Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Vincente Minnelli's The Clock is one of the more fondly remembered movies of the war years. While other movies presented overwrought soap operas about patriotic families suffering under home front pressures, this engaging romance underplays the story of a fateful 24-hour pass. A lonely soldier finds a girl, and the whole world changes for them both.
Judy Garland shocked her fans by not singing; her Alice Mayberry is just an ordinary girl unprepared to encounter the love of her life. Robert Walker discards his gangling See Here, Private Hargrove persona to sympathetically play a stranger on leave among New York's intimidating skyscrapers. Director Minnelli tries his best for a naturalism that goes against the MGM house style. He'd marry his star Garland soon after completing the film.
On a one-day-pass in New York, Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is lost until he encounters Alice Mayberry (Judy Garland) on her way home from work. Joe manages a favorable impression; she makes and keeps a dinner appointment that turns into a walk in Central Park, one of those "is something happening here?" dates. Joe and Alice's adventures continue as they hitch a ride on the milk truck of Al Henry (James Gleason), and end up making the night deliveries after a drunk (Keenan Wynn) gives Al a black eye. After being separated the next day, and finding each other again only by luck, the couple suddenly decide to get married. They then must run a frustrating gauntlet of Manhattan red tape to secure a license, get blood tests and obtain a waiver for the 72-hour cooling off period.
One can see Vincente Minnelli itching to try something new in The Clock. Many scenes are played out in only one or two mastershot takes, like the luncheonette encounter with the drunken Keenan Wynn. Most if not all of the New York scenes are done by a second unit, with Garland and Walker inserted into process photography, but Minnelli and his cameraman George Folsey do their utmost to sidestep the MGM sheen of unreality. Critic James Agee remarked that Minnelli and company achieve some good natural effects, even to the extreme of passing a minute in Central Park where 'nothing happens.' The two young lovers are left alone in a vacuum, and find that they aren't bored.
In one scene near the beginning Alice returns to her apartment and encounters her roommate Helen (Ruth Brady) and Helen's boyfriend Bill (Marshall Thompson). The studied performances and 'smart' dialogue are more like a standard Hollywood movie. As soon as Alice and Joe meet again in the lobby of the Waldorf, Minnelli returns the show to the more agreeable naturalistic mode. Look at the way Garland walks: She purposely puts a slight waddle into her step, so as to be less like the idealized girls of her earlier MGM vehicles.
The story by Paul and Pauline Gallico, Robert Nathan and Joseph Schrank finds a good balance between sentiment and realism by keeping the conflicts as simple as possible. Joe proves that he really wants that dinner date by sprinting alongside Alice's bus. The rash decision to get married comes after they're accidentally separated -- their panicked sense of loss is enough to make up anyone's mind in a hurry. Alice is crestfallen when she realizes that she can't trace Joe, because she hasn't even learned his last name. Contemporary reviews of the movie stressed the romantic nature of a city that loves soldiers and sweethearts, but Joe and Alice spend equal time dealing with indifference and petty interference, especially their desperate attempt to secure a marriage license. Even the overnight 'magic coach' trip on a milk wagon has its drawbacks. Not only does the truck get a flat, milkman Al Henry doesn't exactly present a positive example of marriage ... he and his wife get along but bicker like magpies.
The Clock is the idealized exception among quickie wartime marriages, which statistically had a low rate of success. The essential drama of going to war was like a marriage catalyst for scared young guys and eager young girls. When the boys returned from their duty abroad they often found they had nothing in common with their estranged brides. Cynicism worked its way into the mix when "Allotment Annies" gathered near points of debarkation. As the spouses of soldiers were entitled to monthly checks and benefits, some sharp sisters married repeatedly under assumed names, committing bigamy for profit. No wonder that the USO woman has no sympathy for Alice when she can't find Joe ... many of the marriages hatched under these conditions were pitiful mistakes.
Alice Mayberry doesn't escape feelings of disappointment and disillusion. She breaks down in tears after her rushed and utterly romance-free civil ceremony, with no ring and a janitor for a witness: "It was all so UGLY!" Alice does get her wedding night, which The Clock mercifully implies was a success. She and Joe appear to be serious kids with a deep affection for each other, and when Alice strides away from what by all rights should be a sad parting, she has a big smile on her face. The future is uncertain, but she knows where she's going, and she isn't afraid. Now all Alice must do is write all those letters, explaining to her folks -- and his folks -- that they're married!
James Gleason's wife is played by his real missus, Lucile. Producer Arthur Freed and screenwriter Robert Nathan contribute cameo appearances amid the countless extras for the street scenes, including many more black faces than is usual for an MGM film. I've always wondered if Walker and Garland choose the Waldorf Hotel lobby as their rendezvous point because MGM already had a set standing for Weekend at the Waldorf, made the same year.
Warners' DVD of The Clock is a near-perfect transfer of this B&W favorite. The good encoding allows us to examine some clever tricks, as when the camera pans to follow Garland and Walker from a stage set, to a position in front of a rear-projection of New York City. It's an excellent illusion. George Bassman's musical score stands out but avoids overstating The Clock's more emotional moments.
The disc comes with a Pete Smith short about a Hollywood Scout and a Tex Avery cartoon called The Screwy Truant. This is the Screwy Squirrel opus that changes course halfway through to lampoon Little Red Riding Hood. It also has the timeless moment of a wolf rushing through a door, only to run into a solid brick wall. A sign reads, "Imagine That! No Door!" A trailer is included as well. The cover art for The Clock is so attractive, it's hard to believe it's from an original MGM poster.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Clock rates:
Supplements: Pete Smith short, Tex Avery Cartoon The Screwy Truant
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 2, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson