Yesterday I watched one of the perfect films --- The Best Years of Our Lives -- and I noticed something that has escaped me in many other viewings. The casting is so perfect, the performances so beautiful, that I never caught the fact that Mrs. Parish, the mother of the double amputee Homer Parish, was played by one of the most versatile, and least-known, actresses in Hollywood, Minna Gombell.
This lady must be one of the most accomplished character actresses who ever lived. Film fans will recognize her
standout roles without realizing it's the same actress. Among my
favorites are the turn-of-the-century French beauty Marcelle at Maxim's
in The Merry Widow, 1934, who scolds Jeannette Macdonald for hurting Danilo's feelings; the same
year she made an indelible impression as Mimi, the money-grubbing wife
of the disappeared scientist in The Thin Man; as the unbearable scold Zilla Riesling in Babbitt; as the compassionate aging chorine who aids Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway; the rigid nurse in The Snake Pit;
and many more. But all her characters are so complete, so totally
different from each other, that it's quite hard to remember it's the
same person. And she does it without particularly extreme make-up or
In her role as Homer's mother in The Best Years of Our Lives
she melts so completely into the naturalistic style of the movie that
you almost believe she was Harold Russell's actual mother.
it's a good idea to step back and consider how much work these films
take, from how many dedicated artisans. You tend to forget that while
you're watching; indeed, the makers want you to forget it. But next time
you see The Best Years of Our Lives, look around at the sets and
costumes. How much thought went into the choices of those cotton summer
dresses and those household artifacts. I particularly like Mrs.
Parish's crowded little kitchen, and the lovingly displayed china dogs
in the upstairs hallway. Minna Gombell's performance fits in with this
perfectly, low-key, unglamorous, and honest. Only you, the audience, are allowed to see
the mother's anguish; no one else will ever be allowed, certainly not Homer himself. She shows you all this without a word, in just a few minutes of screen time.