Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) and her father Stephen(Lionel Barrymore) have a very close relationship. Even though a lot of their family judges Stephen for his alcoholism, Jan stands by him every step of the way. When she and Stephen are invited to a family dinner, Jan’s grandmother asks her to keep an eye on Stephen and make sure he doesn’t drink. But sure enough, he shows up to dinner drunk. Not only does he come over drunk, he brings gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) along with him. Stephen is an attorney and had just defended him in court earlier that day.
Even though she’s engaged to Dwight Wintrhop (Leslie Howard), Jan is very attracted to Ace, who she finds much more exciting than Dwight. They start seeing each other and before long, Ace asks Stephen for permission to marry Jan. Stephen does not approve of their relationship, but that doesn’t stop Jan from seeing him. However, when Jan finally can’t take any more of Stephen’s boozing, she makes a deal with him that she’ll leave Ace if he quits drinking. Stephen and Jan take a trip out of town to get their minds off their vices and at first, all is going well for them. But as soon as they get home again, they’re right back where they started.
When Jan goes to see Ace, he’s angry at her for leaving him and insists they get married right away. She doesn’t want to marry him and wants to go back to Dwight, but Ace continues to force her into it. Finally, Dwight is ready to put an end to this once and for all and shoots Ace. Dwight owns up to it and is willing to take the fall for everything, just to keep Jan’s name out of the whole mess. But Stephen isn’t willing to let him throw his life away and makes a very dramatic appearance in court to defend him.
A Free Soul isn’t one of my favorites, the story really drags at times. But it does have some excellent performances and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, and Clark Gable all shine in it. Barrymore won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, Shearer earned a Best Actress nomination, and it was a big breakthrough for Gable, who was pretty new to the film world at the time. Leslie Howard was also a movie newcomer then, and he’s fine in A Free Soul, but he wasn’t given a chance to do very much in it. Of course, it’s interesting to see Gable and Howard together in a movie as newcomers eight years before they co-starred in Gone With the Wind when they were both at the peaks of their careers.