The Clock (1945); Dir. Vincente Minnelli

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Mitchell and I were talking last week, and The Clock came up. Not only have I not seen the movie, I had never even heard of it. How is that possible?

We had been laughing earlier about the time, years ago, that Mitchell and I went to go see The King And I, which was playing at Facets, in Chicago. Mitchell, weirdly, had never seen it. How is that possible? A movie freak like him? It was just something he had missed. Not only had he missed the film, he did not know the plot. So near the end of the film, suddenly I felt Mitchell grab my arm, almost violently, and hiss at me through the darkness, “Does the King die????” His eyes gleamed, with almost ferocious intensity. I didn’t know how to answer, I didn’t want to give it away. I guess I hadn’t realized that Mitchell did not know that there was a sad ending to the thing. I didn’t respond, kept my eyes on the screen. Mitchell hissed again, even more upset, “The King dies????” He was pissed I hadn’t warned him! Then, of course, later, as the King lay dying, I heard Mitchell start to weep beside me, as the story-development began to crash in on his head, and I knew: ahhhhhh, what a wonderful movie this is. Works every time. When we were talking about The Clock last week, I said, “Now – is this a famous movie? Or is it a little-known classic? Like – what the hell is going on?” Mitchell said, “Yeah, it’s well-known. I think it’s just a glitch in your education – like me with King and I.” Well, this cannot stand!! I was at my laptop and immediately put The Clock onto it and bumped it up to the top of the queue. The Clock?? I must see it immediately!

Like Mitchell said, The Clock is a movie with no cynicism – and yet it’s not simplistic or corny. It’s just good-hearted. Everyone in the film – from the cops he talks to trying to find her, to the lunchroom waiter, to the poor city clerk at the end – is human, real, funny, and just doing their best in life. Nobody’s an ass. People are good. And in the middle of all of this are two breath-takingly modern performances – from Robert Walker and Judy Garland. It’s a film about “small moments” (thanks, Mitchell). It’s a series of small moments, like jewels on a thread, one after the other … The film is about behavior, human behavior, no big gestures – just small moments of connection or misunderstanding … and to watch the two leads in conversation after conversation during their long 2-day experience together is to watch something perfect. I didn’t know who to look at, at times – her or him. They’re both just so alive. Thinking, responding, having their own thoughts, trying to hide their doubts, bursting into laughter … It’s a delightful movie, I loved every second of it.

The plot is simple, and could be the plot of a ton of other movies, no surprises here. It’s 1944, and a soldier is on leave in New York before shipping overseas to the war. He’s from Indiana. He’s never been to New York before. The film opens with him (Robert Walker) walking through Grand Central, at the height of rush hour, baffled, a bit overwhelmed, and alone.

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He has 2 days in New York. Where will he go? He sits down at the foot of a staircase, to read the paper, maybe find some things to do – and a young woman rushing by for the escalator trips over his feet – and loses her heel. But because the crowds are so thick, she is swept up the escalator – losing her heel behind. She is Judy Garland, a young working girl in New York, coming home from a weekend in the country. She calls down for the young man to retrieve her heel – he at first think she’s calling him a heel (which is hilarious – a random woman suddenly starts screaming at you in public, “You’re a heel!” Yup – sounds like New York to me!) – but once he realizes the situation, he grabs the heel and races up the stairs to give it to her. And this is how they meet.

His name is Joe. Her name is Alice.

Over the next two days of his leave, they walk around, talking, getting to know each other, having disagreements, having a couple of adventures, laughing, and – of course – falling in love.

It’s not about the destination here, it’s about the journey. It’s about these two characters. And God, do they both come alive!

Alice is interesting: she works as a secretary, she’s not from New York. At first, she is kind of blunt to this young soldier who keeps trying to follow her around. She’s not rude – but when he retrieves her heel for her, she behaves as though, Okay, that’s it – thank you very much – buh-bye now. Joe is way more open than she is. He sets his sights on her from Moment One. I think if Alice were more ga-ga from the get-go, the film would have descended into mawkishness. She finds herself, almost against her will, succumbing to this man. She resists. She keeps trying to say goodbye but then … hmmmm … she can’t seem to walk away … She’s not fully “in charge” of herself, and that is so endearing to watch, so human.

