Saturday, October 14, 2017

Neglected Gem # 108: The Clock (1945)

Robert Walker and Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945)

When it was released in 1945, The Clock was a moderate box-office success. But most people wouldn’t recognize the title today unless they’ve happened across it on Turner Classic Movies, where it’s a perennial. The plot is simple. Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker), a soldier on a forty-eight-hour leave in New York before departing for the front falls in love with Alice Maybery (Judy Garland), a secretary he encounters by chance in Penn Station – she trips over his foot at the bottom of an escalator and loses her heel. Drawn to her immediately, he asks her to show him the sights of the city; surprising herself, she agrees, and they spend the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. He asks her to meet him that night, and they spend the entire evening together, into the small hours of the morning, when they are befriended by a milkman and wind up making his deliveries for him when he gets hurt. By now Alice and Joe are deeply in love. They decide to get married before he returns to camp, but obtaining a license and getting to the justice of the peace by the end of business hours present challenges they almost fail to overcome. They do overcome them, however, and spend their wedding night in a hotel before Joe has to leave Alice. That’s the entire story.

The Clock gave Garland her first non-musical role, and it was the first non-musical project for its director, Vincente Minnelli, whom she requested as a replacement when the original director, Fred Zinnemann, didn’t work out. Both star and director had just come off Meet Me in St. Louis, an unqualified triumph, and they married as soon as The Clock wrapped; their feelings for each other surely leaked into the picture, which is one of Hollywood’s loveliest romantic dramas. No one ever shot Garland as exquisitely as Minnelli – or lit her like George Folsey, the cinematographer on both movies. (Minnelli directed her in only one subsequent film, The Pirate, and he was behind the camera for her numbers in Ziegfeld Follies and Till the Clouds Roll By as well.)

Romantic dramas are different from romantic comedies and romantic melodramas; each has a discrete set of conventions and a distinctive tone. A romantic drama like The Clock is midway on the spectrum between romantic comedies and romantic melodramas: it ends happily, but the obstacles the hero and heroine meet to reach that ending are more serious, and that seriousness lingers in the air in the final reel – especially when the setting is wartime, as it is here. The “meet cute” is one of the conventions; a more crucial one is the two stars’ romantic chemistry, which is a convention of all three kinds of romances. Walker was just starting out; Garland was already a veteran of nearly a decade of screen parts. In the mid-forties both were still gentle presences and naturally modest performers, and they’re very sweet together – and far better suited for a romance between a pair of transplanted hayseeds than most of the stars on M-G-M’s glittering roster would have been. The relationship between Joe and Alice moves fast, but the actors show us with tiny physical details how the two characters get comfortable with each other – like the way she stretches out her legs as she sits next to him on a pedestal under a sculpture at the Met. Their shared Midwestern small-town background is an essential, though mostly unspoken, part of their bond from the outset: we can tell that he recognizes a kindred spirit and that she sees in him the awkwardness and confusion and alienation of her own first days in the Big Apple.

The setting is a significant part of the romance in movies of this genre. Minnelli and the art directors, William Ferrari and Cedric Gibbons, and the set decorator, Edwin B. Wallis, rebuilt New York City on studio backlots with remarkable accuracy – not just Penn Station and the Metropolitan Museum, but also Central Park, City Hall and several stations on the old IRT subway line, each of which provides an important background for Joe and Alice’s love affair. The movie opens with a marvelous tracking shot of Penn Station, where Joe is training in from boot camp in Maryland, and throughout the picture Minnelli uses long shots, tracking shots and aerial shots that keep framing Walker and Garland as two little people among the urban crowds. The tracking shots underscore the constant movement of men and women in the city. Minnelli typically begins an episode with an establishing shot followed by a zoom into the two protagonists, as if the camera were seeking them amidst the city crowd. The critic Pauline Kael points out that the movie has a love-hate relationship with New York – its bustle and variety provide a rich backdrop for Joe and Alice’s getting to know each other and falling in love, but there’s an implicit threat in its size: they get separated in a subway crush, and how can they ever find each other again, especially when they don’t even know each other’s last names?

We often see Alice and Joe moving through scenes where other working-class people – their sort of people – are engaged in their jobs. The best example is the episode where they deliver the milk for Al Henry (James Gleason) in the early morning. The picture is full of charming touches that usually involve other characters, like the man at the diner where Joe and Alice eat, who watches them intently as he smokes, leaning on his elbow, as if he were sitting in front of a movie screen. They’re almost never alone in the movie, and when they are those interludes are brief. Yet Minnelli establishes two different worlds in The Clock: the world of the city and cradled inside it the special, magical world that Joe and Alice inhabit once they find each other. Most of the time the lovers’ private world is in glorious sync with the larger urban one. But they’re in conflict when Joe and Alice get separated, when they try to wend their way through the big-city bureaucracy so they can get married, and when the expediency and sterility of the city, its rush and impersonal quality, offend their desire for something meaningful and traditional – especially in their after-hours wedding at the office of the justice of the peace, where the subway train (that damn subway, which almost cut them off from each other earlier) drowns out the ceremony.

