Crystal Balls in Film 5

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Crystal Balls! Movie Magic! Portentous and puzzling!

All of the material you have access to here -- the instructive booklets, the nostalgic postcards, the boldly graphic ephemera, and all of the historical information researched and shared from the mind of the woman who is making it all happen -- can easily fit into one 8 x 10 foot room in an old Victorian farmhouse, but you would never see it without the investment of the time it takes to produce such a site and the caloric input such a site requires in the form of food for the writer, graphic designer, and database manager, as well as the US currency needed to pay for the computers, software applications, scanners, electricity, and internet connectivity that bring it out of that little room and into the world.

So, as you can see, this site is the darling of many, and it is growing at a rapid rate ... but although it is "free," there also is a cost. The financial support of my Patreon subscribers -- my Patrons -- underwrites this cost.

Crystal Balls in Film, Part Five

Well, i thought last week would be the conclusion of the "Crystal Balls in Film" series, but that turned out to be a premature prediction. We are back again, with yet MORE of these fine, funny, fascinating, fantastic, and freakish films that present crystallomancy in various lights, from amusing to outrageous and from occult to outré..

I am fannishly obsessing over "The Mysteries of Myra," the mostly-missing 1916 horror fantasy chapter play written by the famous occultist and Spiritualist Hereward Carrington. Another still has come to light, and i now have a list of all the chapters, one of which was never filmed and another of which was filmed but discarded by William Randolph Heart, whose motion picture company funded this eccentric project. After the chapters had covered every metaphysical topic from hypnotism and fairies to telepathically-induced suicide and thought-monsters, it seems that the "Voodoo" chapter was just too, too much for Hearst to release. It may be that i will just have to bite the bullet and purchase both the book about this movie and the DVD that compiles all of the remaining footage and working materials. It is not cheap. The Serial Squadron, who put this over-the-top project together represent the best of fandom -- but the cost is ... well, it's a luxury. Maybe next month ...

The mysterious crystal ball publicity shots of the 1930s and 1940s continue to stump me. These are well-costumed, well-posed, and well-lit photographs of well-known actors and well-endowed actresses gazing into well-made crystal balls -- but they don't seem to be linked to any movies. Perhaps posing with a crystal ball was just what was "done" by goofy Hollywood agents for their clients back then, or maybe these were test shots for roles that went to other actors. If you have a clue, please share it!

The more of these vintage movie stills, lobby cards, and posters i see, the more of a critic of the prop departments of various studios i become. I can spot a real crystal, whether quartz (unlikely) or solid glass, and easily tell it from a hollow blown-glass sphere. I can tell an upside-down goldfish bowl, painted milky-white inside and lit up by a lamp, from a Murano glass sphere with swirls of encased air bubbles. It always looks a little tacky to see a character emoting over a hollow sphere. I want my crystal balls to have some weight to them, some gravitas.

I am also becoming aware of the wonders — and the failings — of various costume and set design departments at major, minor, independent, and poverty row film studios. A good swami outfit did not require a big budget back then. Asian brocades, Turkish rugs, and few feathers worked wonders. Nylon satin did not. What is most interesting is that the "exotic" costumes, fabrics, furnishings, and decor of the silent, pre-Code, and pre-War period were so much more authentic-looking than the shiny satin and bulky bathrobes of the Mid-Century years. Examining a still from even a cheap little silent production like "Rough House Rosie," starring Clara Bow, reveals rich details of imported Asian and Middle Eastern textiles, metal craft, and woodworking history that are virtually archival in their authenticity.

From the start of the Hayes Code era until well into the hippie era, few movies except for "The Wizard of Oz" (which was based on a book from 1900) treated crystal gazing as anything but a scam. Low budget documentary-exposure-exploitation films that propagandized against crystallomancy took off after Mischa Auer played Swami Yomurda twice in the 1930s and Turhan Bey played two phony crystal gazers in the 1940s. Swami racketeers were in a comfortable rut in Hollywood by the early 1950s, when films like "Bunco Squad," told the story of how the Los Angeles Police Department had created an entire department assigned to investigating and arresting fortune tellers, palm readers, psychics, clairvoyants, and phony occultists.

