Saturday, May 15, 2010

'The Clock': Timeless Romance

When writing about Judy Garland in December, I wanted to revisit non-musical movie "The Clock."

During the 1940s while at MGM, she was in one musical after another, and why not? With that voice, MGM would have been foolish not to capitalize on it. But by the time this film was made, she was 22 and yearning to leave the girlish roles behind and the grueling musicals that had so far defined her career.

With the success of "Meet Me in St. Louis" at the hands of director Vincente Minnelli, she would next star in this romance/drama, her first non-musical starring role at MGM. "The Clock" has remained timeless, despite the fact that it's tied to its time period, World War II, and the story itself hinges upon time.

Garland plays Alice Maybery, who accidentally befriends Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker) at Pennsylvania Station in NYC, where she breaks the heel on her shoe when tripping over his duffel bag (below). He's on a two-day leave in New York City, a place he's never visited and one much bigger than his humble Midwestern background. Joe is the proverbial fish out of water in this thriving metropolis and is eager yet overwhelmed by the city. Alice ends up sweetly guiding him through some sightseeing, including a trip to an art museum, before seeing him off.

However, on a whim, he wants to see more of her, and so he chases down her bus and asks for a date that evening, when they agree to meet under the clock at the Astor Hotel. The date includes dinner and an all-night milk delivery run with injured milkman Al Henry, who then treats them to breakfast at his apartment with his wife (Mr. and Mrs. Henry played by real-life acting couple James and Lucile Gleason).

Clearly falling in love, Joe and Alice make a decision that seems rash and foolhardy today: They decide to get married.

Some critics have carped that the romance isn't intensely developed and their rush to the alter ridiculous. But I beg to differ. Their time together actually feels real to me, in which they ask each other the questions that any two people would ask upon first meeting. This romance isn't filled with the usual romantic pablum that Hollywood sometimes doled out, and perhaps that puts off some viewers. I think some miss the charm of delivering milk at 5 a.m. After all, you can learn a lot about someone when they volunteer to help others, and the young couple's encounter with the older, long-married Henrys helps them see their relationship in a different light.

Also, in order to appreciate "The Clock" fully, you must understand what the world was like in 1944/1945. The war was still raging, and U.S. involvement entered its fourth year by the end of 1944. Men were dying, leaving behind family and spouses. The thought that Alice and Joe may never see each other again -- he would soon be shipped overseas -- was an important one, and it caused an urgency between Alice and Joe that would not have existed in normal times.

There's one scene that illustrates this. At one point, Alice and Joe are separated when one gets off of a subway train while the other cannot get through the crowd fast enough to disembark. They have no means of finding one another, particularly with Joe unfamiliar with NYC. In this era before cell phones and GPS systems, this is a very scary separation between the two, both of whom wondering if they'll ever see each other again. Finally, once reunited, they now understand the other reality ahead of them: that Joe could be killed overseas. This puts everything in perspective.

So it makes sense what they decide to do, even if by today's standards it seems foolish. (And, to see the other end of a quick marriage like this, check out "The Best Years of Our Lives," with one returning soldier after the war learning to deal with his rushed marriage to a woman who now seems like a stranger.) Plus, you get a sense that these two characters are fully aware of the consequences and even go through a "what have we done?" period after their whirlwind meeting and courtship.

Helping all of this are the brilliant performances from the stars. Walker's Joe is full of youth, energy and bravado, which also masks a fear of what lies ahead. This is exactly what should be expected of a young recruit, and he pulls it off beautifully.

Garland is just lovely. Finally given a chance to be a woman on film, she glows in every scene, her eagerness enough to match his, yet intelligent enough to stop every so often to face reality and finally making choices to follow her emotions, willing to take chances, much like people did at that time.

As a side note, it's interesting that Walker and Garland's personal lives off-screen were at opposite ends while making this film. Walker was enduring a painful separation from his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, while Garland was in love and would be engaged to Minnelli by filming's end.

I like how Minnelli uses the crowds of NYC as a backdrop, where these two people are in their own world, yet the world keeps moving, quickly, and they must keep in step. And, as always, the concept of time permeates this movie, making the title a fitting representation of what is happening. Because filming on location was still considered too expensive, everything was shot on the MGM lot, including the large Penn station set. Some of the backdrops do look fake, but it ultimately doesn't detract from the story.

I find myself surprised by "The Clock" whenever I watch it. Its joys of falling in love are sometimes so simple and real that it makes you forget that you're watching a piece of Hollywood magic. Thankfully, the stars are magic themselves. I highly recommend this one and multiple viewings to truly appreciate it. BTW, the DVD version I have also includes a 1946 radio version of this story, featuring Judy Garland and John Hodiak.

3 comments:

  1. It's about "time" you posted another! Q.

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  2. wow... agree with everything you wrote about it. It is one of my favorites, it gets better with every viewing.

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  3. I'm glad you like it. Thank you for the compliment!

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