In a romantic drama, some characters and elements operate as allies to the romance, some as obstacles. This movie offers several in the first category, like the woman on the bus who repeats Alice’s instructions to Joe (when he can’t hear her) about where to meet that evening, the man in the Italian restaurant who sends them a bottle of wine, and of course Al and his wife (played by Lucile Gleason, James Gleason’s real-life wife), who encourage the couple to trust their impulses and soar on their faith in each other, pointing out that nothing, not even a war, has ever stopped young people from falling in love. Here’s a case where the inner world of Joe and Alice’s love affair runs on its own logic within the larger, war-torn world. Throughout the movie, Minnelli’s camera glances at other couples who reflect Joe and Alice’s relationship, to remind us (and them) that love is natural even in a crazy wartime world, to affirm their romantic instincts. There’s the couple Joe watches while he’s waiting for Alice under the clock: the woman’s look inspires him to buy a flower for Alice which she wears, Billie Holiday style, in her hair. There are the other couples at the office of the justice of the peace and at the office where they go for their blood test; the just-wed couple they see coming out of a church, inspiring them to repeat the marriage vows to each other in an empty pew as a means of redeeming their own unsatisfying catch-as-catch-can ceremony; and the other parting couples at Penn Station at the end of the movie.

Among the obstacles are Alice’s roommate Helen (Ruth Brady), who doesn’t think it’s a good idea for her to go out with some soldier she’s just met (Alice almost follows her advice, but goes with her heart at the last minute) and, off screen, Alice’s beau Freddy, whom she breaks a date with in order to see Joe again. Circumstantially, of course, Joe and Alice’s romance is disrupted by the subway crowd that separates them, the bureaucracy that makes it so difficult for them to get married before Joe’s train leaves, and the war that separates them at the end. But these obstacles have the effect of strengthening their romantic bond – the time they spend apart, when they are inadvertently split apart, helps them to realize their feelings for each other. This hour or two becomes a symbol for the greater separation that awaits them when his leave comes to an end and makes it clear to them that they have to find each other again so that they can bind themselves to each other so they can weather that greater separation when he’s away at war.

Keenan Wynn as the noisy drunk.

The noisy drunk in the coffee shop (a memorable cameo by Keenan Wynn) seems to be an obstacle, but turns out, ironically, to be just the opposite: when he accidentally knocks Al down and Joe and Alice wind up taking him home, sharing breakfast with him and his wife and making his deliveries for him, their time together is extended. The city’s pace is linked to the movie’s title, which refers not only to the clock under the Astor where Joe and Alice agree to meet for their date (when she gets cold feet and almost doesn’t come) and find each other after they’re separated on the subway (just as he’s about to give up hope of ever seeing her again), but also to time itself – to the clock that ticks away Joe’s leave, the clock they’re racing against when they try to get married by the end of their second day together. We’re constantly reminded of time passing: for instance, the anxiety of the JP, Schwartz (E.J. Ballantine), to get to his train, which makes him rush through the ceremony, and Al’s reference to his cockeyed schedule, which makes the wee hours of the morning feel like noontime to him. We appreciate that by staying up all night to deliver Al’s milk for him, the lovers temporarily defeat time: by skipping sleep, they waste none of the time they have together. But eventually time catches up with them. Leaping ahead four decades in movie history for an analogy, we might think of the day and the night that Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline spend together in Vienna in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), when they operate outside time; the next morning, when he has to catch his plane back to the States and she has to go home to Paris, they recognize soberly that they’ve returned to “real” time.

The actors in The Clock sometimes overlap their lines to give the impression of natural conversation, and Garland and Walker share an un-actorish quality that is part of the movie’s freshness – the bloom on the rose. Otherwise Minnelli stylizes everything – like the scene in the coffee shop where Wynn raves at Moyna MacGill, who daydreams as she sits at the counter and eats. Minnelli began as a director of movie musicals, and sometimes he extends that approach to other kinds of movies: his 1950 Father of the Bride feels more like a musical than a family comedy, with scenes shaped like numbers. You can see that sensibility at work in The Clock when Joe and Alice sit alone in a section of Central Park – the scene that culminates in their first kiss. Minnelli stages and shoots it as if it were a duet, and when Alice draws Joe’s attention to the sounds of the city that never entirely fade, even in the middle of the park, a choir emerges out of that hushed cacophony. When I teach The Clock I always show this scene in class, and though the effect is old-fashioned my students never laugh; it makes instinctual sense to them that the lovers are listening to the city and what they hear is harmony – the sound of their own emotions. All the emblems of the city – the double-decker bus, the Met, Penn Station, the Italian restaurant, the milk wagon and Central Park – are stylized and romanticized, just as the trolley and the dimming of the lights in the chandeliers at the end of the party are in Meet Me in St. Louis, or the 42nd Street arcade in The Band Wagon or the skating rink in Gigi (all Minnelli musicals).

One of the conventions of romantic dramas is that fate plays a role in the proceedings: the movie makes us feel – and this may be its greatest appeal – that love is inevitable, that matches are made in heaven, that nothing in the world could ever keep the hero and heroine from each other’s arms. (Or beyond, as we see in the 1935 romantic fantasy Peter Ibbetson, with Gary Cooper and Ann Harding as lovers who meet only in dreams, or in the 1948 Portrait of Jennie, also written by Robert Nathan, where Jennifer Jones time-travels to be united with her true love, Joseph Cotten.) When Alice and Joe are separated, we know they’re bound to find one another again; when they’re told they need three days for blood tests before they can obtain a marriage license, we’re sure they can find a way around the rule. Alice asks Joe at one point, “What if we’d never met?,” but Joe insists that they couldn’t help but meet, that their romance was destined. Yet their story is set against the poignant background of the Second World War, so the 1945 audience could hold simultaneously in their heads the idea that the reunion of Joe and Alice was fated and the reality that Joe might not make it back from the front. (Though the end was in sight: the movie was released on May 25, just over three months before V-J Day.) The war is an unspoken subtext in The Clock – it’s alluded to only once, and not explicitly, in the scene in Central Park when the lovers talk about the dawn arriving in different parts of the country, then other parts of the world, and Joe thinks of Europe. Yet the fact that Joe is going off to fight heightens the intensity of his two days with Alice and explains their haste to marry: they’re living in a time where they have to seize the moment and act on their feelings now because you might not get a second chance. If you know Meet Me in St. Louis (my favorite forties musical) you might think of the great scene where Judy Garland, as Essie Smith, sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), and Hugh Martin’s lyric for the final verse – “Someday soon we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow / So have yourself a merry little Christmas now” – subtly reflects the longing of so many in the audience with loved ones overseas. (That’s the original lyric, the one you hear in the movie; the other one that everyone knows from countless covers of the song – “From now on we all will be together / If the fates allow / Hang a shining star upon the highest bough / And have yourself a merry little Christmas now” – was changed to accommodate Frank Sinatra, who felt the first version was too depressing for a Christmas song.)

Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli in New York, New York (1977)

At the end of The Clock, Alice walks back through Penn Station after putting Joe on his train, alone in the Manhattan tangle, but Minnelli leaves us with the feeling that these two are still linked despite the growing distance between them. She isn’t swallowed up by the crowd as Arletty is at the end of the epic French romantic melodrama by Marcel Carné, Children of Paradise, released the same year, where Jean-Louis Barrault, held back by the crush of revelers on the boulevard, loses sight of her and we know she’s lost to him forever.

Minnelli’s movie reappeared in movie history three decades later, when Martin Scorsese spun off it in his 1977 musical drama New York, New York. Scorsese shot his film, the story of the ill-fated marriage of a Big Band singer and a jazz saxophonist that begins on V-J Day, on studio sets to create a tension between the happy-ever-after expectations of musicals of the period when it’s set and the sour, upsetting reality of the characters’ relationship. The link to The Clock is provided by Liza Minnelli, who was born to Garland and Vincente Minnelli less than a year after the release of that picture. In New York, New York she plays the singer, Francine Evans, opposite Robert De Niro. She’s made up, coiffed and dressed to emphasize her resemblance to her mother, and her style – usually electric and driven and frazzled, as Garland’s was in the fifties and sixties – is muted to approximate the un-self-conscious Garland of her Vincente Minnelli period. It’s one of her best performances, though she’s rarely recognized for it, partly because the movie didn’t do well but mostly, I assume, because it’s such an uncharacteristic one. And the eerie visual closeness of mother and daughter may be one of the elements of New York, New York that made audiences uncomfortable – especially because the Garland she evokes in Scorsese’s picture, young (she was twenty-two when The Clock came out) and effervescent and lacking in neurosis, had vanished within a few short years. Within half a dozen years she and Minnelli had dissolved their marriage and she’d been fired from M-G-M after being replaced on two musicals, and Walker, who had his own demons, was dead at thirty-two. Their only screen collaboration is even more affecting in the context of their tormented lives.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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