And Joe is not some bumbling rube from the country, a stereotype. He’s innocent about New York, yes – he gets confused about bus fares and doesn’t know which end is up … but in terms of courtship, and pursuit – he’s a man. He banters with Alice, he makes her laugh (it’s so wonderful, too – because you can tell that Judy is really laughing in many of their scenes – it’s not coy “acting laughing” – it’s a guffaw – it’s exhilarating!) He has plans for after the war. He wants to be a carpenter back in his home town.

For their first couple of scenes together, they’re almost in different worlds, although you can tell they are drawn to one another. Joe is curious about Alice – where is she from? Who does she live with? Where does she work? Does she want to stay in New York all her life? She bats the questions away as best she can, saying at one point, grinning, “You are very nosy.” Joe is, of course, nosy because he likes her already. He wants to make a move. He’s going to war in a day and a half! But Alice is nobody’s fool, and she’s not an idiot. A girl can’t just give her heart away at the drop of a hat, especially not in a city like New York. You have to look out for yourself! Also, she can’t help but contemplate (and you can see it happen on her face): Could I be happy living in Indiana, the wife of a carpenter? (hahahaha That is such a woman thing to do – leaping ahead in time, before anything has even happened!) So although, in retrospect, it is obvious that it was love at first sight – these two are, after all, human. And nobody except crazy people says what’s in their heart immediately.

Part of the joy of the film is to watch how, in small moment after small moment, trust grows, fondness grows, and the impending departure of Joe starts to hang over their heads … without them even preparing for it.

Joe is obviously not a ladies man. Alice’s protective bossy roommate keeps calling it a “pick up” – which Alice balks at. It seems to ruin the nice morning she had had, walking through Central Park with the soldier, going to the museum. “I wish you wouldn’t call it that …” Judy says. It seems to make everything dirty. And we know, since we have watched Joe from the beginning, that he’s not trying to “pick her up” – at least not in any openly lecherous way. This is not about having a last hurrah before going overseas. He’s not like that. He sees her, and hangs out with her, and somehow finds himself confiding in her – about what he wants from his life, and why he wants to be a carpenter … and why am I telling this girl my life story? What is going on here??

The fun here is in watching love blossom, in a heightened situation – only two days … and watching how they react to it – not just to the other person, but to what is going on inside them … Judy, in particular, is marvelous at this, because her character is a bit more private. She holds her cards closer to her chest. So when it finally starts popping out, here, there, everywhere – it’s incredibly moving. No more defense, no more “city girl” facade. She stares at him, not just with love, but with dawning wonder and awe, like: “Is it possible that this marvelous man just walked into my life? How has that happened? How could I be so lucky?”

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We don’t always act like rational people when we are falling in love. As Rosalind states so assuredly in As You Like It: “Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do: and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is, that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too.” The human condition!

At one point, they lose one another on a crowded subway. Much has happened by now. They have shared a kiss in the park, they have confided in each other, they have spent a long long night with a friendly milkman (one of the best sections of the film) … and now she has decided to call in sick to work so she can spend the day with him – his last day in New York. But alas, the crowds are too thick – and they get separated. We see that Alice is going off to 33rd Street – and Joe, in his panic, gets on an express train, trying to catch up with her – and ends up at 14th Street. Then comes a crazy section, which was anxiety-provoking to watch … knowing that they couldn’t get to each other … also knowing that last names had not been exchanged. What do names matter? We just fell in love! We see Alice waiting at the turnstiles at 33rd Street, still not fully understanding what has happened. No … no … we can’t have just lost each other, can we? We see Joe looking up and down train platforms, totally frustrated in his ability to turn back time 5 minutes, to when they were not separated.

