If I Were Free made my TCM Top Twelve list in December (have I mentioned how far behind on those I am?), and I have to say…it didn’t really deserve the spot. This is a melodramatic pre-Code that isn’t salacious enough to be “forbidden,” nor is it unique enough to differentiate itself from the countless other adultery films that came before it. While Irene Dunne is enchanting, the script is so flat that morbidity mars everyone’s performance. If I didn’t know this was a pre-Code before, I’d assume it had been changed at the last-minute because that’s how it feels overall; as if it’s been reassembled and changed into a happier movie.
Gordon Evers (Clive Brook) is a depressed barrister who falls in love with antique store owner Sarah Cazenove (Dunne). The two quickly form a bond, but problems ensue when it’s revealed that both are married. When Sarah’s divorce is quickly granted it becomes a waiting game for Clive to extricate himself from his wife and find his way to Sarah.
The best way to describe If I Were Free is to compare it to a soap-opera. For casual audiences, soap operas can take some time for the viewer to suss out who characters are, their various relationships to others, etc. For a movie, you don’t have that ability to drop the audience into the middle of the story and have them stop to figure out how the things operate. If I Were Free feels like it starts smack-dab in the middle of things. Sure, we discover quickly who Gordon is, but the movie abruptly shoves us into a scene where Sarah’s husband Tono (Nils Asther) is pointing a gun at her with no rhyme or reason. Seguing into the next moment, we see Sarah happily entertaining friends. Is she doing so under duress? I did find Tono and Sarah’s banter to be blackly comic. The two make no bones about how much they hate each other, and at one point Tono tells her “You know where you can go.” Sarah: “That wouldn’t be much of a journey for me.” If anything, I wish the movie had been a pre-Code comedic send-up about marriage. Emphasize the fact that none of these characters are perfect, and discuss the various issues that make couples come to vehemently hate each other. Instead, Sarah and Gordon are saints who happen to have married the two biggest jerks in the world. It seems as if the screenwriters tried that, particularly when Sarah’s friend Jewel (Vivian Tobin) asks if Tono has been “trying to shoot you.” Tobin says this with absolutely no humor making the audience ask if that’s the actresses’ flaw, the flaw in the script, or if it’s meant to be serious.
Unfortunately, If I Were Free never feels like a good pre-Code. Every genre has a wave of copycats, and right before the Code was enacted there were a few films that tried to get audiences in on the gimmick of seeing something salacious, only to pull back (Midnight Mary comes to mind, but I don’t feel that’s as representative of my point as I’d like). Here, there’s nothing drawn out about the illicit romance. Gordon and Sarah are entirely chaste, which makes it frustrating when they nonchalantly state how simple their problems are to solve. It’s best described when Sarah says “My husband’s not dead, I just divorced him.” It returns the dark humor to the plot for a minute, but it leads to far too many questions. The movie cuts to this scene, not explaining but implying a year or so has passed, and this one line shows Sarah is divorced. The movie is only 65 minutes, but there’s no tension to the romance if it can be solved so easily. There’s never any sense of tension, and aside from a few friends mentioning their relationship, there really doesn’t seem to be any blow-back about their “illicit” relationship. Really, there’s nothing that illicit at all.
The characters don’t help in presenting this as nothing more than a trite and reckless relationship. Dunne outshines everyone else here; presenting a strong-willed woman. Sadly, the script is content to introduce her as entirely grim; willing to commit suicide far too early in the game. Her chemistry with co-star Clive Brook is comfortable. They have an effortless rapport, but not enough to convince me that theirs is a love story for the ages. It’s more a relationship of really good friends, as opposed to undying love. Again, it’s due to the script making the audience feel as if time is blindly jumping around; that its progressed without us. By the time the two declare their desire to marry each other, it doesn’t feel like a rational decision, but one based purely on impulse. It’s laughable to hear Dunne say “We’ve known each other quite some time, and yet I feel like we don’t know each other at all.” Truer words were never spoken!
Of course, the third act devolves into weepy melodrama with Gordon having a fatal illness. I actually laughed when the medical diagnosis is as blase about the words “probably fatal” as it can get. And the message is left right in front of the dying man! The main issue is why Gordon doesn’t try harder to get a divorce. His wife changes his mind about giving him one and he….just never does anything else about it. When he gets ill, it’s a cop-out for the writer (death will choose) as well as for Gordon himself; God forbid he didn’t get sick and actually had to make a decision. The final scenes have Gordon’s mother seconding his relationship with Sarah, again there’s nothing illicit, and by the end the characters live happily ever after BECAUSE WHY! The movie never explains, but simply shows them happy. The script, quite literally, gives up. The final moments of If I Were Free don’t make you swoon, but make you say, “If the divorce was so easy to get by the end, than why did it take 65 minutes?” And a nitpick: Is it weird that Gordon’s wife looks the same as Sarah?
If I Were Free is a standard weepie with little to recommend it. Dunne is good, but she’s made better films later in her career. The movie never adequately sets up the relationship (aided by a brief runtime), and while the characters are sweet with each other, it’s never a grand enough romance to keep one entertained. It’s not a total waste of 65 minutes, but it’s not worth actively seeking out.
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If I Were Free
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.