You lucky ducks. Since I didn’t do a post last week, I’m doing two posts today. So woohoo for you guys!

Minna Gombell is DEFINITELY an actress who really doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Even among the character actors she’s often forgotten. I adore her. It may just be because she made a few movies with my personal god, Frank Borzage. But I’ve always appreciated her performances and I’ve always been impressed by her range.

Gombell was nearing 40 when she started out in Hollywood during the birth of the talkies. With very, very few exceptions (Ruth Chatterton being one), actresses of that age were no longer “allowed” by Hollywood standards to be leading ladies. So these actresses of a certain age became character actors, to play older best friend types, or mothers. It was the really good character actors who took these roles and practically stole the films they were in with their amazing performances. Minna Gombell was one of those actors. In this post, I’ll take a look at a few of the films Gombell made with Borzage, my favorite director.

Bad Girl (1931)
In her first film with Borzage, Gombell plays Edna, the older best friend of Sally Eiler’s Dorothy. Bad Girl is a movie about a young marriage and expecting a child during the Depression. It’s a really mature movie, exploring the damage that a lack of communication can do to a relationship. Both Dorothy and her husband Eddie (played by James Dunn) are pretty nervous and high strung. They’re newlyweds, they’re expecting a baby, money is tight, and they both think that the other one doesn’t want the baby. With two lead characters who are such messes, Gombell’s Edna is the sturdy, steady, calming force in the movie. She herself is a single mother, but the character shows how one can actually get through even the toughest of times.

After Tomorrow (1932)
In her second film with director Frank Borzage, Gombell gives what I think is by far her finest performance. She’s Else, the mother of Sidney (Marian Nixon), who is in love with and trying to plan her wedding to Pete (Charles Farrell), but they have little money and marriage is starting to look impossible. The love story between Pete and Sidney is sweet, but the real emotion of the film comes from Gombell. Else is a restless and unhappy woman. She loves her daughter, but she married and had a child at a young age, and now that she’s older she feels that she’s wasted her life away cooking for her husband and ironing her daughter’s clothes. Gombell’s performance is absolutely amazing. This is a character who could very easily garner no sympathy from the viewer, but Gombell creates such a complex character. You hate her for the way she treats her husband and the way she runs away, but at the same time you still genuinely feel for her and the way she’s feeling. It’s a truly beautiful performance, and it makes one of the Borzage’s lesser film completely worth watching.

By Katie Richardson


Year: 1932
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Charles Farrell, Marian Nixon, Minna Gombell, William Collier Sr, Josephine Hull, William Pawley, Greta Grandstedt

Peter (Farrell) and Sidney (Nixon) are a pair of young lovers in the midst of the Depression. They want to marry each other, but can’t yet afford it, because Peter’s mother refuses to move in with them. So they continue to work and save, despite the feeling that it will never happen. Sidney’s mother (Gombell) is miserable in her home life and wants to run away with her lover (Pawley).

After Tomorrow is definitely one of the lesser films on the DVD set. Borzage’s themes of love overcoming all obstacles are still very prevalent, but it doesn’t quite hit on a spiritual, transcendant level of his best work. His young lovers also aren’t nearly as interesting as most of his others, like Chico and Diane, Bill and Trina, or Tim and Mary. Despite the difficulties and roadblocks in their relationship, there’s a lack of emotional complication that makes Borzage’s love stories so amazing. Farrell and Nixon are both very good in their roles as the idealistic couple, though. They have strong chemistry, and there are several scenes where they click so well as a couple that it just puts a smile on your face.

The emotional complications of the film come from the older characters, in particular Minna Gombell’s restless mother. Really, I’d say the core of the films emotional conflict comes from her, and she’s certainly the most interesting part of the film. Gombell was a fantastic character actress who I’m only really just now completely discovering, and she’s quite the talent. This character could come off as detestable, but even when she does horrible things, Gombell makes her sympathetic. And Borzage is able to make us identify with both her and her jilted husband and child.

After Tomorrow also lacks the fairy tale feel of a Borzage film. While it’s set in the depths of the Depression, which completely effects the lives of all the characters, it feels a lot more raw and real than Borzage’s other efforts. This is probably one of the most realistic depictions I’ve seen of the Depression.

Held up against other Borzage works, After  Tomorrow is definitely one of his lesser, least interesting films. But held up on its own, it’s a very solid romance with some interesting characters.

By Katie Richardson