The Crystal Ball

The pairing of Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland worked well for Paramount Pictures in the 1940s. They did 4 films together, including “The Crystal Ball,” a 1943 film directed by Elliot Nugent. Goddard plays a down and out but still very beautiful lass from Texas named Toni Gerard who arrives in New York City after losing a beauty contest. With her last 38 cents, she visits Madame Zenobia (Gladys George), a fake fortune teller running a few illegal schemes to get rich people to give up their money.

Paulette Goddard in "The Crystal Ball."

Paulette Goddard in “The Crystal Ball.”

Madame Zenobia takes a liking to the perky Toni, and offers her a job at carnival shooting gallery run by Pop Tibbets (Cecil Kellaway). Toni, who grew up on a hog farm in Texas, proves to be a crack shot who helps lure customers in with her beauty and her shooting accuracy.  Milland plays Brad Cavanaugh, a lawyer for society woman Jo Ainsley (Virginia Field). After Jo Ainsley loses her emerald ring, she goes to Madame Zenobia to help her locate it. With some inside help, Madame Zenobia tells Jo where to find the ring and the grateful then Jo becomes a regular customer.

When Brad shows up at the shooting gallery, Toni falls in love with him at first sight. In normal, everyday life, two things would happen: Toni would approach Brad and eventually tell him how she felt, or she’d pine for him in silence. Screwball romantic comedies require a series of outrageous misunderstandings of course, and this film delivers on all of those. ┬áThe screenplay by the prolific and talented Virginia Van Upp contains lots of witty lines and comic situations, and the love triangle pairing Goddard, Milland and Field pull it off wonderfully.

A particularly amusing running gag involves a bickering married couple who Toni stumbles across while trying to fool Brad. After Brad walks her to the wrong apartment, she enters and is immediately attacked by the wife. As happened in “The Women,” the 1939 George Cukor directed film, a “catfight” breaks out and Goddard’s character has her dress ripped off. More violence ensues later when Brad goes to the apartment to meet Toni and gets punched by the irate husband. Later Brad’s butler Biff Carter (William Bendix) becomes part of the gag when he delivers flowers to the apartment.

Madame Zenobia harbors no illusions about her psychic abilities; she’s just a con woman. The silly, screwball comedy part comes through when Toni must fill in for Madame Zenobia to do a few readings. Toni starts to believe in her psychic powers, but it’s certain that the ruse will come crashing down at the end. Interestingly, this World War 2 era comedy features a very compact car driven by Brad. It’s called a Crosley, a convertible 2-seater that must have been good on gas in those war rationing times.

 

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