World War Two was a heady time, and on-the-fly decisions weren’t uncommon. Like getting married, for instance. 1942 has one of the highest marriage numbers on record in the United States. Some of these couples had been together for a while, but whirlwind courtships weren’t unheard of. Sometimes called “gangplank marriage” or “shoving-off marriages,” they were something some parents worried over and many young people dreamed of. It’s only inevitable that the current social conditions would be fodder for creative types, and one instance of that was the 1945 film, The Clock. Directed by Vincente Minnelli and produced by Arthur Freed, the film provides a charming little slice of wartime life.
The film opens in Penn Station. A young man, Joe (Robert Walker) is wandering aimlessly around, wondering what he should do with his two-day leave. He briefly goes outside and is overwhelmed by the skyscrapers, so he soon goes back in and buys a newspaper. As was usual during the war, the station is swarming with people, and a young woman, Alice (Judy Garland) walks past him. Just as she’s about to step onto the escalator, her heel breaks. She yells out for Joe to help her. He not only finds her heel for her, but helps her to a shoe repair shop. The two of them start talking, and Joe asks if he can go a little way with her. He’s never been out of his small town in Indiana called Mapleton, so he’s green as grass.
The two of them end up on the top deck of a bus, with Joe gawking at everything. He finds out Alice has lived in Manhattan for three years, works in an office and lives with another girl. Joe and Alice go to the Central Park Zoo, where they watch the seals, and then to the Met to look at the sculptures. All the time, they’re talking and getting to know each other. Finally, Alice does have to leave, and Joe runs alongside the bus, asking if she’ll meet him that night. “Under the clock at the Astor at seven,” she yells.
Back at Alice’s apartment, her roommate, Helen (Ruth Brady) is there with her boyfriend, Bill (Marshall Thompson), and when Alice comes though the door, Helen’s full of questions, especially after Alice tells her she met a soldier and has a date with him that night. Helen is cautious, because she thinks what happened to Alice was just a pickup. Anyway, she reminds Alice, Freddy has called looking for her, and at least she knows his last name.
Helen and Bill go out for a steak and a movie, while Alice gets a Coke and stares thoughtfully at a dress she picked up from the dry-cleaner’s. Freddy calls again. Will Alice be ready for their date?
Meanwhile, Joe is waiting at the Astor while people crowd through the lobby. It’s seven-thirty, and he finally heads for the door, right as Alice rushes in. And thus begins their date. Alice and Joe have dinner at a nice restaurant, where a gentleman sends them a complimentary drink. Joe asks Alice about her job, and she tells him about Helen and Bill and Freddy. Joe’s almost too eager, which offends Alice. “Helen was right,” she says. “But sometimes when a girl dates with a soldier, she isn’t thinking only of herself. She knows he’s all alone, and far from home, and no one to talk to…What are you staring at?”
“You’ve got brown eyes,” replies Joe.
As the night goes on, things get more romantic in an understated way. Joe and Alice hang out in Central Park, and they can’t help but hear how the city is loud and quiet at the same time. They feel like they’re above the movement of the city. Joe can see the ship that’s part of the convoy he will be joining when he ships out. Joe and Alice kiss, the intensity of which unnerves Alice. “We have to go,” she says.
Since it’s after midnight, there are no buses running, and taxis are expensive. Help comes in the form of a milk wagon, driven by the affable Al Henry (James Gleason). The three of them click right along until Al gets a flat, and they have to get a spare. After Al calls for help at a lunch counter, a drunk (Keenan Wynn) takes a swipe at him, and poor Al faceplants into a pinball machine.
Joe and Alice help deliver the milk, and Al invites them home to meet his wife (Lucille Gleason). They’re a nice couple who are very understanding about the current climate of quick marriages. In their minds, if a boy and a girl love each other and want to get married, then go ahead and let them. After breakfast, Alice and Joe walk out onto the street in a daze, thinking about the conversation. Alice is still hesitant about allowing herself to get too close to Joe, but she doesn’t want to leave him, either.
Leave she must, however, although not by her choice. Alice and Joe get separated on the subway, and since Joe’s not familiar with the system, has no idea where to look for her. Alice is frantic herself–after all, she and Joe don’t even know each other’s last names. A visit to the USO turns up nothing, and the clerk thinks Alice is a little crazy.
Eventually, Alice and Joe do find each other at Penn Station. The only thing they can do is chalk it up to destiny, and since destiny has made itself felt, they decide to get married. Only, it’s not that easy–Alice and Joe have to wade through the bureaucracy that is New York’s civil marriage process, and it’s a little touch-and go as to whether they will be in time.
Whether or not our couple gets married isn’t the real spoiler. Whenever I watch The Clock, I have to wonder how things turned out for Alice and Joe once things had calmed down. The romantic in me likes to think these characters would have been just fine, but who really knows? It’s a funny thing about those so-called “gangplank marriages”–after the war was over, there was a spike in divorces.
The Clock was Judy’s first non-musical role, and despite some apprehension, she played it beautifully. Robert Walker, on the other hand, showed signs of strain. When the film was in production, he was despondent because his wife, Jennifer Jones was cheating on him with David O. Selznik, and he had fallen apart. According to TCM, Judy very often had to keep an eye on him, because Walker drank copiously during filming. 1945 was a tough year for him. As long as he focused on Judy while making The Clock, he was able to function, although his devotion looks dogged sometimes.
Still, The Clock is a wonderful film. It captures the excitement and chaos of the home front during war, and pays tribute to the countless love stories that took place in the midst of it. Judy’s performance in it shows that she had another layer to her as a performer–that of a straight dramatic actress.
And there we have Day Two. Crystal has more Judy for you at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Hope you enjoyed reading, and see you tomorrow!
This movie is available on Amazon.