Judy Garland strikes just the right note in ‘The Clock’

Director Vincente Minnelli and his leading lady Judy Garland created magic with their first collaboration, MGM’s enchanting 1944 Technicolor musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Though she was playing a teenager in the box office hit classic, there was a real maturity and assuredness to her performance under Minnelli’s loving guidance. And she never looked so beautiful on screen. No wonder the two became a couple during the production.

And she’s even better in their second project, “The Clock,” which was released five months after “Meet Me in St. Louis” and marked her first non-singing role. Over the years “The Clock” had fallen through the cracks when critics and audiences talked about Garland’s film roles. But thanks to TCM, DVD and Blu-ray-Warner Archive is releasing the Blu-Ray as part of its Garland centennial celebration. “The Clock” has developed a legion of devoted fans and historians who consider the World War II romance one of her best.

“The Clock’ is deceptively simple at first glance, but is highly complex, almost European in its style, sensibility, and intimacy. Garland plays Alice, a young woman who works in New York City as a secretary, who meets cute a young handsome soldier Joe (Robert Walker) on a 48-hour pass at Grand Central Station before shipping out to England.  They end up spending the day together, get into some adventures at night and end up losing each other in the subway the next day. Once they reunite at the train station, they decide to get married before his furlough is over.

Arthur Freed, who was best known for producing MGM’s top musicals including “Meet Me in St. Louis,” had fallen in love with Paul and Pauline Gallico’s unpublished short story when he read it in 1943 and convinced the studio to buy the rights for a steep $50,000. Margaret Green wrote the first screenplay, but after Freed was disappointed with the script, he replaced her with Joseph Schrank and Robert Nathan.

Minnelli wasn’t the first director on “The Clock.” Veteran MGM director Jack Conway spent about a week on the film. But after he took ill, Fred Zinnemann, who would win  Oscars for helming 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” and 1966’s “A Man for All Seasons,” was given the assignment. Zinnemann, who had directed shorts and B-movies, was enjoying the success of his first major film at MGM, 1944’s “The Seventh Cross” with Spencer Tracy and an Oscar-nominated Hume Cronyn. However, Garland wasn’t happy with Zinnemann, citing incompatibility issues to Freed. Minnelli soon came on board, excising most of Zinnemann’s footage and even encouraging improvisation between the two stars.

It’s difficult to envision anyone but Walker playing Joe. The actor, best known for his masterful turn as the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 “Strangers on a Train,” had quickly become a star with his sweet, boy-next-door on-screen personae in such box office hits as 1944’s “See Here, Private Hargrove.”  His Joe is a variation on “Hargrove” but there is a sexuality to him. He is sweet and wide-eyed, but not as naïve or virginal. Just check out the scene when Joe asks Alice to marry him.

Both Garland and Walker were fighting demons during the production. Garland’s problems with alcohol and pills are well known and Walker was in a tailspin because his marriage to Jennifer Jones had broken up. Though he didn’t drink on a set, there are reports that one time Garland and her friends were having a girls night out when she learned that he was hitting the bars. They eventually found and sobered him up so he would be ready for filming the next day. Sadly, he would die six years after the release of “The Clock” at the tender age of 32.

There are several memorable scenes: Alice and Joe can’t find a taxi so end up hitching a ride home with a sweet milkman (James Gleason). They never make it home. In fact, they end up delivering the milk when a drunk (Keenan Wynn) they encounter in a diner ends up hitting the milkman in the eye. To thank them, he takes them home to have a home-cooked breakfast made by his wife (Gleason’s real-life wife Lucille). The quartet discuss love, marriage and love at first sight. It’s a beautiful sequence.

But what really tugs at your heartstrings revolves around the difficulties they have getting married. The justice of the peace hurries through the service so he can get the train to go home. They have no wedding rings. Their witnesses are the janitorial staff. It’s anything but romantic. After they are married, the two are sitting silently in a large diner. Both look nervous, unhappy. They engage in small talk and barely eat their foot. Finally, Alice breaks down crying because the wedding was so, as she describes it “ugly.”

They finally get their church “wedding” so to speak when they walk into a church where a big wedding was just held, sit in a pew and find a copy of the marriage ceremony. The couple read the service and profess their love for each other. Definitely a four-hankie moment.

George Folsey supplied the lush black-and-white cinematography and production designer William Ferrari did a masterful job re-creating New York on the MGM sound stages especially his impressive $60,000 copy of Grand Central Station. (A second unit had gone to New York to shoot location footage) And George Bassman’s romantic score has a hint of fantasy.

“The Clock” was well-received by critics with Bosley Crowther writing in the New York Times: “’The Clock’ is the kind of picture that leaves one with a warm feeling toward his fellow-man, especially toward the young folks who today are trying to crowd a lifetime of happiness into a few fleeting hours.” Though it didn’t do as well at the box office as Judy’s musicals, “The Clock” made a profit. But it would be 16 years before Garland did another non-musical: “Judgment at Nuremberg” for which she earned a supporting actress nomination.

Garland and Minnelli married in June 1945 and welcomed daughter Liza the following March. They would divorce six years later. Besides the new Blu-Ray of “The Clock,” it will also be airing on TCM in June and streaming this month on the Criterion Channel. You need to make time for “The Clock.”

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