Program Notes: The Clock (1944)
The plot of The Clock (1945) isn’t all that different from dozens of other home-front romances churned out by Hollywood during World War II.
But The Clock is special, and for that we can thank director Vincente Minnelli.
It all began with a Paul Gallico short story purchased by M-G-M. Garland, the studio’s biggest star at the time, actively lobbied to do the picture, even though it didn’t require her to sing one note. In fact, that was part of the attraction – Garland wanted to prove herself a serious actress and all grown up.
For their part the studio bigwigs, concerned about betting too much money on Garland’s notorious “temperament” (her absenteeism and health problems – both mental and physical – had made Meet Me In St. Louis a high-stress production) were only too happy to assign her to a relatively low-cost, black-and-white non-musical.
The Clock’s first director was Fred Zinnemann, making the leap to top-of-the-line features after a decade in M-G-M’s shorts and B-picture departments. He had already completed his first feature, the still-unreleased Nazi war drama The Seventh Cross starring Spencer Tracy, about which there was tremendous buzz.
But the high-maintenance Garland complained that the shy Zinnemann gave her nothing. She needed positive reinforcement 24/7. Three weeks into filming the picture was shut down, Zinnemann was fired, and Garland went looking for another director.
She already knew whom she wanted. Minnelli previously had directed her in Ziegfeld Follies and Meet Me in St. Louis and had demonstrated the ability to make his star look beautiful. They had briefly been a couple in the months after the latter film was completed.
Minnelli, writes Garland biographer Gerald Clarke, “was the ideal director for The Clock, perhaps the only one on the lot who could have prevented it from being drowned in a gush of sentimentality, the ‘Metromush’ the studio ladled out so generously during World War II.”
The threadbare, tear-jerking plot was a patchwork of small and seemingly trivial dramas. But then you could say the same thing about Meet Me In St. Louis, which Minnelli had shepherded to artistic and financial greatness.
A big part of Minnelli’s job was holding the hand of his leading lady. He accompanied Garland to makeup each morning and spent a couple of hours feeding her ego, reassuring the insecure star that she was up to taking on the day’s schedule.
He still found time to rewrite the screenplay and rework other aspects of the production. This former New Yorker gave a co-starring role to the Big Apple itself. Filming on location was out of the question, especially during wartime, but the director had NYC meticulously recreated on Culver City’s soundstages.
Minnelli also introduced numerous small roles to be played by veteran bit players, thus giving the story new moods and colors.
“The Clock was the first Minnelli movie to show off his extraordinarily precise way of filling in the human backdrop to his stories with specific and pungent detail,” wrote his biographer, Stephen Harvey.
“Throughout the rest of his career he became notorious for spending hours on the set coaching the bit players he’d chosen to populate his frame, giving each a history, a body language of his own. Movie extras were supposed to be homogenized and unobtrusive, but Minnelli assembled a multiracial, polyglot throng, scurrying through his MGM Manhattan with the self-absorbed purpose of born New Yorkers. It’s no insult to the studio’s wizard set decorators to note that Minnelli’s madding crowds are the most impressive props in the picture.”
Ironically, while Minnelli was devoting every available moment to propping up the neurosis-wracked Garland, her co-star was circling the drain.
During the filming of The Clock Walker sought solace in the bottle. On numerous occasions studio employees were sent out to the city’s bars to find Walker and take him home so that he’d be able to film the next morning.
Apparently the drinking didn’t affect Walker’s performance in The Clock, but it certainly contributed to his early death in 1952.
Meanwhile the Minnelli-Garland romance was being rekindled (though still married to producer David Rose, she had ended her affair with movie producer Joseph Mankiewicz). One day during production several extras returned early to the set after lunch and stumbled across an intimate encounter between the director and his star on the subway station set.
After filming Minnelli and Garland traveled to NYC for the East Coast premiere of Meet Me In St. Louis; the trip gave the older Minnelli an opportunity to introduce this California girl to the intellectual friends and bohemian haunts of his Broadway days.
When they returned to Hollywood they announced their engagement. The marriage didn’t last, but it did produce Liza Minnelli.
Other films in the series “Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- May 5: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) Not Rated
- May 12: The Band Wagon (1953) Not Rated
- May 19: Lust for Life (1956) Not Rated
- May 26: An American in Paris (1951) Not Rated
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- May 7: Father of the Bride (1950) Not Rated
- May 14: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Not Rated
- May 21: The Clock (1945) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.