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

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Year: 1927

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Gladys Brockwell

I haven’t seen a ton of silent pictures but more than the average film goer. People in the Bay Area are blessed by having an old movie house — The Stanford Theatre — which is the only place in the vicinity that shows silents accompanied by a live Wurlitzer player. Back in February, I had the fortune to screen Seventh Heaven and it just so happened to be my first silent witnessed under those conditions. Simply put, seeing the 1927 Best Picture winner ranks among my finest motion picture viewings. There are certain movies you see — Jaws, Apocalypse Now, and Mulholland Dr. come to mind — where you are stunned by the time you vacate the theatre. Borzage’s spectacular love story impacted me to that extreme.

I was somewhat skeptical on the way to The Stanford. Katie is always pimping out Borzage’s work and Seventh Heaven is one of her favorites. Having seen A Farewell to Arms, Man’s Castle, and Liliom I was somewhat underwhelmed. Especially in the case of the latter in which Charles Farrell was a stiff. Fortunately, he was working in the presence of a great actress in this film. Janet Gaynor’s portrayal of Diane is one for the ages and it earned her an Oscar. She plays a street urchin/prostitute in Paris during the days immediately preceding WWI. Chico (Farrell) is a sewer worker. Macho and full of braggadocio, the blue-collar laborer also hides a big heart. Diane and her sister Nana struggle under squalid living conditions. The older woman also harbors an addiction to absinthe. Gaynor’s character is timid and soft spoken. Nana sadistically preys on her pliancy by beating her sister 24/7.

One day the sisters’ wealthy uncle and his wife come to rescue the girls provided they have not dishonored themselves in some unsavory way. In a pivotal moment, Diane cannot betray her honest nature and she confesses to having prostituted herself. A golden opportunity lost, Nana gives Gaynor’s waif her most vicious whipping yet on the street and if not for the gallant Chico’s intervention, probably Diane’s last. Farrell’s good samaritan takes the young woman back to his attic apartment. This is one of the film’s best shots as the two are shown ascending seven flights of stairs from a sideways perspective. As Chico is fond of saying, “I may work in the sewer but I live among the stars!” Borzage does a beautiful job of slowly showing this man and woman fall in love. Diane eventually breaks through the gruff exterior of her savior and he proposes marriage. I’m a big fan of facial close-ups, especially on females. There are several moments during Seventh Heaven where Gaynor’s expression had my waterworks flowing: the first time Chico says he loves her, the look of unfettered bliss during the marriage ceremony, and the scene when the woman’s husband returns from battle are all priceless.

Borzage does two things to really show how the couple’s sum is greater than its parts. Subtle lighting and skillful musical timing project the idea that Chico and Diane’s union is a metaphysical one. A relationship that can transcend any economic hardship, war, or physical malady. Married at exactly 11:00am, they make a pact to always think of the other when a clock strikes that hour. Even apart the two can feel their spouse’s presence at that time of the morning. A recurring title card througout the picture reads: “Chico—Diane—Heaven!” I can’t improve upon that. I saw Vidor’s The Crowd — often said to be the second best silent behind Murnau’s Sunrise — not two weeks later and wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was by Borzage’s simple Parisian tale of romance. Seeing Seventh Heaven at The Stanford was not only one of my favorite film going experiences ever but nights out in general.

Year: 1929
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, Ivan Linow, Margaret Mann, Alfred Sabato, Bert Woodruff

Rosalee (Duncan) is the mistress of the wealthy Marsden (Sabato), who is sent to prison for murder. She meets Allen John (Farrell) while he’s swimming in the river by which she lives. Allen John wants to take care of the lonely woman, and while Rosalee at first finds his innocence and naive nature amusing, the pair begin to fall in love.

This reconstruction is one of the biggest reasons I was so excited about the Borzage DVD set. I’d seen it once a few years ago, and I couldn’t wait to see it again, becuase I remembered it being extremely romantic and sexy. No complete print exists. Several reels are missing from the film. What remains is most of the middle part of the film. The beginning and ending (and a scene or two in between) are shown through the use of stills. But what survives are the love scenes, which are among the best of all of silent film. Borzage was an incredible romantic director, and these scenes have a sort of ache to them that’s beautiful.

It’s definitely Borzage’s most sexual film. Unlike the innocents in his films with Janet Gaynor, Mary Duncan’s Rosalee is almost a vamp and a femme fatale. Certainly a woman of looser morals since she is allowing herself to be kept by a rich murderer.  That contrast with Allen John’s innocence is perfect. It’s almost like, through simply meeting Rosalee, he’s receiving his first sexual education.

It’s kind of hard to really get in depth about this movie since so much of it is missing. The reconstruction through use of still is very good, and we know exactly what the story is. But, like I said, what remains are the love scenes. And those scenes are beautifully atmospheric. There’s definitely more of a sexuality than most of Borzage’s films, but it’s also extremely spiritual.

Farrell is, as always with Borzage, very good and dependable. But it’s Mary Duncan as the troubled woman that makes the film shine. She’s sexy yet vulnerable, cruel but sweet. It’s her indecision about the relationship that drives the film.

The River may not be complete, but it sure feels like it is.

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

Year: 1930
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Charles Farrell, Rose Hobart, Estelle Taylor, HB Warner, Lee Tracy, Walter Abel, Mildred Van Dorn, Guinn Williams, Lillian Elliot, Anne Shirley

Most people are probably most familiar with the story of Liliom through Rogers and Hammerstein’s beautiful musical Carousel (which I think is the team’s masterpiece). And Fritz Lang’s 1934 adaptation of the play is also probably more famous than Frank Borzage’s. But the story, characters, and themes are so very much Borzage’s bread and butter than his telling of the story is, without a doubt, the definitive one.

