Friday, 16 October 2015

Film Friday: "The Clock" (1945)

My initial plan for today was to write about a Linda Darnell film, seeing that today is her 92th birthday, but then I felt like celebrating Robert Walker's birthday again. What can I say? I simply adore that boy.  So, this week on "Film Friday" I am bringing you yet another Robert Walker film, which also happens to be one of my absolute favorite films of all time.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, The Clock (1945) follows Joe Allen (Robert Walker), a young soldier who arrives in New York on a 48-hour leave and meets the beautiful secretary Alice Mayberry (Judy Garland) when she trips over his foot in Pennsylvania Station. With no definite destination while in the city, Joe offers to go "a little ways" with Alice and she then takes him on a tour through Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After they bid farewell, Joe chases the bus she is riding down the street and she promises to meet him "under the clock at the Astor at seven." Although her roommate and co-worker, Helen (Ruth Brady), rebukes her for letting herself be "picked up by a uniform," Alice keeps her date with Joe.

After dinner that evening, Joe and Alice become so absorbed in their romantic pursuits that they lose track of time and miss the last bus home. Mistaking it for a taxi, Joe hails a milk truck and its jovial driver, Al Henry (James Gleason), kindly offers them a ride. When the milkman's truck has a flat tire, he and his passengers enter a diner to call for assistance and Al ends up getting punched by a philosophizing drunk (Keenan Wynn). Because Al is injured and unable to continue his milk run, Joe and Alice complete his deliveries and later enjoy an early-morning dinner prepared by Mrs. Henry (Lucile Gleason). After they leave the Henrys, Joe and Alice become separated in a subway crowd and then try frantically to find each other, until they finally reunite by returning to the same place at which they met for the first time, the escalator at Pennsylvania Station. Having fallen deeply in love, Joe asks Alice to marry him before his departure the next day and she accepts. However, Alice is disappointed by their rushed and "ugly" wedding at City Hall, which a series of bureaucratic complications nearly prevented them from having, and it's only after they repeat their vows in a church that she feels truly married. The following morning, the young couple says their goodbyes at Pennsylvania Station, confident that they will be reunited as husband and wife when Joe returns from the war.

Alice Mayberry: Joe, darling, you're coming back. Do you want me to tell you how I know? Two days ago, you came to this city and you didn't know anyone. You didn't know me and I didn't know you. And now we're married. Now we both know that that was meant to be. So don't you see? Whoever makes the arrangements for people, is doing pretty well for us. That's all we need to know. 

After giving her all in one elaborate MGM musical after another, Judy Garland longed for the opportunity to appear in a more modestly scaled production that would allow her to demonstrate her abilities as a dramatic actress. Producer Arthur Freed, on the other hand, didn't think casting his greatest musical star in a straight role was a particularly good idea, since the moviegoing public knew and adored Garland as a singing star and paid good money to see her musicals and buy her records. Nevertheless, he agreed to give Garland "a kick" in this new venture and approached her with Robert Nathan and Joseph Schrank's script for a film called The Clock, based on Paul and Pauline Gallico's unpublished short story of the same name, which MGM had purchased the rights to in 1943. A whirlwind wartime romance between a young G.I. and a New York secretary, The Clock was everything Garland was looking for: it was charming, timely and, most importantly, there were no big production numbers. And so, in the form of Alice Mayberry, Garland had finally found her first dramatic, non-singing role in a motion picture.

When The Clock began pre-production in June 1944, Jack Conway, the man responsible for MGM's first talkie, Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928), was occupying the director's chair. However, while shooting background footage on location in New York City, Conway fell ill and was replaced by the relatively inexperienced Fred Zinnemann, who had just scored his first big-budget film, the World War II drama The Seventh Cross (1944). Despite his newcomer status, Zinnemann was a perfectly capable director, but after three weeks of filming it became apparent that he was not suitably matched with Garland. "I don't know  he must be a good director, but I just get nothing. We have no compatibility," she reportedly told Freed. Accepting the inevitable, Freed soon fired Zinnemann and closed down the picture until another director could be found.

Arthur Freed and Judy Garland on the set
As far as Garland was concerned, there was only one director in Hollywood who could make the film work: Vincente Minnelli. With Freed's permission, she summoned Minnelli to a lunch meeting at The Player's Club, the site of countless on-the-lot conferences, and asked him if he would consider taking over The Clock, a project she throroughly believed in. Minnelli, who had been courting Garland ever since directing her in the musical classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), simply replied: "I guess I can look into it. Let me read the script and have a look at the existing footage."

To Minnelli's dismay, each scene in The Clock "seemed to belong to a different picture." Much of the problem, he reasoned, didn't come from Zinnemann's direction, which was "decent, if not great"; it came from Nathan and Schrank's "flat script." Although the duo had succeed at capturing the romantic atmosphere and poignancy of the Gallico's original story, their screenplay didn't play well on screen; it was "confusing, a jumble of different tones and moods." Shortly afterwards, Minnelli told Garland that he would commit to directing The Clock on two conditions: first, that Zinnemann did not object to his taking over; and second, that he would be granted complete creative control over the project. When Zinnemann promised not to stand in the way, Freed and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer happily allowed Minnelli to make whatever changes he thought necessary. Consequently, on September 1, three days after his meeting with Garland, Minnelli reported to the set of The Clock ready to begin his "rescue mission."

