Take away the personal troubles and the tragedy, Judy Garland was a phenomenal actress, hands down. Much of that was due to her powerhouse vocals which, when blended with a fantastic story (A Star is Born, for example), created pure cinematic joy. Garland only starred in three non-musical features, so my Summer Under the Stars choice was culled from those three: The Clock. (This was also recommended to me by a reader whose name escapes me. Sorry!) The Clock is a poignant romance with a sobering set of circumstances ideal for the post-WWII audiences of the era.
Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is a soldier on furlough in New York City. He accidentally runs into Alice Mayberry (Garland), and struck by the immensity of a city he’s never been to Joe asks Alice to show him around. With only 48-hours to spend, Joe and Alice find themselves drawn to each other and into a romance that changes their lives.
Filmed in 1944 and released in 1945, The Clock is a celebration of love after, and among, the horrors of war. Set while the war is ongoing, Joe is thrust into an equally perplexing new world: the wilds of New York. Winding up in Penn Station and unsure where to go, Joe finds people rushing from place to place with no interest in helping him or willing to acknowledge his existence. Overseas men are rushing into the fray to kill each other, yet New Yorkers are rushing to get as far away from each other as possible. Just walking out of the station terrifies Joe; the cold, confining, bleak buildings threatening to stomp all over his fragile soul.
The world’s, or New York at least, cold indifference to him is lessened upon stumbling into Alice, or rather her stumbling into him – she breaks a heel before getting on an escalator and asks him to help her. And is Joe ever eager to help, picking Alice off the ground, and bombarding her with questions she can’t answer over his talking. The premise is one that could only work in a romance of this era. Remember those halcyon days when a young woman could wander around town with a man she just met? Aside from a stray side-eye Alice sends Joe’s way, she never thinks twice about meeting him again. And why should she? She understands Joe’s loneliness, even if her roommate tells her he’s probably looking for a quick roll in the hay (she doesn’t speak so plainly, but the belief is there).
Both equally troubled in their off-screen lives, Walker and Garland are perfectly cast. In fact, Walker was originally meant to play Garland’s love in Meet Me in St. Louis, but wasn’t cast despite Garland’s objections. Robert Walker is the true surprise. His Joe Allen is “green as grass” and just as lovable. The stateside culture clash Joe stumbles upon is a cause for hilarity. When Alice and him go to a museum, he’s startled that children aren’t in awe of him. Why, where he lives they follow him home! Walker expresses Joe’s child-like wonder at New York City, with the underlying fear he’ll miss something important. Thus why he takes a chance with Alice. Garland, the bigger name at the time, presents a lesser impact because we expect her to be unsurprised by the world. We’ve watched her grow up. Alice isn’t as desensitized as the people at Penn Station, but she’s lived in New York a fair while and hasn’t spent anytime exploring and appreciating it.
There’s a Before Sunrise vibe to The Clock. If you haven’t seen Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy,” it follows two strangers as they meet in various foreign locales and spend the limited time they have talking about life and, subsequently, falling in love. In 90-minutes, Alice and Joe learn about each other through a series of conversations as they take in New York City. There’s an almost voyeuristic quality as the camera follows them throughout their two days together. There’s a fantastic sequence in the museum where the camera takes a birds-eye view, listening in on these two lovers.
Amongst the fear of death and war, there’s a veneer of fate dealing these two a tricky hand. For all their attempts to part ways, something draws them together as often as it separates them. After going home, Alice meets up with her roommate, Helen (Ruth Brady) and her mute boyfriend, Bill (Marshall Thompson), a moment of levity leaves Alice jumping at Bill’s two words in the entire movie: “Good bye!” Helen tries to dissuade Alice from meeting up with Joe, but the audience knows these two won’t part ways for long. Any man willing to chase down a bus to secure a date deserves one! When the two fear they’ve parted for good – Alice gets snarled up in the crows of the station. Where they were ambivalent to Joe previously, they’re working to tear the couple asunder – it cements and proves their love for each other.
Joe only has 48-hours and after that who knows whether he’ll live or die, adding an air of urgency and fear to their burgeoning romance. The clock acts as a third lover in this triangle, ticking down the hours till doomsday, their parting. The two decide to marry, in defiance of Alice’s desire to remain unmarried “for a long time.” Part of this is the fact they’re two lonely souls looking for connection, but another is the threat of death within the war. So many young men went away, never to return, and both Joe and Alice want to feel love in their lives. You could say their romance stems from mutual obligation to each other, and it does, but love remains the prime factor.
When the two decide to tie the knot, with 35 minutes remaining, you know things won’t be smooth sailing. This is where the desire for authenticity plays to great effect. The two go through the typical comedic pratfalls required to marry, but afterwards there’s no hosannas or golden glow cementing their union. They leave the justice of the peace and see a cleaning crew. The harsh reality of their decision is evident; the war didn’t end, people aren’t spared pain and death just because two kids got married. Ultimately, the movie ends on a hopeful note, albeit with the potentiality for future grimness. Alice and Joe want to make a go of it….so long as Joe makes it home. The war ended the year this was released, but being filmed in 1944 the fear is still there. Will fate remain kind to them?
Vincente Minnelli was a last-minute replacement, taking over from Fred Zinnemann who apparently clashed with Garland. Minnelli and Garland got along, obviously, and were married after filming. Apparently, the only changes Minnelli made after taking the director’s chair was replacing Hume Cronyn and Audrey Totter, but I can’t find out who they played. I’m assuming Totter played Helen and Cronyn Bill?
The Clock is a beautiful, post-WWII movie about fate, romance, and connection. Robert Walker and Judy Garland are immensely entertaining and endearing.
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