B Roll is a weekly column that digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, and the awesome. This week, writer Nathanael Hood takes us on a sentimental journey through Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 magical romance The Clock starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker.
Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock isn’t a romance but the fantasy of a romance. Where else but fantasy could a story about a couple meeting, falling in love, and getting married in two days be taken seriously? “It’s puppy love,” we declare as Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker), a soldier on a 48-hour leave in New York City, rushes in the wee hours of the morning to wed Alice Mayberry (Judy Garland), a woman he just met. But whereas a lesser director might knowingly wink to the audience about the absurdity of their passions, Minnelli considers his youthful subjects with earnest enthusiasm and sympathy.
The setting of New York City might seem arbitrary, but it is in fact essential to establishing and maintaining the fairy tale tone of The Clock. For even in the mid twentieth century New York, with its churning immigrant masses and mighty towers of steel and glass, had assumed a position in the American psyche as not just a city, but the City. (City with a capital “C,” if you will.) The first sight of skyscrapers so disorients the small town Joe that he quickly retreats back into the subway to catch his bearings. It is only when Alice walks by and loses a shoe heel while going up an escalator that Joe can work up the courage to ascend to the outside world again.
The use of an escalator as the sight of their Meet Cute could not have been more deliberate. For has there ever been another director—except, of course, for Hitchcock—more enamored with stairways as symbols than Minnelli? Time and again they appear in his films as, according to Joe McElhaney, “[passages] into and out of the world of enchantment or metamorphosis.”
Following perfunctory visits to the usual sightseeing landmarks—Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—Joe and Alice quickly decide on another date. But this time they are treated to a more unusual journey: a metaphorical tour of married life. After missing the bus home, they are picked up by an elderly milkman who ferries them through the sleeping streets. But when he is injured, Joe and Alice decide to finish his route. Once they have finished symbolically building a life together through common, thankless toil, their imaginary married life climaxes in a scene where Alice helps cook breakfast for Joe and the milkman.
Finally deciding to tie the knot, the remaining half hour of the film pits Joe and Alice against the brutalities of red-tape bureaucracy. With Joe leaving in the morning, they struggle to find government employees sympathetic enough to help them make the marriage official before they are torn apart. But a sterile ceremony in a cluttered office drowned out by the sound of locomotives reduces Alice to tears. They may be married in the sight of the Law, but not in the eyes of God. And, more importantly, not in the eyes of Love; passionate, all-consuming éros. The reality has failed the fantasy. So they must renew their vows in a Church.
Curiously, the obligatory morning-after scene sees Joe and Alice in a cramped hotel room acting almost ashamed of their wedding night consummation. Perhaps this is because they have introduced sex into an ultimately sexless world. Watching the film, it is impossible to imagine that Joe and Alice aren’t virgins. But really, practically everyone in the film seems like a virgin: even the elderly milkman and his wife; even Alice’s fast-talking roommate—her relationship with her beau seems more obsessively maternal than passionate.
But instead of seeming puerile, this sexless world is utterly sincere. The film creates an environment bereft of cynicism. They get married because it is what their hearts, not their nether-regions, tell them to do. And we believe that they are doing the right thing.
Where else but fantasy?