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15 January 2018

Invisible Woman: the Great Minna Gombell

I've been a classic film buff since I was about nine years old, when my parents let me -- heck, they encouraged me -- to stay up late (on a school night) to watch the great Greta Garbo romantic comedy Ninotchka on The Late, Late Show. That was the start of a lifelong passion. And after years of paying close attention I do pride myself on knowing and appreciating not just the major superstars but all of the extraordinarily talented, incredibly hard-working artists, actors, directors, designers, producers, screenwriters, and everyone else who worked to create the art form I love most.

But there are still surprises from the past, and a few years ago I was delighted to discover a great actress who is practically unknown -- Minna Gombell. I was reminded again of this lady's amazing talent when I recently viewed the charming musical biography of songwriter Gus Kahn, starring Danny Thomas as Kahn and Doris Day as his wife and collaborator, Grace Le Boy.  In one of the early scenes where Gus visits Grace at her family home I couldn't help feeling there was something familiar about Grace's mother. And so there was -- it was Minna Gombell, again disappearing into a role and presenting a real person.

As Mimi in The Thin Man

It's not that she didn't play memorable roles; in fact, many viewers will find her characters absolutely unforgettable. But you won't realize that it's the same actress playing, for example, Mimi, the snobbish, greedy wife of the missing scientist in The Thin Man, and a few years later the loving, supportive mother of double amputee Homer Parish in The Best Years of Our Lives. Would you have guessed that the same actress played these roles?

With Spencer Tracy in Boomtown

A native of Baltimore, Gombell had an extensive stage career before she ever reached Hollywood, performing in scores of productions. Her incredible versatility and professionalism -- she was noted for her ability to memorize lines with lightning speed -- made her a sought after character actress. She made seventy-five films between 1929 and 1951, when she retired from movie making (though she did appear in several television shows throughout the next decade).

Gombell is not unknown because she faded into the background or played dull, uninteresting roles; among her creations are riveting characters like the destructive harridan Zilla Riesling in Babbitt (an underseen and underrated film). Gombell's Zilla is a slashing portrait of a woman whose anger cannot be contained; her disdain for her ineffectual husband borders on hatred, which eventually leads to tragedy for both of them. She almost quivers with fury which simply cannot be suppressed, whatever the consequences.
With Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway

Another great, and completely different, role is that of Tim Adams in the Kay Francis starrer Comet Over Broadway. Tim is an aging, hard as nails chorine who gives up her ambition for the love of a child -- even though it's another woman's child. Her character has just as much dramatic weight as Francis' rising star, though her portrayal is not at all sugary.

As the Beggar Queen

I also particularly love her in one of my favorite films, Earnst Lubitsch's 1934 version of The Merry Widow, with the wonderful music by Franz Lehar and witty, modernized lyrics by Lorenz Hart. This is the ultimate effervescent musical comedy, with a suitably ridiculous plot and a delightful cast including Maurice Chevalier, Jeannette MacDonald, Edward Everett Horton, and Una Merkel. Set in the extremely mythical country of Marshovia in the 1880's, the lavish black, white, and silver sets and costumes glitter like gems. In one plot point too complicated to explain here, Chevalier as Count Danilo, the quintessential ladies' man, visits the famous Parisian nightclub Maxim's, where he has many female friends who are very glad to see him -- including the glossy brunette Marcelle, played by none other than Minna Gombell, looking remarkably glamorous.

With Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow

She appears as the warm, supportive dance hall owner, Ivie, in Boomtown with Gable and Tracy, as the Beggar Queen in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Make Way For Tomorrow, Wild Boys of the Road, The Great Waltz, High Sierra, and The Snake Pit. And her talent also enlivened less serious efforts like Laurel and Hardy's Blockheads, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, and Penthouse Rhythm.

As Mrs Parish in The Best Years of Our Lives

Playing Grace Leboy's mom in I'll See You In My Dreams was Minna Gombell's last film role, and as always she swiftly sketched a complete character in a limited amount of screen time. Her career was ideal for a committed actress; she was always busy, with serious work to do but without the stresses of fame or celebrity-hood. I hope she felt that way about it, and looked back on her accomplishments with satisfaction.

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