Author's Note: This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon taking place at the Journeys in Classic Film site. Today's star is Robert Walker. Thanks to Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film for allowing me to participate.
For those of us who know a little about silent film stars, we know of that first power couple, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. They had an expression of love between them: "By The Clock". This expression came from when, coming from the death of Fairbanks' mother, they noticed the clock stopped as they were together, taking it as a sign that Mrs. Fairbanks approved of their romance. It became a phrase between them saying "I will always love you".
I doubt this was what The Clock had in mind, but like the romance of Pickford and Fairbanks, the romance between Judy Garland and Robert Walker is equally moving and beautiful in this sadly little-remembered film. The Clock doesn't make many lists of Great Romantic Films, and I figure many people have never heard of one of the few films where Garland doesn't sing a note. I don't think of The Clock as a forgotten film. I think of The Clock as undiscovered treasure, a sweet, gentle movie that works and that is still relevant today (if perhaps a bit dated and not as believable due to technological advances).
Joe (Walker) is a soldier who is in New York for a 48-hour pass before he goes to camp and then to Europe for the war. A country boy, he finds everything in the Big Apple amazing: the buildings, Penn Station, even escalators. He is thoroughly lost, not knowing anyone and a bit out of place. He seems to feel safe at Penn Station until he accidentally breaks the heel of Alice (Garland), a secretary who has lived in New York for three years.
Alice agrees to show Joe some of the city, and they visit such places as Central Park and a museum, finding they like their company. Over her sense of judgment, she agrees to break a date and go out with Joe, telling him to meet her under the clock at the Astor at 7. Her roommate Helen (Ruth Brady) admonishes her for getting picked up by a soldier, but Alice still goes (though she is half an hour late).
At the end, Al takes them home to have a meal with his wife Emily (James' real-life wife Lucile Gleason). After that, they agree to spend the day together (his last) but get separated in the subway. They frantically search for each other until they reunite at Penn Station. Finding themselves in love, Alice agrees to marry Joe, and they rush to fill out all the requirements to marry. They manage to beat the clock, but the rush has upset Alice. They encounter a wedding and have their own version of the ceremony. It is now the last day, and Joe has to leave. Alice tells him not to worry, assuring him that he will return because the fates are on their side. Joe leaves for camp, with his new wife Alice saying farewell at the station.
I think The Clock is still relevant because today we have people in the service marrying quickly, with no assurance of whether they will ever see each other again. We don't know what the future holds for Joe and Alice. Will Joe come back? Is Alice pregnant? Will they find they made a mistake? The Clock doesn't answer any of those questions, and this ambiguous ending is perfect because it allows us to imagine what can happen. Being an optimist myself, I never doubted that Joe would come back and they would move from New York to his home in Indiana, two young people in love who find themselves in the massive world of New York City.
What is fascinating about The Clock is the role New York City takes. Their whole romance is built around how they navigate the city: their long date as they tour the city, continuing their romance as they see the city at night on the milk route, losing each other at the massive subway system, and rushing hither and yon to fulfill all the requirements to marry before he leaves. Sometimes the city seems to hinder them, sometimes the city seems to help them. New York is just as important to the film as the leads, and is almost as much a love letter to the Big Apple as anything else.
I found that The Clock showed how strong a dramatic actress Judy Garland was. Throughout her career she was known for her voice (and rightly so), but The Clock allowed her to perform just as an actress. Her Alice was a smart girl, unsure about spending time with Joe, but finding herself drawn to his innocence and kindness. Her genuine heartbreak about her rushed wedding is moving, knowing that her dreams of a beautiful wedding are crushed by cold reality.
Walker made his Joe believable in his total sincerity and naïve nature, willing to help anyone who needs his help. The panic both have when they get lost is nerve-wracking, for by this time we get to know and care about these two kids.
In smaller roles, the Gleasons are delightful as this real salt-of-the-earth couple who genuinely love each other and find themselves the inadvertent model for marriage. Their rapport with each other and with Joe and Alice (who are so rushed in their romance they learn their last names when they get married) is a highlight of The Clock, humorous and sweet.
I do wonder whether Wynn's drunk routine stretched out the relatively short film, but it worked for the film.
Vincente Minnelli creates some simply beautiful moments. When Joe and Alice go into the church to read the vows left in the program, the subtle and sweet way they speak to each other as they essentially have their church wedding was gentle and sweet. Another brilliant performance was after their wedding night (as this was the 1940s, we can assume they slept together but wasn't going to see it). Silently, they share coffee and learn what each other likes in their coffee. Without saying a word, we see that despite being married, they know nothing of each other's likes and dislikes, but despite this their love for each other comes through, and we hope that they get to know each other better as time goes by.
In real life, Walker and Garland had terrible problems during and after production on The Clock. Walker had discovered his wife, Jennifer Jones, was having an affair with mega-producer David O. Selznick (whom she would later marry) before the film began. Already troubled to begin with, the affair and demands for a divorce devastated Walker, and the production of this simple romance probably made things worse (he died a mere six years after The Clock at only 32). Garland's addiction to pills was beginning to take a stronger hold on her as well, leading to lifelong dependency. It is a credit to both that we don't see just how emotionally fragile both were at the time.
Instead, we see only two young people who find themselves in love, with no guarantees for the future but willing to chance it.
The Clock is a short film, but so well-made, so beautiful, so sincere in the romance between Joe and Alice that I found it extremely moving. We get to see Robert Walker and Judy Garland give fantastic, gentle performances. Though Walker is best known for his dark portrayal of a killer in Strangers on a Train and Garland best known for her singing in musicals, The Clock offers them a chance to show their range. I think if more people saw and knew The Clock, they would find in it a sweet, wonderful love story, one that will always resonate so long as men and women go off to war and run the risk of having their love story cut off before it really began. The hope, the promise, the despair, the anxiety of wartime romance is still with us, and The Clock is a brilliant example of finding love where you didn't expect it and with no promise except for what we have today.