Friday, December 26, 2014

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "A Free Soul" and "The Girl Who Had Everything"

Adela Rogers St. Johns's novel "A Free Soul" was filmed twice -- once in 1931, under its original title, and again in 1953 as "The Girl Who Had Everything." In both cases the female leads were played by MGM royalty -- Norma Shearer and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively.

The character they play is the impulsive, independent-minded daughter of a well-known defense attorney (Lionel Barrymore in the 1931 version and William Powell in 1953) who has an ill-considered affair with one of dad's clients, an underworld character (Clark Gable in 1931 and Fernando Lamas in 1953) whose outer hunkiness hides an inner ugliness.    

As we've come to expect in these comparisons, the 1931 pre-code telling of this story has a bite, an edge and a blatant sexuality that the later version doesn't. For instance, Shearer's Jan Ashe gets so wrapped up in life with Gable's Ace Wilfong that she ends up keeping half her wardrobe at his place.

And Ace's criminal lifestyle is pretty clear for all to see -- on his first outing with Jan, they're serenaded by a machine gun:


(Hello, Roscoe Ates!)

The 1953 film is more muted in every way. Lamas's Victor Raimondi isn't a high-profile gangster accused of murder like Ace. By comparison, he's practically an insurance salesman. He runs a horse racing news service -- it's a legitimate business, but it's also heavily subscribed to by bookies, and so he ends up as a target of a congressional crime commission, where he's represented by Steven Latimer (Powell). There are vague hints of sleazy doings behind the curtain, but Victor stays cool and immaculately groomed, even when he's climbing out of a swimming pool.


Toward the end of the movie, both men reveal their true colors to the women who love lust after them, and, again, Gable takes the cake for nastiness:


It's weird, but Taylor and Lamas as a couple don't really generate that much heat, especially compared to Shearer and Gable. Maybe it's just the difference between Andre Previn's hormonal score and that dress Shearer is wearing, but compare these two bedroom scenes:



The biggest difference between the two movies, however, is the portrayal of the father, named Steven in both films. In the 1953 film, Steven Latimer has retired to Lexington, Kentucky to raise horses and has a little bit of trouble with the bottle. In the 1931 film, Steven Ashe is a world-class drunk, ostracized by his wealthy family and judged by just about everyone except loyal daughter Jan. Barrymore won an Oscar for his role, and it's perfect awards bait -- Ashe flails, falls into the gutter and then pulls himself out with Jan's help to deliver a dramatic summation in court that literally drains him of all remaining life.

The 1931 film also much more effectively dramatizes the similarities between father and daughter. In the movie's most effective scene, they both reluctantly make a pact to swear off the dangerous things they love too much -- alcohol for Steven and Ace for Jan. It's terrifying for both of them. Father and daughter go on a three-month camping trip and they successfully escape their demons, but as soon as the decision is made to go back home, Steven falls off the wagon.

The 1953 film handles the same scene almost laughably -- Steven takes Joan to the Smoky Mountains, servants in tow, to get Victor out of her system. He has nothing at stake. She throws a fit after four days and goes back to Victor. The end. Steven might drink a little, but in this movie -- Powell's last for MGM, by the way -- it's no more a problem than Nick Charles's love of cocktails.

Barrymore, of course, squeezes every drop of melodrama out of his character (you wonder if he got any pointers about alcoholic mannerisms from brother John), and in one scene where Ace asks Steven's permission to marry Jan, Barrymore summons all the mean drunk behavior at his disposal to pile-drive Ace into the ground:


"The Girl Who Had Everything" has a similar scene, but not nearly as nasty:


If the 1931 version of "A Free Soul" is influenced by gangsterism and prohibition, the 1953 version is informed by the Kefauver Commission, whose televised hearings on organized crime introduced America to such polished gangsters as Louis Costello and Mickey Cohen -- men who had much more in common with Victor Raimondi than they did with Ace Wilfong. They aren't nearly as colorful as the old school gangsters, and "The Girl Who Had Everything" isn't nearly as colorful as  -- well, just about anything.

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