Norma Shearer made the transition to talkies easily: She had a well-placed voice and, when the role called for it, a natural way of handling dialogue. Unfortunately, A Free Soul doesn't call for much in the way of "natural" for Shearer, and it's one of the films that suggest why, of the major female stars of the 1930s (Garbo, Crawford, Loy, Harlow, Stanwyck, Dietrich, Hepburn, Colbert), she is the least remembered. She works hard at her role as the free-spirited daughter of an alcoholic defense attorney (Lionel Barrymore), but too often her work is undone by a tendency, perhaps carried over from silent films, to strike mannered poses: typically, hands on hips, shoulders back, chin high. She looks great in the barely-there gowns designed for her by Adrian, however. They seem to be held in place by will power (or double-sided tape). The plot calls on her to try to dry out her drunken father by wagering that if he can sober up, she'll give up her relationship with the sexy gangster her father managed to save from a murder rap. That gangster is played by Clark Gable, who got fifth billing (after James Gleason!), a sign of his status at the time. Gable had been making movies, usually in bit parts, since 1923, but this was the film that catapulted him, at age 30, into stardom. He still stands out in the movie as a natural, unaffected presence amid the mannered Shearer, hammy Barrymore, and pasty-looking Leslie Howard. It doesn't even hurt Gable that he's cast as a heel named Ace Wilfong, which brings to mind the insurance salesman in It's a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod, 1934) who annoys W.C. Fields with his search for Carl LaFong, "Capital L, small a, capital F, small o, small n, small g. LaFong. Carl LaFong." The improbable story comes from a novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns that had been adapted into a play by Willard Mack. (Incidentally, the play had been directed on Broadway in 1928 by George Cukor and starred Melvyn Douglas as Ace Wilfong.) Barrymore won the best actor Oscar on the strength of the courtroom speech he gives at the film's end. Barrymore claimed that he did it in one take with the help of multiple cameras, but the logistics of lighting for that many cameras makes his story hard to credit.
The Blackbird begins with an atmospheric re-creation of Victorian Limehouse, with set designs by Cedric Gibbons and A. Arnold Gillespie impressively lighted and shot by cinematographer Percy Hilburn. But it turns into a routine melodrama showcase for Lon Chaney, who plays both the title character, a thief, and his alter ego, the Bishop, who pretends to be a missionary in the district. No one seems to suspect that the Blackbird and the Bishop are the same person, because in the latter persona Chaney contorts himself, holding one shoulder higher than the other and twisting one leg into an impossible position. Eventually, this masquerade will prove the truth of your mother's adage that if you keep contorting your face or body like that, it'll freeze that way. But in the meantime, the Blackbird falls for a music hall performer, Fifi Lorraine (Renée Adorée), who is also being pursued by a society toff (Owen Moore) known as West End Bertie. He's a thief, too, but in his case love for Fifi proves stronger than larceny. Browning, who also wrote the story (with Waldemar Young), handles this nonsense well. Adorée is charming, and her slightly risqué puppet show is fun, but the only real reason to see this movie is to admire Chaney's unfailing commitment to his considerable art.