Wednesday, April 4, 2007

As time goes by

The 1945 Vincente Minelli movie The Clock had been sitting in the DVR queue ever since the keywords "JUDY GARLAND" caught it on TCM months ago, and the fiance and I finally sat down to watch it the other night. Our plan was really just to watch some movie, since there are so many saved on the list, taking up space as they wait for us to set aside time to watch them, that newly-recorded programs (mostly Law & Order reruns) are now immediately in danger of deletion. The first movie we tried was Two for the Seesaw, which I'd optimistically plucked from TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" lineup based on the presence of Shirley MacLaine and a plot summary that made me hope for something along the lines of The Apartment. Instead, Seesaw reminded me why The Apartment is such a one-of-a-kind pleasure. Aside from some interesting shots of Manhattan during the opening credits, we saw nothing in the first 10 minutes that made us want to keep watching. Not even Shirley (sporting a jarring black wig and painted-on eyebrows) could save the movie from its own dreariness and would-be coolness (according to IMDb, the tagline is "a square from Nebraska? an off-beatnik from Greenwich Village? It just didn't figure... that they would... that they could... that they did!" which gives you an idea of what you're in for). And I wasn't really excited about seeing her paired with Robert Mitchum -- Jack Lemmon he's not. So we erased that one unwatched and moved on to The Clock.

The opening scenes of The Clock amount to another Manhattan travelogue (this one taking place in 1945), and both films find their characters strolling through the Egyptian galleries of the Met, which was a strange coincidence indeed. Both movies also have charm-deficient male leads and unimpressive scripts, but I stuck with The Clock anyway (after the fiance fell asleep) and found it full of small pleasures. The basic plot: a young Midwestern soldier has a 2-day leave in NYC before he ships out to locations unknown; stumbling through Penn Station (far more romantic then!) he meets a pretty young professional girl, also with heartland roots, of course, and they fall in love. Robert Walker plays the young soldier, and he's no match for Judy Garland, as his secretary love. Neither character is interesting as scripted, but Judy makes the most of what the script gives her, whereas Walker's All-American boy act is more irritating than sweet. He doesn't have the kind of looks a girl could fall for across a crowded room, and if you've ever seen Strangers on a Train you'll understand what I mean when I say that, every time he tried to get smoochy with Judy, I had the creepy feeling he might strangle her instead. (Which would certainly have made for a more exciting movie!) I had the same problem with Since You Went Away -- Jennifer Jones would be looking at him all moony, and I'd be whispering, "Run!"

After about half an hour of stiff and unconvincing courtship, I realized why the movie felt so awkward: with its wholesome innocence, lightweight plot and improbable love story, it plays like a musical without the songs. It feels as though wartime shortages forced Minelli to cut all the planned musical numbers. The fact that there is no singing (well, almost none -- James Gleason croaks a few bars) is part of what makes the movie a curiosity worth seeking out for Garland fans; it's an early look at what she can do as an actor when she's not playing a "little girl with a big voice." And it's to her credit that she is the lead who seems less in need of a song or two to prop up her performance. Whereas if Robert Walker had a number, and if he could sing like Tom Drake, it would make a world of difference. You wouldn't have to wonder what Alice (Judy's character) sees in Joe; the songs in a romantic musical are a shortcut past all that.

It is interesting to compare this movie with Meet Me in St. Louis -- the previous year's Minelli/Garland project -- and study why this fails where that succeeds. St. Louis, while only loosely a "musical" in the theatrical sense of the word, has the songs The Clock lacks, and a far better script. But it also has a more convincing frame for its Americana and innocence: I can believe in, and chuckle at, the simplicity of the Smith family; I know the subtext is wartime affection for home and hearth, but the turn-of-the-century setting makes it palatable. The Clock tries to transplant old-fashioned American values to mid-1940s Manhattan, and it doesn't take; G.I. Joe's astonishment at New York City's skyscrapers is hard to credit, unless he was raised on the moon, and (spoiler alert!) in the harsh light of day, the lovers' quickie marriage seems like a truly bad idea. There's a sequence where they race against the clock (get it?) to get all the necessary papers, tests and licenses together before Joe's leave is up, and the whole time I was thinking, shouldn't all these obstacles make them stop and realize their plan is a stupid one? It's 1945; can't they just wait till he comes home?

But the film doesn't end there, and the scenes that follow their courthouse marriage caught me by surprise. In the moment that Alice breaks down in tears, sobbing, "It was all so...ugly!" the movie briefly becomes a commentary on the escapist musical romance it might have been. Escaping to the 1904 World's Fair is all well and good, it seems to say, but in contemporary America there's a war on, and even young lovers can't live like they're in a musical. Sure, I'll meet you at the Astor, but we're not going to sing a whole song about it. As a counterpoint to Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock has more to offer than initially meets the eye; for example, instead of "The Trolley Song," we get an impromptu sightseeing trip on the top deck of a city bus (albeit one that never stops), where the conductor has no patience with rubes who don't pay their fares, and later, a harrowing and all-too-realistic trip on the subway, where everybody pushes and nobody stops to say he hopes he hasn't stepped upon your feet.

The film's other highlight is a terrific drugstore/lunch counter scene, as sharp and unexpected as the rest of the movie is fuzzy and formulaic, with wonderful performances from Keenan Wynn and Moyna MacGill (who, Robert Osborne told us at least twice, is Angela Lansbury's mother). Nice to know the city had its weirdos, even then. And there are lovely Minelli touches throughout, like the altar boy extinguishing candles in the "St. Faith's" scene, or the careful inclusion of minorities in crowd scenes. And I'm always fascinated by what American movies were like during World War II, especially when they have war-influenced plots. How did audiences want to see themselves? Where did they find hope?

So: if you like Judy Garland, Vincente Minelli, and mid-1940s popular culture, The Clock is probably worth your time. But definitely skip Two for the Seesaw, unless you are similarly fascinated by the films of the early 1960s.

1 comment:

Dan B (no, not Bennett, think harder) said...

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