Playing Fri July 29 at 12:30 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
Run, don’t walk to Vincent Minelli’s humble little masterpiece. As Frank Miller of TCM remarks, “Thanks to rear projection, ingenious art direction and the memories of director Vincente Minnelli, MGM created one of the most vivid images of New York City life ever captured on screen.”
Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan in his very popular feature on Garland:
It was Vincente Minnelli who finally created a worthy frame for Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a musical masterpiece on fantasy family life where she was placed like a jewel shining behind white lace curtains. In their second film, The Clock (1945), a beautifully judged non-musical romance with soldier Robert Walker, Garland blossoms as a woman and a performer because Minnelli is obviously as sensitive as she is (it might also have helped that Walker was even more of a mess than she was at that time, and so her focus was on helping him). If you want to see why Judy Garland was a potentially major dramatic actress, look at the scene in The Clock after she and Walker have just gone through a disastrously impersonal wedding ceremony. They sit in a restaurant, and she tries to hold back, but finally she just explodes out with, “It was so ugly!” She’s close to total hysteria and breakdown here, as if all of her feelings have suddenly been unleashed at us. It’s perilously close to overacting, but Minnelli’s direction helps Garland channel this tidal wave, giving her a formal cinematic structure for her outsized emotions with his careful framings and semi-dreamy camera movements. The two soon married.
The Clock is riddled, as few movies are, with carefully, skillfully used intelligence and love for people and for movie making and is made with more flexible and more original use of the medium than any other recent film… Minnelli’s work in this, and in Meet Me in St. Louis, indicates that he is the most human, skillful director to appear in Hollywood in years.
With a tight script by novelist Robert Nathan and Joseph Schrank, luminously shot by veteran cinematographer George Folsey, the movie features terrific performances not only from the two stars but from such brilliant character actors as loveable New York-accented James Gleason doing a philosophical milkman, and Keenan Wynn as a happy drunk. Producer-lyricist Arthur Freed—whose unit became famous for making all the best MGM musicals—did very few dramas, this being his first, as it was Minnelli’s.
In fact, while The Clock was Garland’s 20th feature, it was only the director’s fourth. But Vincente displays an immediate flair for this kind of heightened realism; with gentle yet firm control over an episodic structure, memorable in later work like The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Some Came Running (1958). As superb as Garland is in The Clock, at age 22, it’s sad to realize she did no other dramatic work until nearly a decade later in A Star is Born (1954), then three more mature dramatic performances and her career was over.
All of which makes The Clock even more precious, one of a kind, a moment in the country’s history as well as in the movies’, intersecting to create a powerfully nostalgic event: Judy Garland and Robert Walker as two archetypally average, innocent American kids, caught in a time of war, brought together by a love that promises not only vibrant hope but a kind of immortality. That Minnelli and Garland were probably at their happiest as a couple here also contributes to the charged magical atmosphere the picture communicates.
Vincente Minnelli’s first nonmusical (1945) is a charming and stylish if somewhat sentimental love story about a soldier (Robert Walker) on a two-day leave in New York who meets and marries an office worker (Judy Garland). Filmed on a studio soundstage with enough expertise to make it seem like a location shoot, the film is appealing largely for its performances and the innocence it projects. (Similar qualities can be found, at a half-century remove, in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.
Video essay by Richard Brody for the New Yorker:
“Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!” (Whitman) The virginal vision of the city is a loving studio evocation, Vincente Minnelli promptly makes himself at home with the rhythmic bustle of Penn Station. The soldier (Robert Walker) is an Indiana kid in New York, the office secretary (Judy Garland) plays guide, confidante, and, finally, soulmate over the course of the two-day furlough. Their tour of parks and museums pauses long enough to take in the nocturnal hum of the setting — train whistles and sirens in the distance, chorales rising as the two lovers move toward their first embrace and kiss, filmed like planets stirred into monumental orbit. “Let’s allow our emotions free rein, shall we?” The skyscrapers are daunting, but the metropolis is peopled by marshmallows like James Gleason’s avuncular milkman, whose sleepy-hour route gives the couple a chaste chance to bond and a glimpse of homely matrimony. (Keenan Wynn’s single-take, choleric barroom rant is a welcome drop of vinegar.) The pasteurized MGM treacle is transformed by Minnelli’s Italianate sense of vulnerability, which even weaves a thread of Murnau into the tapestry: Garland and Walker riding the subway and being separated by the surging crowd as they switch cars, one unbroken camera movement. The scramble for the wedding license gently adumbrates Kafka, the comically rushed ceremony is redeemed by spiritual vows improvised in an empty cathedral (more Murnau) and the pantomimed satisfaction of morning-after consummation. The long line of consequences (at its purest in Linklater’s Before Sunrise–Before Sunset double-bill) hasn’t dimmed the poignancy of evanescent romance braving urban landscapes and wartime ruptures, captured by a gliding-craning-caressing camera.
To all involved, it became immediately apparent that although Fred Zimmerman’s grittier authenticity was forfeited, a romantic warmth and charm were regained once Minnelli was in the director’s chair. Though Garland doesn’t sing a note, in Vincente’s hands The Clock plays like a musical with the numbers excised. a charming scene in which Joe scrambles after Alice’s 7th Avenue bus almost comes off like a mini-sequel to “The Trolley Song.” And George Bassman’s beautiful underscoring and his use of the haunting British balllad “If I had You” add another layer of poignancy to this wartime romance.
Vincente Minnelli in his memoir I Remember It Well:
I tried to remember everything about New York. I set out to create an unexpected gallery of people whose lives might conceivably touch that of the boy and the girl.
[…] I tried to show their story as tenderly as possibly without necessarily having them articulate their love. We settled on much pantomime as a way of doing this.
There were still too many sticky spots in the screenplay, and this device neatly side-stepped them. One was near the opening. The script called on the soldier and girl to come across a young boy sailing his toy boat in a pond. The soldier tousles the boy’s hair, with the little boy smiling sweetly back. I found this excessive. I instructed the little boy to get angry and kick Bob in the shins.
The scene that truly established Judy as an adult was in the park. She and Bob are talking about the sounds of the city, and the way people tend to blot them out of their minds. […] They are listening to the city’s sounds, and they automatically walk toward each other. Suddenly they are very close. Judy has to be the instigator, the soldier isn’t the type to push it, regardless of how he feels. It’d her irresistible impulse to kiss him. We had a short close-up of Bob, lingering much longer on Judy’s face. Some people who see the picture today say it was obvious I was deeply in love with Judy because of this scene.
After seeing the film, you might enjoy the comprehensive essay by Murray Pomerance in City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination.