The Clock (1945) - Judy Garland's Intense Boy-Meets-Girl Drama

 Spoilers ahead.

Judy Garland Database
Lonesome soldier Joe (Robert Walker) is on leave for the weekend in New York City and runs into a young office worker named Alice (Judy Garland), who gives him a tour of the Big Apple.  They  quickly grow fond of one other and contemplate marriage despite knowing little about each other. But in this vast city, boy loses girl. Boy finds girl. Boy marries girl. A simple premise is the framework for complex issues in this war-torn drama.

Time, symbolized by various clocks and wristwatches, is a quiet character, but still very influential. Author Scott Bukatman notes that “…everything in The Clock is measured against Joe‘s imminent departure.” Joe squeezes a lifetime of experiences into 48 hours - dating, losing and marrying a woman, then facing the idea of permanently leaving her in New York City.

The Big Apple has often been used as a character in films. Here the city figures prominently as  a schizophrenic  behemoth who is alternately friendly and cruel to our little love birds.

When Joe asks for sightseeing suggestions and later on when the couple needs a lift after the taxis have stopped running, many people are helpful, creating the small town feel that the serviceman misses. However, when Joe first steps outside of Penn Station, the city looms over him and the skyscrapers’ graduated exteriors resemble fangs, so the baby-faced soldier retreats into the relative cozy world of the train station. Just when it seems our hero will spend the entire weekend inside a terminus, Alice comes along to midwife him out of that place and guide him through the city.

After Joe has become comfortable in this strange new world, New York City’s noises become almost symphonic. Where a ballad might have been placed in any other Judy Garland film, the couple is instead seduced by the sounds of horns, bells and whistles. Later on,  however,  the rattle of  a train [Coming from Penn Station, perhaps?] interrupts their nuptials like an inebriated wedding guest  after his third champagne cocktail.
The comic meetcute - Life Magazine
Bukatman considers The Clock a remake of the stage musical version of On The Town from 1944, but in a minor key  with darker possibilities.  In each story, a member of the armed forces is on leave, meets a girl and thinks he cannot live without her. However, unlike the sailors in On The Town, Joe
“… is on his own, by himself, with no buddies to back him up, none of that safety in numbers that means you‘re never really alone in the big bad city. And Joe is army rather than navy, a grunt, a GI Joe… destined to slog through the mud, hide in holes, take a hill, lose a hill, take it back. No jaunty sparkling whites, no romance of the open sea for Joe; just a drab and diminutive anonymity that is already making itself felt here in New York City.”
Furthering the anonymity, in an hysterical climax after losing and finding each other again in the vast city, Joe asks for Alice’s last name [Mayberry],  but Joe’s is never spoken. One can catch a glimpse of his surname on the marriage license in the subsequent scene, but the camera does not linger too long on it, mirroring the city’s limited interest in this individual.

Although The Clock gives in to some of the usual boy-meets-girl-during-a-war patterns, it sets itself apart from some in the subgenre since the characters discuss seriously, before the fact,  the repercussions of a quick marriage, and they experience immediately the aftereffects of their decision. Our principals have a disturbingly slipshod municipal wedding and are greeted on the crowded street with another couple who has just had a church ceremony with friends, family and all of  the  nuptial trappings which Joe and Alice immediately regret having decided to forgo.

Judy Garland Database
Although The Clock is filled with emotional trauma and an appropriately wrenching score to accompany it all, the story arrives at these high points  through light dramatic vignettes which quietly build to a crescendo.  Alice and Joe walk in the park and talk of trivialities; they go to a museum, sit on a statue of Queen Hatshepsut and talk of some generic farm; they go to a restaurant and talk of nothing, really. The whole movie is filled with banal dialogue or no dialogue at all.  Not counting the extraneous city noises and the score, at times this movie is a silent film.  A good third of the film has no dialogue.

Director Vincente Minnelli  was notoriously meticulous on every film. Everything in a Minnelli frame is studied and placed in its space for a reason, from the elbow of an extra in Bells are Ringing  (1960) to the movement of the swans in the background of Gigi (1958).

 Although a New York Times critic at the time didn’t seem to like the pantomime, we are meant to pay attention to the movement and the pictures.

