The best film plots are the ones that are wedded to anachronism. Those that could never have existed at any historical moment outside of the time of inception. The plot of Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock would last three minutes if it took place in the age of wall-to-wall technology. Today we blame alienation (and sometimes loss) on cellphones. In 1945 we blamed it on the war.
The Clock tells the story of a soldier from Maryland (Robert Walker) who, on his two-day leave in New York City, meets, courts, falls in love with and marries the first girl he meets (Judy Garland), and is then shipped off into the great gaping unknown which is referred to mystically, in World War II films, as ‘overseas’. They meet in a day. They court for two days and a night. They lose each other in a subway shuffle. When they find each other again, they resolve to get married. They are what you’d call ‘normal people’–that gray area of the population with lives that, at least in 1945, are supposed to resemble the lives of the viewers, and does so the least expected ways.
The story of two people thrust together by war (and to some extent, Fate) is not an easily relatable one–but one recognizes in the naive plotline of The Clock all the earmarks of an ageless, though dated, story. New York, for one, is changeless in its position toward human life, which is one of firm averseness to any kind of tenderness or human connection. They meet in a crowd–their courtship throws them into all the ugly public spaces of the city–they are seldom allowed a moment alone, out of some kind of spacial congestion. There is a barely a single frame in the film which shows the two together without some uncouth stranger crowding the scene, drawing one’s eye to the background–a million faces detract from the glamour of the two that interest us. There is more fear than wonder in the city. When a subway crush forces the lovers to lose each other, they have to retrace their steps to find each other again. The rest of the film is spent following them in their mad pursuit to get married in four hours and (one assumes) have sex in the remaining twelve. Deep, meaningful sex, though–of course. Such is wartime–but then (says the film) such is love. Either known in a moment, acknowledged in the ugliest of surroundings, or not known at all. Non-existent. The idea of a fated love as an event in otherwise ordinary lives runs like a current through The Clock, competing with the silent of the war itself–and its true meaning in these people’s lives–for the mainstage.
What was the war? It’s hard to imagine a world littered with beautiful men in uniform–and yet such is the mundane reality of The Clock. Soldiers everywhere are treated with deference, or at worst a kind of brusque impatience–but never a lack of respect. If such a world ever existed, it is long gone. Should we mourn this?
If we are to mourn anything about the loss of such a mindset, it’s the courageousness that defines it–for the film is in some small measure about the heroism of not being that wise, or that urbane, or even that cautious. The story of love in 48 hours, a union forged against sense and mortality–can be nothing less than courageous for being so simple. The credulousness of the two characters, their very ordinariness, is courageous. Even their cog-in-the-wheel acceptance of the shitty side of life is also courageous. The actors who played them lived out some of the most torrid lives in Hollywood lore: Garland the original train-wreck and Robert Walker, whose doomed marriage was followed by a lifelong stint of alcoholism, which was followed by death at 32 from same. There is a great deal more melancholy in the whole picture of The Clock than sensitivity can admit. But there is also great beauty–even in the thought that ordinariness should at one point have been exalted, and the reality of war taken on so simply and unjingoistically, and the subject of love discussed so brutally, candidly, without practically any recourse to glamour. Along with 1928’s The Crowd, it is one of the bravest films that Hollywood ever turned out.
The Clock is part of an ongoing Judy Garland film series at the Walter Reade Theater. See more listings here.