Shamedown #3: The Crystal Ball

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Another Shamedown is upon us. A little late, but it’s still March, so we’re all good. If anyone would like to know what a Shamedown is, please click here.

Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland were kind of a screen team. They made four movies together during the nineteen-forties, and the third of the four was 1943’s The Crystal Ball. It’s basically an indie film released by United Artists and seems to have a lot going for it.

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The movie opens at Jo Ainsley’s (Virginia Field) New York City apartment, where the lady of the house has just gotten into the shower. Meanwhile, her maid is going through her room and pockets an emerald ring. When Jo comes out of the shower, the maid is going all over the room pretending to look high and low for the ring and crying her eyes out because she thinks she’s going to be fired.

Here’s the funny part, though: The maid sends Jo over to see Madame Zenobia (Gladys George), who can tell her where the ring is. Jo buys the maid’s sell job so much that she decides not to call the police. What’s even funnier is that the maid high-tails it over to Madame Zenobia’s and tells the august seer that she hid the ring in the drainpipe of the bathroom sink. Long story short, the madame tells Jo, Jo hires a plumber to get the ring out, and Madame Zenobia has another satisfied customer. The maid gets fifty percent of the money Jo pays Zenobia.

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So yeah, The Crystal Ball seems like that kind of movie, right? Wiley fortune teller manages to swindle wealthy New Yorkers by supposedly helping them guard their valuables.

It’s not that kind of movie. And incidentally, if anyone feels like calling Zenobia “Zamboni,” don’t worry. It’s a totally natural impulse.

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Toni Gerard (Paulette Goddard) is just in from Texas. She grew up on a hog farm outside of Waco and decided to move to New York to make something of herself, and since her original idea of winning a beauty contest didn’t pan out, she’s just about broke and needs a job. Thirty-nine cents is all she has.

Madame Zenobia smells her desperation and talks her into coming in for a session with her crystal ball. When she finds out Toni’s story, she drops her fortune teller act and offers her a job as a stooge with the shooting gallery owner, Pop (Cecil Kellaway) next door.

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Things go pretty swimmingly for a while, but then Madame Zenobia throws her back out and asks Toni to fill in for her while she recovers. There’s a bazaar she’s supposed to work at for Jo Ainsley. All Toni has to do is wear a veil over her face and fake an accent (Indian, preferably) and she’s good. If she’s not good, she can fake it.

And just in case things aren’t exciting enough, Toni meets a guy, Brad Cavenaugh (Ray Milland), who’s an attorney and pretty intriguing. He’s also good friends with Jo, who just happens to be his good friend’s widow. The late Mr. Ainsley died in a hunting accident. Madame Zenobia is trying to convince Jo to buy some land upstate.

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Oh yes, things get very complicated. And very confusing.

There are elements of a good movie here. It’s a wartime film, so there are references to the war all over the place, and even the final scene was rewritten to reflect wartime shortages (It was supposed to take place on a train). The great Edith Head was the costumer. There are a lot of powerhouses in the cast. Goddard is her usual fun and flirty self. Milland plays his usual suave movie idol. William Bendix, who play’s Brad’s valet, Biff, is a loveable goofball. Gladys George is hardboiled with heart like she was in a lot of her movies. The Crystal Ball has got schtick and romance. It should be a likeable film.

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Nope. The Crystal Ball is boring. It didn’t take twenty minutes before my my eyes glazed over and I started glancing at the time counter every few minutes.

Critics were decidedly “meh,” although some were more direct than others. Variety damned the film with faint praise by calling it “throughly acceptable entertainment,” but didn’t elaborate beyond that. Maybe the anonymous Variety staffers who wrote the piece decided to stick to the tried-and-true adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

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Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star was vastly more specific: “The finished product is as indiscriminate as the {love triangle} formula sounds, primarily because no one seems to give a hang whether the ingredients take a definite shape or merely float around, so long as they, isolated or not, get their giggles. It is these scattered noises which keep most of the theater patrons awake during ‘Crystal Ball.'”

Ouch.

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Amazingly enough, the film was a wash for both Goddard and Milland. The former was probably highly relieved when her next movie, the formidable So Proudly We Hail! became a huge hit. Ray Milland didn’t fare so well, though, because his next film was the lackluster Lady In the Dark. Either way, it’s doubtful that anyone would have remembered The Crystal Ball for very long, and Goddard and Milland would make another movie together, Kitty, before the forties ticked into the fifties.

Despite The Crystal Ball being boring and pointless, it has its pleasant moments, although the total package may only be bearable for Goddard and Milland completists.

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Mmmmkay, we’re two for two on mediocre movies for this weekend, so I’m hoping my next review will be a little more, um, glowing. Here’s a hint: It’s got H.G. Wells, a decades-long World War Two, and space travel. Intrigued? I know I am.

Oh, and we have a bit of business before wrapping up. This month’s lucky Pick My Movie Tag is (drum roll, please)…the wonderful Ruth of Silver Screenings. Her mission, if she chooses to accept it, is to review a film from her watchlist. Old, new, physical or streaming doesn’t matter, but preferably something that’s been on the list for a while. The tag’s rules can be found here if anyone is interested in participating.

Have a great Sunday, all. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you Thursday…


The Crystal Ball is available on DVD from Amazon or is free to stream for Prime customers.

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