The late 1950s was probably the low point for crystal gazing in film. Fraud was no longer the central plot-driver, but comedy had replaced mystery, and the days of intrigue and glorious costumes and elaborate props seemed to be gone forever. And then, suddenly, fantasy-themed films came back with a bang. From "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" and "Labyrinth" through "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Harry Potter " series, crystal balls were everywhere, and very rarely were they symbols of swindlers and fake yogis -- now they were the tools of authentic wizards and witches, both benevolent and sinister.

The Search Goes On

Here's a revised list of Missing Balls: These are films keyworded at IMDb as having Crystal Balls in them, but for which we have not yet located an image: Can you help us by supplying a screen shot of a crystal ball scene in any of these movies?

  • 1918: "Betta, the Gipsy"
    • In Wales, a gypsy queen changes her sister's dead baby for one by the same father. The child grows up to marry her daughter.
    • Director: Charles Raymond | Stars: Marga Rubia Levy, Malvina Longfellow, George Foley, Edward Combermere
  • 1922: "Haxan," a.k.a. "Witchcraft Through the Ages"
    • Fictionalized documentary showing the evolution of witchcraft, from its pagan roots to its confusion with hysteria in Eastern Europe.
    • Director: Benjamin Christensen | Stars: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan
  • 1924: "The Thief of Bagdad"
    • A recalcitrant thief vies with a duplicitous Mongol ruler for the hand of a beautiful princess.
    • Director: Raoul Walsh | Stars: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher
  • 1930: "Honeymoon Zeppelin"
    • A jealous fiancee returns her engagement ring and flies off with another man on a blimp bound for Havana. On the voyage, his rival proposes, so the jilted fiance rushes to intercept the zeppelin by seaplane.
    • Director: Mack Sennett | Stars: Nick Stuart, Marjorie Beebe, Daphne Pollard, Edward Earle
  • 1934: "The Moonstone" — Yandoo (John Davidson)
    • A valuable gem from India is stolen in an old dark mansion and it is up to Scotland Yard to find out who took it.
    • Director: Reginald Barker | Stars: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas
  • 1937: High Flyers
    • Two men running a carnival airplane ride are hired to fly to retrieve what they think are photos for a reporter; actually, they are retrieving stolen diamonds.
    • Director: Edward F. Cline | Stars: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Lupe Velez, Marjorie Lord
  • 1939: "A Star is Shorn"
    • Bumbling talent agent Danny Webb tries to help a struggling actress get work.
    • Director: Del Lord | Stars: Danny Webb, Mary Treen, Ethelreda Leopold, Eugene Anderson Jr.
  • 1941: "Playmates"
    • Lulu Monahan, the press agent for John Barrymore, is attempting to get a sponsor for a radio program.
    • Director: David Butler | Stars: Kay Kyser, John Barrymore, Lupe Velez, Ginny Simms
  • 1943: "No News Is Good News"
    • Robert Benchley ("The Answer Man") answers questions sent in by people.
    • Director: Will Jason | Stars: Robert Benchley, John B. Kennedy, Lon Poff
  • 1946: "Aladin"
    • A Filipino adaptation of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp.
    • Director: Vicente Salumbides | Stars: Norma Blancaflor, Jaime de la Rosa, Naty Bernardo, Salvador Zaragoza
  • 1947: "Le Tempestaire"
    • In a village in Brittany, a worried young maid asks for help from a mysterious old man and his magical crystal ball in order to calm down the rough seas.
    • Director: Jean Epstein
  • 1955: "Black Cats and Broomsticks"
    • An RKO-Pathe Screenliner short subject. Superstitions are examined in the context of mid-20th century America. Walking under ladders, spilt salt, stepping on cracks, haunted houses, voodoo dolls, and such illustrate the widespread belief in the supernatural.
    • Director: Larry O'Reilly | Star: Peter Roberts
  • 1955: "A Time to Kill"
    • In the grounds of a dark, deserted mansion, a blackmailer collects money from his victim.
    • Director: Larry O'Reilly | Star: Peter Roberts
  • 1957: "The End of the Fortune-Teller" ("Konec Jasnovidce")
    • Private clairvoyant Mathias Scibolini carries out his work with honesty and to the full satisfaction of his clients.
    • Directors: Ján Rohác, Vladimír Svitácek | Stars: Milos Kopecký, Frantisek Filipovský, Jirina Bohdalová, Vladimír Mensík

See Also

Lovely Ladies and Their Little Balls

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Thank you.

catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
Your Wate and Fate

Special thanks to my dear husband and creative partner nagasiva yronwode for illustrations, scans, and clean-ups.