27 June 2013 | secondtake
Snappy, fun, warm, very well made, with a few creaks in the plot.
The Crystal Ball (1943)
Utterly fun, snappy, well written, smartly filmed, and all round entertaining. Yes. But also dependent on a plot device or two that push credulity. It's made to be a bit mad-cap, if not true screwball, and so it's easy to look the other way. If Paulette Goddard as the leading lady (ladies, in this case) is charming and friendly (and pretty, which is her main calling card to some), she is also a bit thin, and even comedies need complexity of character. Across from her is Ray Milland who has always been an odd leading man, likable and probably handsome to some, but lacking some kind of gravity or depth or charm to make him truly leading.
So this movie has it all and yet not quite all.
Goddard became famous when she got involved (literally) with Charlie Chaplin, and starred in his fabulous "Modern Times" in 1936. She was then set for all kinds of roles including comedy spots like playing opposite Bob Hope a couple times. I find her always fun, and maybe she's perfect for movies that have no pretensions, just as much as she seems to have none. Ginger Rogers was originally intended for this role in "The Crystal Ball" but the Goddard stepped in, and you can feel (maybe) the part fitting Rogers just as well or better.
Milland, a British (Welsh) actor who still hadn't found his stride in Hollywood, is almost working too hard here. At times he pours on the cheerful energy and you see his inner playfulness, but it comes off a little intentional. He isn't, maybe, actually playful on camera, always too self aware. He is, though, a decent substitute for Charles Boyer, who would have played the part with more mystery but maybe, judging from his other films of the time, less natural humor.
And then there is the story itself, a clever, marshmallow version of a Shakespearean identity switch. The main idea, that the same woman can put a veil over half her face and fool people who already know her, is one of the conceits of the movies (seen in masquerade balls most often) and I don't buy it. You won't either. Instead you have to just enjoy the idea and the fun to be had. The additional twists of an actual swindle involving the government and, briefly, a government agent is a bit much, too, but just go with the flow.
I'm being a bit critical all along because I really liked this film and found the weaknesses unfortunate. It has the bones and the great filming style of a great one. I'd watch it again, if that's some clue. William Bendix is fun, as always, and Cecil Kellaway, the man at the carnival booth, is pretty terrific.
Director Elliott Nugent is one of those workaday standard bearers who can pull a good crew together and he does well here (in the same way as he did in "The Cat and the Canary"). Cinematographer Leo Tover, though less known that some of the legends, has a whole slew of great movies to his name ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," "The Heiress," "Dead Reckoning") and he deserves a lot of the credit for holding this all together and giving it ambiance. It's the small things like this that make this film look and feel even better than it is, all told. Give it a cheerful chance. It may surprise you.