Friday, October 10, 2014

The Clock (1945)

Director: Vincente Minnelli                               Writers: Robert Nathan & Joseph Schrank
Film Score: George Bassman                          Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Starring: Judy Garland, Robert Walker, James Gleason and Keenan Wynn

In 1943, after appearing as an extra in three films, Robert Walker was finally given a feature role in a war film, Bataan, and that set his career for the rest of war. He appeared in seven war films over the next two years. But it wouldn’t be until the actor appeared in a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Strangers on a Train, that his image would become indelibly etched in the minds of moviegoers. Unfortunately his untimely death the following year ended a career that was on a real upswing. One of Walker’s wartime pictures is The Clock, a frothy romantic comedy set in New York City that is notable for being Judy Garland’s first dramatic starring role in which she didn’t sing. She had become romantically involved with director Vincente Minnelli during their previous film, Meet Me in St. Louis, and when the dailies of the initial director Fred Zinnemann were not very good she suggested he be replaced by Minnelli. The merely average box office for the film had to do with audience expectations for Garland, especially the lack of music, and the fact that audiences were war-weary by the time of the May release date.

The film opens in Penn Station. Robert Walker is a serviceman who has just arrived in New York City for two days of leave. Once out on the street, however, he is confronted with the enormity of the buildings and decides to head back inside. While he’s reading a newspaper Judy Garland trips over his foot and loses a heel. He gets it fixed and tags along with her up Fifth Avenue, still stunned at the scenery. Though she tries to let him down easy and wants to get home to her apartment, Garland winds up taking him to Central Park and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they walk and talk, mostly he does, about what he wants after the war, to settle down in his small hometown. Eventually she does catch her bus, but Walker runs it down and she agrees to see him that night, under the big clock at the Hotel Astor. When Garland finally gets home her roommate, Ruth Brady, grills her about being picked up by a uniform. But Garland is also from a small town and is drawn to Walker’s simple charms. After promising Brady she won’t go out with him, Garland ditches her boyfriend and meets Walker anyway. At the end of the evening they wind up in Central Park again, and have one of the most beautifully simple first kisses ever put on film.

Trying to get Garland home they meet milkman James Gleason who gives them a ride, and later a drunken Keenan Wynn in a lunchroom, and eventually the evening turns into an entire night together. But when they’re accidentally separated on the subway, the clock on Walker’s leave threatens to run out before they can find each other again. Because it’s MGM, there are a number of cameos by familiar character actors. Dick Elliott plays the friendly man in at the train station, and Garry Owen plays the fare collector on the bus. Lucile Gleason plays James Gleason’s wife and silent star Barbara Bedford plays the U.S.O. manager to whom Garland goes to in desperation. The humor in the film isn’t forced and there are some nice comedic moments. One is a fun bit in Garland’s apartment when Alice Brady keeps asking her boyfriend, Marshall Thompson, all kinds of questions and then never gives him time to answer, keeping up a running dialogue nearly every second that she’s onscreen. And there’s another wonderfully funny scene in a diner while Garland and Walker are trying to have a serious conversation and Alfred Sabato stares between them from the table next to theirs.

Director Vincente Minnelli was unhappy with the footage that Fred Zinnemann had shot and scrapped it all. He filmed all of the exteriors and interiors at the studio, even constructing a gigantic Penn Station set. Exterior shots of the city were cut into rear projections shots with the actors because it was decided that location shooting would be prohibitively expensive. He does a terrific job in the closed space of the studio by opening up the film through the use of a crane. The establishing shot in the train station from above is particularly fascinating, with the extras expertly emulating the randomness of a large crowd. When he works around the escalators in the beginning it’s equally arresting how free the camera feels. Minnelli’s camera lovingly caresses Garland, and the effect is not undeserved. She does a terrific job in this straight dramatic role and it makes one wish that she would have been allowed to do more work in this vein. But she wouldn’t have another dramatic role until Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961. The Clock is a lightweight, predictable romance that nevertheless still has a lot of artistic value and is well worth seeking out.

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