Julie (Hobart) is a somewhat shy girl who loves arrogant ladies man Liliom (Farrell) from afar. They finally meet one night at the carnival where Liliom works as a barker at the carousel. When he flirts with Julie, his boss, Madame Muskat (Taylor), who has a thing for Liliom herself, fires him. Liliom and Julie marry, but Liliom spends his days laying about without a job. Julie loves him, and he loves her, despite the fact that he doesn’t treat her very well. When he finds out she’s pregnant, he decides to join up with a friend in a robbery. But, as usual, things go very wrong.

This is so very much the kind of story Frank Borzage loved. He was a hopeless romantic, and the transcendant power of love was a theme that was prevalent in most of his films, and it’s extremely present, and powerful, in Liliom. Not only does the love between Julie and Liliom transcend their inability to communicate as a couple, it transcends death. And it makes Liliom a better person, even though that might happen a little too late. For some, it might be hard to get past Liliom’s rough treatment of Julie. But relationships are often messy, especially when the characters are so extremely complicated, and Borzage is able to look past the surface difficulties and see the beauty of the relationship.

Borzage always had an excellent style, but Liliom is quite unique, in many ways. The story takes place in Budapest, and Borzage clearly tried to make the setting and overall tone of the film have a European feeling. Most of the story takes place in the house that Julie and Liliom share with Julie’s aunt. It’s an odd, almost stage-like setting, with large rooms, that are almost entirely empty save for one piece of furniture, huge windows, stairs, and tall, empty walls. It gives the entire movie a kind of other-worldly feeling to it, almost as if Borzage is saying that Liliom’s life and afterlife aren’t that far apart. The carnival is used to great effect, and it visible in most scenes. You can see it through the window of the house, almost as if it haunts Julie and Liliom. Most impressive are the scenes of the afterlife. Not only does it look really beautiful, but just the concept of the train to the afterlife through the clouds is very creative.

This was the first sound film I ever saw Charles Farrell in, and let’s just say that is voice is… unfortunate. It’s very high and not at all what you’d expect to come out of his mouth. But it’s kind of proof that a voice like that wasn’t quite the career ender many think it to have been. Farrell made films well into the 1930s and remained quite successful throughout. Despite his voice, though, Farrell gives a really wonderful performance. He’d had practice playing tough guys who actually had big hearts in other Borzage films, and this is kind of the culmination of all that. He plays the arrogant rascal so well, but he gives Liliom so much heart. His development of the character, right through to the end, if beautiful.

Rose Hobart’s performance might be a little stagey, but the important thing here is making Julie’s undying love for Liliom, despite his treatment of her, believable, and she does a beautiful job of that. She makes Julie a sweet, shy girl who becomes Liliom’s moral compass.

Borzage’s Liliom is really just a stunning film. It’s one of his most visually unique films, but it’s all about the emotion. It truly reduced me to tears in its final act. A beautiful piece of emotional filmmaking.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1929
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Guinn Williams, Paul Fix, Hedwiga Reicher

In 1929, the silent film was coming to an end. Really, it managed to go out in a blaze of glory with films like The Single Standard and The Kiss. Lucky Star was one of those final, glorious silent films. It’s also one of the quintessential Borzage films in terms of themes and style. It was his third film with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. But this point these two had become the ultimate Borzage pair: the troubled, hardened waif and the arrogant man who manage to soften each other’s hearts.

Mary (Gaynor) is a dirty rough farm girl who takes daily beatings from her mother and likes to steal and lie. Tim (Farrell) defends her one day when he thinks Wrenn (Williams) is cheating her out of money. When he finds out she was lying, her “gives her a lickin'”. Before Mary can get her revenge, war breaks out and Tim enlists. He’s injured on the front and comes home paralyzed. Knowing he’s back, Mary goes to his house to finally get her revenge, but the two end up talking and becoming friends, with Tim cleaning Mary up and teaching her to be decent.

While both Seventh Heaven and Street Angel were more Janet Gaynor’s films, Lucky Star definitely belongs to Charles Farrell. His performance is really quite heartbreaking. Early on, his spirits are surprisingly high for a man who’s been paralyzed. He wants to fix broken things since he doesn’t think he can fix himself. Mary becomes one of those broken things, and he soon sees the diamond in the rough and falls in love with her. It’s not until he discovers his love, and realizes the fact that he can’t be with her because of his condition, that it begins to weigh on him. In the end, though, that love only inspires him to try to learn how to walk again, however hopeless it might seem. Farrell was an extremely charming actor, and he pulled off those arrogant guy roles very well. He gives Tim so much heart that watching that heart break feels very real. This is truly a story of the triumph of the human spirit, and in the hands of a lesser actor, I don’t think that would come through as beautiful, or an such an inspiring way.

While the film certainly belongs to Farrell, Gaynor gives a very strong performance, as usual. In her earliest scenes, Mary is adorable in her immorality. This is kind of an essential thing, because it makes her development into the sweet,happy girl that Tim falls in love with believable. But her performance is also quite wrenching. She’s such a lonely girl, and there are moments with Tim that are so beautiful, where she just seems like she can’t believe someone loves her. These are two damaged misfits, and they end up fitting together and fixing each other absolutely perfectly.

Lucky Star doesn’t have quite the visual flair that Seventh Heaven and Street Angel have. Overall, it takes place in much more intimate settings. The two main sets are Tim and Mary’s simple houses. There are some beautifully filmed outdoors scenes, but Lucky Star is just a much more simple film, visually, than most Borzage efforts.

But its themes of transcendant love that overcomes all obstacles and makes people better than they were before come through crystal clear. Borzage was an undying romantic, and it shows through in Lucky Star, maybe better than it does in any of his other silent films.

By Katie Richardson