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Alice, out of desperation, goes to a local USO Office, thinking … maybe she could track down his last name that way? And she could get a message to him? Naturally, there is nothing the USO office can do – (and I love the chick playing the part of the USO worker – another example of how the small characters add to the pulsating sense of reality in this movie)

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Judy tells her the whole story, “We met yesterday … and then I got so sleepy last night … and we woke up and then got separated on the subway … and I don’t know his last name …” The USO woman gives her a look, not a mean look, just a practical look, and says, “I wouldn’t go around telling people that story if I were you.” Judy stares, softly, crushed, and says, “Oh … you don’t understand …” She slowly begins to walk out of the office, turns back at the door – and says, “What am I going to …” Then the tears come and she turns and hurries out, crying to herself, “What am I going to do??”

Judy knocks that scene out of the park. It goes from one emotion to the other, and she has to break down while in action doing something else … there’s not a big cut to her glycerine-filled eyes … She’s walking out of the office, and it suddenly hits her, that she has lost him … this man! This man!! How could she … and she starts to weep. What is so moving and wonderful about this scene is how embarrassed Judy gets, at her own tears. Because wouldn’t we behave that way if we were her? Human beings don’t walk around proud of bursting into tears. If we cry in public, we do our best to hide it. The tears come over Alice quite suddenly, as the realization dawns … and all she can do is hurry out of the public place. My heart breaks for her.

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Go, Judy. Wonderfully played scene. Judy Garland, to me, always seems like an emissary from the future. In the same way that Cary Grant does. Her acting is timeless. It doesn’t have a “style”. It is real, open, in-the-moment, true – it’s life. I mean, she had it as a child, and she has it here. It’s one of her warmest funniest most lovable parts.

And Robert Walker! Can we just talk about Robert Walker for a second? What a dreamboat, first of all. But also, he’s just so wonderful here, in his pursuit of Garland – he’s a bit pushy, at times – but after all, this is a man who only has 2 more days before going to war. He’s kind, he’s a gentleman, he also has a great sense of humor – and sets about making her laugh, from very early on. I love it when a guy is funny for me. Like – he uses his humor as part of his courtship arsenal. So many guys don’t do that! Or they think that reciting episodes of Seinfeld passes for humor. Are you funny? Even if it’s goofy humor? Use it! Some girls might think you’re corny, but other girls might fall head over heels! For instance, the two are in the zoo in Central Park, watching the seals frolic in the water. They’re laughing at the animals’ shenanigans, having a good time. Joe says to Alice, “Have you ever noticed that certain animals look like people you know?” Alice starts laughing and says, “Yes, I have!” Joe points at one of the seals, who happens to be staring right at them, with a grumpy expression, long whiskers quivering in indignation. “Take that seal. I have an aunt who looks just like that.” And watch Judy just dissolve in laughter. But Joe’s not done. He says, “You know, my folks used to say I look like an owl.” He then bugs his eyes out and makes his face go still and stern and owlish. Alice is staring at the seals, so she doesn’t notice at first. And Joe keeps the silly face on – until she glances at him … and sees it – and then she just LOSES it. I love it! She guffaws, “You do! You do look like an owl!” Robert Walker is just wonderful in all of these scenes. You love him.

There’s a moment in the park, late at night. They’ve had a date, gone out to dinner, had a bit of an argument at dinner, because he was being nosy about “Freddy”, another guy she is dating. It’s night in the park. Alice lies on a rock, and Joe paces about on the walk. They start to talk about how weird it is that they would have met … or, no, Alice is talking about it. “Isn’t it strange? That I would have been in the station right at the time you were?” Joe says, “I don’t think it’s strange.” (That’s another wonderful thing about the script: these are two separate people, with separate thoughts and feelings. They actually converse. What a beautiful thing to watch.) The conversation goes on. Something is obviously going on with Joe. He’s standing, he’s restless … At one point he says, for lack of anything better to say (or, basically, because all he wants to do is kiss her – and he’s not quite sure how to go about it) -”It’s so quiet here. Almost as quiet as it is back home.” Alice, the shadows from the trees lovely on her face, says, “Oh no. There’s always noise in the background … you can hear it if you listen for it …” So they both stop and listen. And suddenly, like a symphony orchestra, you start to hear it: cars beeping, the wail of a train whistle, sirens, traffic … Slowly, she stands, listening. He’s listening, too, but he’s looking only at her. They stand, quietly, the sounds of the city coming at them, like music. He starts to walk towards her, and his face is so serious. You can see the kiss already there in his eyes. And not just the kiss. But the love. Because it is a serious time for him. It is not a casual moment. He is going to war in 2 days. He has fallen in love with this woman. So there are all kinds of things happening on his face as he approaches her, things that make him solemn, serious. Robert Walker’s approach to her is so sexy, just watch his face! Watch all of the things that he is doing here. And then, as he gets to the camera, which – we know – is near her – right as he “hits his mark” – and his face fills the screen – he grins at her. Not a huge smile, no teeth – but a soft slow, almost sad, grin. My God, it’s breathtaking.


Breathtaking!

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And at first, they don’t kiss. She just reaches out and finds herself in his arms. And they embrace, for what feels like forever. He holds her, and – this is Robert Walker’s genius – as an actor, as a man who knows how to be a leading man – sort of twirls a lock of her hair around his finger, deep in his own thoughts, holding her close. We see her over his shoulder. An iconic image. Gorgeous.

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I’ve rarely seen a first kiss that moves me as much as theirs does. It is so full of so much more than just desire, attraction, or even love. There is sadness in it. World War II is in it. It’s fantastic.

I have other posts I want to write about this very special movie – particularly about the secondary characters they meet along the way – the milkman and his wife, the drunk in the diner, the folks at the city clerk’s office … because their jobs are to fill out the picture, to add reality to it … and you love all of those people just as much as you love the two leads.

I am so glad that I have rectified this “glitch in my education” – because The Clock is not just moving, funny, sexy, good-hearted. It’s special. Watching Robert Walker and Judy Garland talk and kiss and laugh for two hours … is special.

It’s the small moments that make up a life. Not the big gestures, the grand operatic emotions … but the small moments. Like when they enter the diner at one o’clock in the morning, and a drunk is raging on about … something … not clear what … and he starts to try to talk to Joe and Alice at the counter, honing right in on Alice – and subtly, with no fanfare, Robert Walker makes Judy switch places with him, so that he is on the front lines with the drunk, not her. It’s a subtle moment, no lines … and our main focus is on the blundering loud drunk … but that small gesture, that small gentlemanly protective gesture, tells us all we need to know about Joe … and we can tell, from the small grin of thanks Alice throws him … that it’s all she needs to know as well.

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12 Responses to The Clock (1945); Dir. Vincente Minnelli

  1. mitchell says:

    yes. YES. Im so moved by you review…im buying it today to take with me to Europe…those little moments are such a hallmark of Mr. Minnelli’s directing style..think of the first scene of Meet in St. Louis where the scene is simply about discussing the ketchup..but its really about the whole family dynamic without us knowing it at first…as always ur observations illuminate something familiar or new to me in a way that shoots it into the stratosphere..u are a a miracle..i miss u already!

  2. mitchell says:

    Keenan Wynn..i sooo forgot that was him…wonderful.

  3. mitchell says:

    just read that the lady at the luncheonette counter was Angela lansbury’s mother…cool.

  4. red says:

    Mitchell – Keenan Wynn’s drunken monologue is sooooo funny – and who knew that the lady in the luncheonette was Angela Lansbury’s mother?? She is so funny! When Wynn staggers up to her, stares at her for a while, in her ridiculous feathery old-lady hat, and then announces seriously, “Let me take you away from all this to a place where we can let our emotions run free.”

    hahahahaha He doesn’t even know her!!!

    Thank you SO much for making me see the movie – I totally cherish it now!

  5. Great job relaying the feel of the movie. I’ve only seen it once so I can’t remember every detail but your post brought almost all of it back. The thing I remember about my reaction as the movie opened was that Walker’s character seemed a little too innocent and kind of pushy but in no time at all I really liked the guy. Then I thought, “You know the way that character’s written; someone making the wrong acting choices could completely ruin this movie but Walker did everything right.” Also his frame is just right. He doesn’t seem physically imposing yet he’s not milquetoast either.

