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21 October 2014

Minna Gombell - A Great Film Actress You've Never Heard Of

Minna Gombell as Mrs Parish, Harold Russell as Homer, with Walter Baldwin and Cathy O'Donnell

Recently 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 Belle Epoque French beauty Marcelle at Maxim's in Lubisch's "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" -- all in one year! She was also memorable as 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. In The Best Years of Our Lives she melts so completely into the poetic naturalism of the movie that it almost looks like a documentary, and she does it without extreme make-up or costuming.

You almost believe she was Harold Russell's actual mother. You see his first homecoming after his injury and long hospitsl stay. He arrives by taxi at his family's typical middle-class home, and the family rushes out to greet him. And there's one moment when Mrs Parish sees her son that she almost breaks down -- but you can see her resolve never to let Homer know how she felt. And Gombell conveys all this precisely, with no bid for sympathy. What a performance. I hope she knew how good she was and was proud of her work.

As the awful Mimi in The Thin Man

Sometimes 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 style,  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.  

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