings towards him then run off again and not to continue bothering him. It’s only when Basil deliberately turns up to her house does he feel the full wrath of her fanaticism.

Also contributing to the movie’s over the top histrionics is Bonita Granvillie as the chatterbox Gracie. I actually find her character quite disturbing with her spying through keyholes on other people’s business only to then tell the rest of the family about her discoveries. She reminded me the little girl who from These Three and its remake The Children’s Hour who ruined people’s lives with deceitful spying and her big mouth. Thus it came as no surprise when I learned she was the actress who played the little girl in These Three!

The cinematography of It’s Love I’m After is also a thing beauty, a perfect showcase the distinctive Warner Bros aesthetic of the 30’s and 40’s; particularly the lighting the of the dark theatre at the beginning of the film and those spellbinding close ups of Miss de Havilland. During the beginning of the film Basil and Joyce are playing Romeo & Juliet on stage. Howard had played Romeo the year before in MGM’s production of Romeo & Juliet which along with Warner’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream in 1935, had failed to garner much interest from film goers. I get the impression It’s Love I’m After reflects this when Spring Byington falls asleep to the production of Romeo & Juliet only to be waken and utters “Isn’t it so wonderful, Shakespeare is so elevating”.

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I first watched The Petrified Forest I was at an unsure time in my life, fearful of the future and with my own sense of individualism and artistic ambitions. Watching Leslie Howard as Alan Squier as failed artist who eventually takes his own life so a young girl could be the artist he never was, made me fearful and depressed of what my own future held in store for me. I felt for this character to the point that it hurt because I was worried that someday I could become that character, perhaps not to that extreme but destined to a similar fate. Gabrielle (Bette Davis) Is a character is stuck in a rut and dreams of going to France. At the time when I watched this film and I was dealing with the uncertainty of if I would ever leave my hometown or would I always be stuck here. Few other films have ever had characters which spoke so directly to me.

The Petrified Forest’s most notable contribution to cinema is the breakthrough role of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was never more terrifying than the role of Duke Mantee. I generally don’t think of Bogart as an actor who is scary, but here he is a guy I would not want to be stuck in an elevator with. Just like the characters in the film, Bogart’s acting career had been marred with failure up until this point. This likely being his final chance to make it in Hollywood no doubt must have fueled his performance. I know a film is good when I have to think and contemplate which actor (Howard of Bogart) gave the better performance. How often do you get to see gangsters and intellectuals involved in such profound conversations? Howard and Bogart play characters who are worlds apart yet develop a mutual respect for each other as they discover they share a bond with their individualism. Also look out for Bogart’s head being framed over a moose head so it looks like he has antlers though out the film. Fascinating characters (all with such unique dynamics between each other) in a fascinating story is already one of the most important things I could ask for from a movie, even better when they affect me on a personal level.