    I think both did such tremendous jobs in this movie but Walker really aced a role that a lesser actor could have turned into a pushy stalker type character but instead Walker made him loveable and charming.

  6. red says:

    Jonathan – I love your comments on Walker – I think that’s very perceptive! Too true: if Walker was made too much of a bumbling country pumpkin it would have made the movie quaint and condescending … But if he were any more aggressive, you’d want to go, “Listen, buddy … the lady said no!” He’s just kind of innocent – and … what’s the word … he’s friendly. He doesn’t push his luck, he doesn’t get too serious, he makes no assumptions about her … so it makes sense that she would be like, “Okay, I can hang out with this guy … he’s not a serial killer on the loose.”

    And I like what you said, too, about his frame. Yes, there’s something boyish about him – you see it especially in the scene in the hotel room near the end, when he’s in his robe – and he looks – almost like a young boy … but it’s somehow just perfect. They are perfectly paired.

    It’s a gem of a movie!

  7. Kristen says:

    Thank you so much for writing about this movie. I had been meaning to see it for so long, and this inspired me to seek it out once and for all. I went on youtube to see if I could find some clips and it turns out that someone had put the whole film on there! I loved it! Joe reminds me a lot of Lloyd Dobler. He’s so kind and decent, but not wishy washy. Not a joke. And, your (and Jonathan’s) comments about Robert Walker’s approach to the character reminded me of John Cusack’s portrayal of Lloyd. Both actors avoid turning their characters into creepy bunny boilers.

    “Robert Walker makes Judy switch places with him, so that he is on the front lines with the drunk, not her. It’s a subtle moment, no lines … and our main focus is on the blundering loud drunk … but that small gesture, that small gentlemanly protective gesture, tells us all we need to know about Joe … and we can tell, from the small grin of thanks Alice throws him … that it’s all she needs to know as well.” — Yes! Just like Lloyd brushing away the glass in the parking lot, so Diane doesn’t have to walk on it. Tells HER all she needs to know.

    And how much do I love that milkman and his wife? A whole lot!

  8. Fox says:

    Great post! I can read your enthusiasm in the post!

    This is my favorite non-musical film of Minelli’s. It seems to get overlooked in retrospectives of his (people always think MUSICAL! MUSICAL! MUSICAL!…), but I love how personal it feels. Since the female lead is Garland, I like to think Minelli was loving her through this movie.

  9. red says:

    Kristen – excellent call on the Lloyd Dobler comparison. I think you’re right! He’s not macho, per se – but he’s a gentleman, and there’s a kindness there that she can sense. It’s in what he DOES, not what he says.

    And yes yes yes to the milkman and his wife! I love those two people so much!!

  10. red says:

    Fox – that’s just what Mitchell was saying – that The Clock is sometimes overlooked, or in the shadow of Minnelli’s other great films, maybe more famous – but it’s a truly special acheivement. And yes, I think he filmed Judy better than pretty much anyone. I mean, think about her glow in Meet Me in St. Louis – and she is stunning here. There is great affection for her, in how she is filmed – and there are times when she has never been so beautiful.

    It’s been so fun to see this film and chat about it with others who love it too!

  11. Robert Walker: “Strangers On a Train”

    “Criss-cross…” whispers Robert Walker, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers On A Train” It’s been a Robert Walker theme over the past couple of weeks. Coincidentally, after seeing The Clock last week (post about it here) – the next film on…

  12. Megan says:

    I was looking for some pictures from this marvelous film (it’s one of my favorites) and happily stumbled upon this review. What a wonderful read! It’s so thought provoking, and it’s always nice to hear a glowing report about a film I love so much. Judy is fabulous and Walker is perfect for his role–together, they’re absolute magic, as is the movie itself.
    Thanks for the wonderful review–it really pointed out some moments that I never truly considered and made me joyously remember the parts that I had. Thank you so much!