Judy Garland’s first non-musical role as an adult was in the second picture in a row directed by Vincente Minnelli (after their popular turn-of-the-century color musical Meet Me in St. Louis), and was released the same year he became her second husband, about twelve months before their daughter Liza Minnelli was born. Co-starring one of the 1940s most likeable, charming juvenile-leads, Robert Walker, as a World War II army corporal on 48-hour leave in New York City, the now little-known black-and-white film is a truly delightful, touching love story—-1945’s somewhat fable-like THE CLOCK (available on DVD).
The title has several meanings, its most literal being the large circular clock in Manhattan’s legendary old Penn Station, where the two lovers first meet by chance, the fateful randomness of this encounter emphasized by the huge and overcrowded place. The Astor Hotel clock is also where the lovers find each other again, after losing touch in another crowd, in what is probably the picture’s most moving romantic sequence. An even larger clock-reference points to the young soldier’s time on furlough being strictly limited to two short days. Yet what a lifetime passes in those brief hours—-bringing irony to the title—-since time is nowhere more relative than in affairs of the heart.
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. The two worked together again on three of Garland’s next four films—-Ziegfeld Follies, Till the Clouds Roll By (both 1946), and The Pirate (l948)—-their last pairing, an often appealing if sometimes strained Gene Kelly-Cole Porter musical, which was not a success. They were divorced in 1951, but remained friendly until her lamentable death 18 years later at age 47 from an accidental overdose of barbituates.
As tragically, also in 1951, Robert Walker died suddenly at age 33. Neither before nor after The Clock did he land nearly as good a role or director—-until about a year prior to his death when Alfred Hitchcock cast him as the enormously personable psychopathic murderer in his suspense classic Strangers On A Train (1951)—-at the time as big an example of casting against type as Hitch pulled nine years later when he cast all-American kid Tony Perkins in Psycho (1960). Walker gives a striking, extraordinarily layered performance, among the best in all of Hitchcock’s work. And the actor was just completing another complex portrayal as an American communist in Leo McCarey’s more than a little flawed but fascinating My Son John (1952), when a sudden heart attack (under botched medical aid) killed him after a long bout with alcoholism.
The Clock, then, is the profoundly romantic pinnacle in the careers of three of Hollywood’s most talented and valuable artists of the Golden Age, only one of whom lived to achieve his real potential. Especially in light of their subsequent destinies, to watch Judy and Bobby Walker, both still so young and vulnerable, breaks your heart.