The Pennsylvania Station set for The Clock
With the exception of some exteriors scenes that had been shot by Conway in New York, Minnelli scrapped all of the footage already filmed and started anew. His main idea for The Clock was to make New York City an integral character in the story, highlighting its strong influence on the relationship between Joe and Alice, the film's central couple. Because World War II had not yet ended, filming The Clock entirely on location was considered to be too expensive and impractical. Consequently, the interiors of famous New York landmarks, including Pennsylvania Station and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were meticulously reproduced on MGM's Culver City soundstages. To create the required atmosphere, the studio footage shot by Minnelli was then combined with the backgrounds previously captured by the location crew through the use of photographic plates, which were projected as backdrops in front of the actors, a technique that proved both effective and inexpensive. In the end, the New York City presented in The Clock was "more than a passive backdrop for romance; it became a lively participant, pushing the lovers together in some scenes, separating them in others."

Wanting to prevent The Clock from being "drowned in a gush of sentimentality," Minnelli asked Nathan and Schrank to revise some scenes that he was not entirely happy with. For instance, in the original screenplay, there was a sequence set by the pond in Central Park, during which Joe befriends a young boy who is helping him rig the sails of a boat. When the boy falls into the pond and a policeman wants to arrest him for swimming, Joe and Alice pretend to be his parents. Finding this utterly clichéd, Minnelli decided that when Joe attempts to befriend the boy, he would get a kick in the shins for his trouble. "I don't understand. I'm usually good with kids." he says, very confused. The problems that Joe has with children then became a recurring theme throughout the film, adding another layer of charm to the story and the relationship of the young couple.

Robert Walker and Judy Garland in
a publicity still
Despite the erratic behavior she had showed on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland was in particularly good shape during the filming of The Clock. She trusted Minnelli completely and they were as visibly entwined as any couple could be. When MGM sent them to New York for the opening of Meet in St. Louis in late November, Minnelli showed her a new side of Manhattan, introducing her to some of his theater friends and taking her to the actual spots were much of the action in The Clock was supposed to have occurred. Early the next year, they announced their engagement and were married in June 15, 1945.

If Garland was on her best behavior, her co-star, Robert Walker, was a mess. At the time, he was suffering terribly from the dissolution of his marriage to Jennifer Jones, who was already involved with producer David O. Selznick in a much-publicized affair. The pain from the break-up led to an alcohol addiction and he soon began exhibiting sudden, scary personality changes. Although Walker never drank on the set, Garland was aware of his situation and decided to nurse him throughout the shoot. On more than one occasion, she, her make-up artist, Dottie Ponedel, and her publicist, Betty Asher, went from bar to bar looking for Walker, finding him either drunk or passed out. Then, they would bring him home, dry him out and get him into shape for the following day's work. Despite Garland's continued efforts to help Walker overcome his drinking problem, he never recovered from his severe depression and his life was cut short tragically in 1951, at the young age of 32.

Robert Walker and Judy Garland
The Clock was an immediate critical and commercial success upon its premiere at the Capitol Theatre in New York in May 1945. The notoriously analytical Bosley Crowther liked the film summed it up perfectly in his review for The New York Times: "A tender and refreshingly simple romantic drama [...] The Clock is the kind of picture that leaves one with a warm feeling toward his fellow-man, especially toward the young folks who today are trying to crowd a lifetime of happiness into a few fleeting hours."

Critics were particularly impressed by Minnelli's talent with the camera, specifically the Penn Station crane shots. TIME magazine, for instance, wrote, "[Minnelli's] semi-surrealist juxtapositions, accidental or no, help turn The Clock into a rich image of a great city. His love of mobility, of snooping and sailing and drifting and drooping his camera booms and dollies, makes The Clock [...] one of the most satisfactorily flexible movies since Friedrich Murnau's epoch-making The Last Laugh [1924]." Similarly, the critic Manny Farber observed, "The Clock is riddled [...] with carefully, skillfully used intelligence and love for people and for movie making and is made with a more flexible and original use of the medium than any other recent film." Judy Garland, too, received her fair share of praise for her performance. In The Nation magazine, James Agee, the era's most renowned film critic, noted that The Clock showed "for the time beyond anybody's doubt that Judy Garland can be a very sensitive actress. In this film, Miss Garland can handle any emotion in sight, in any shape or size, and the audience along with it."

Not long after The Clock finished production, Garland sent Minnelli a present, a desk clock. Attached to it, was a note expressing her sincere gratitude for everything he had done for her:

Whenever you look to see what time it is I hope you'll remember The Clock. You knew how much the picture meant to me and only you could give me the confidence I so badly needed. If the picture is a success (and I think it's cinch) my darling Vincente is respnsible for the whole damn thing. Thank you for everything, angel. If I could only say what is in my heart but that's impossible. So I'll say God bless you and I love you!

A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (2010) | Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clark (2001) | Hollywood Songsters: Singers Who Act and Actors Who Sing, Volume 2 by James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts (2003) | Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer by Emanuel Levy (2009) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times contemporary review by Bosley Crowther


  1. Just finished watching this for the first time. I had checked it out from the library and when I saw you had written about it waited to read your post after I watched it.

    Judy's performance was beautiful. She can express so much emotion on her face.

    That's so sad about Walker. I can't imagine making a romance when your personal life is going so terribly.

    1. I completely agree with you about Judy. She is absolutely stunning in this film. I wish the big bosses at MGM had given her more opportunities to showcase her dramatic abilities.

      I know! It breaks my heart to know that Robert Walker was in such a bad place while he was making this film. But the fact that he delivered such a touching performance, despite his drinking problems and everything that was happening to him at the time, only comes to show how great of an actor he actually was.

      Thanks for reading. :)