Some of the most poignant few frames in The Clock are during the first breakfast scene. Alice and Joe are prepping to eat with the milkman (James Gleason) and his wife (real life wife, Lucile Gleason). All, except Joe, discuss inconsequential things (One egg or two?) - their conversations might as well be the musical score. We’re meant to pay attention to Joe, who is still and quiet among the chatter and the movement.  Alice and  the hostess are putting food on serving platters in the foreground; the men are opposite.  Joe, chin in hand, seems  to be contemplating the mirror effect, perhaps longing to grow old with a wife just as the milkman has. The guy who was afraid of the shade under tall buildings is now determined to take a risk that might not produce dividends.

Does this scene of domestic bliss foreshadow his life after the war? Is this the closest he’ll ever get to having his own home life? Does his singular stillness suggest his imminent death as life moves on without him?  The movie is tormentingly silent on these questions, putting us in the same boat with Joe. We just don’t know.

The second breakfast scene is also largely silent and quite meaningful. It is the morning after their wedding night, and Joe has finally had breakfast with his wife, just as he dreamed of doing 24 hours before. But in a few hours he’s leaving for who knows where. What can you say at a time like this? The couple does not speak for 3 minutes of the 4 minute scene as  they share significant glances and mime gestures over coffee. A high vantage point of the city lies just over Joe’s shoulder observing the man as he gazes at his new bride; New York inserts itself even into their most intimate moments.

Author David Thomson states that he screened the first reel forward with sound and simultaneously screened the second reel of the film backwards without sound and found the film
“so stunning, so lovely, so surreal, that it helped eyes appreciate all the same lyrical, kinetic things in forward motion, things to which we become so accustomed.”                                                  
One doesn’t have to run the film in reverse to notice that The Clock is in no small part a pantomime - the movement is meant  to be appreciated. Dialogue here is often just another city noise.

According to biographer John Fricke,  Garland did not like how her first straight drama was shaping up. This  movie was to be a big change from the diminutive’s star’s bold musicals and it had to be done just right.

Director Fred Zinnemann notes
“I think [Judy Garland] was probably not getting what she needed from me- in terms of direction. She might have felt insecure working with me. I suppose that it was very important for my education to go through an experience like that. At the time, [being replaced] was quite a blow.”
Judy Garland Database
So out with Zinnemann and in with Garland’s previous director Vincente Minnelli. Their relationship - professional and personal - had been heating up since Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and they would marry soon after The Clock was finished. Garland has said that filming St. Louis was the first time  that she felt beautiful on camera, and that it was due to Minnelli‘s deft touch. This period seems in some ways to be an upswing for  the actress who is notorious for  her life’s ups and downs.

It’s a good thing that Garland was in relatively fine emotional shape since her co-star apparently needed her help. Robert Walker‘s marriage to actress Jennifer Jones was dissolving under his wife‘s infidelity with  David O‘ Selznick. According to Fricke ,Garland and makeup woman Dorothy Ponedel had to take Walker out of bars, sober him up and get him ready for shoots. Perhaps Walker channeled some of that real life despair into his character’s fraught face; he looks like a man in dire straits.

Walker’s problems, the script,  Garland, Minnelli - it’s a combination of many things that you can‘t help but pity Joe and Alice. The movie begins by panning a crowd and zooming in to follow a soldier - Joe - around a train station. It ends in the same place, following Alice as she melds into the crowd, zooming out as if it plans to pan the room again for another story. Their little tale is similar to so many others, but that commonality is also what makes you empathize with their struggle to be appreciated for themselves. The movie takes a comically cruel jab at their sameness when the couple sits next to another couple - a sailor and his bride  who is wearing the same off-the-rack dress as Alice.

Critic Bosley Crowther sums up the movie well in his review from May 4, 1945:
“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.


  1. Nice review! Now I want to see it :)

  2. Very informative and concise, especially since you could easily spend a page on virtually every scene in this multi layered film. Maybe Minelli's most perceptive study of the precarious human condition.

  3. dpoppyman,
    You could write a small book on the myriad details of this film, on and off-screen.

    Absolutely love this movie. It makes me wish Garland had done far more straight dramas.

    Walker makes the innocence and tragedy of the character seem so real that his common war-time plight makes "average" Joe seem anything but common. You really do invest in these well-written characters.

    Thanks for contributing.

  4. I think the second breakfast scene is just perfectly beautiful in its silence.


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