Starring Judy Garland, Robert Walker, James Gleason, and Keenan Wynn
My rating: ★★★★ stars
The Most Romantic Film Ever Made, IMO.
What makes a movie romantic?
Obviously, there must be a love story. However, that quality alone isn’t enough to categorize a movie as “romantic.” There’s a love story in Suicide Squad; it would take a huge stretch of the definition of “romantic” to describe that movie as such. Maybe psychotic criminals don’t make the most romantic of couples. However, the argument could be made that Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers have at least some element of romance to them. So what is it?
One answer might be the element of the taboo. Certainly, forbidden love has been the staple of romances since long before Romeo & Juliet. (Pyramus & Thisbe, anyone?) Sure, there are pseudointellectual killjoys who will claim that Romeo & Juliet is not romantic, but those people probably wouldn’t allow the existence of romance in anything.
Then there’s the old trope of “lovers on the run,” as in the quasi-romantic Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers. Better, less murdery examples would include They Live by Night and Moonrise Kingdom. It’s also what adds romance to The Terminator—yes, I consider The Terminator to be one of the most romantic movies of the 1980s.
Let’s not forget the old chestnut of “opposites attract.” (Cue the music: ♫ I take two steps forward ♫ I take two steps back ♫) Grease, Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, Titanic, Twilight, aw heck, let’s throw in Lady and the Tramp—who says romance is only for humans?—cinematic annals are filled with these love stories.
And in all these types of romantic stories, we’ll find a subset of the doomed—the romance that’s somehow heightened because it can’t last. I won’t make a list because SPOILERS, but, at this point, if you don’t know how Romeo & Juliet ends, you haven’t been paying attention.
The Clock contains none of these tropes. And, yet, I often describe it as “the most romantic movie ever made.” The lovers in the The Clock (Judy Garland and Robert Walker) are not star-crossed teenagers from opposite sides of the tracks on the run and headed for doom. They’re two ordinary people, Joe and Alice (quite ordinary names), who meet on an ordinary Sunday and find they share a lot in common.
And that’s it. Not much happens in The Clock. Nothing explodes. No one is killed. No ship sinks. No robot killing machine massacres a station full of police officers. In The Clock, a milkman (James Gleason) gets knocked over by a drunk (Keenan Wynn); that’s about it for action.
It would be wrong to say that the movie lacks conflict, however. The title tells us what that conflict is—time. “The Clock” of the title certainly could refer to the lovers’ meeting under the clock at the Hotel Astor. But, significantly, later in the film when they must search for each other, they don’t find each other under that clock. It’s not as important as it might seem. The titular clock more fittingly describes the limited time (two days) the main characters have to fall in love and admit they are in love before Joe’s army leave ends.
Many grown-ups might remember the narrative conflicts taught in high school (person vs. person; person vs. self; person vs. nature; person vs. the supernatural). Most schools stop at four. But, anyone who stops for a moment and thinks about stories knows that person vs. technology, person vs. society, and person vs. time make up a substantial amount of narrative conflict.
Person vs. time conflicts suggest frantic, frenetic narratives of people running through the streets, trying to make some deadline of global importance. But The Clock retains a quiet, leisurely pace throughout the movie. It does speed up in the second half with Joe and Alice racing to meet a four o’clock deadline, but the fate of the world hardly hangs on that deadline. In the movie, the stakes are relatively low when it comes to the state of the world.
On a personal level, however, to make someone a part of your life, to commit to that person, is hardly a low-stakes question. It is of vital importance in an individual’s life and, ultimately, a couple’s life. To make that decision in 48 hours is a big risk. It’s that risk—the acceptance of vulnerability, the opening of oneself to another person, and the (trepidatious) willingness to commit a lifetime to another—that makes The Clock so romantic.
Often, I find that the off-screen details of a production affect my experience of the text. And, yet, in this instance, I didn’t think of Judy Garland and Robert Walker as two of Hollywood’s most vulnerable and tragic figures. They were simply Alice and Joe. What can’t be overlooked, however, is how clearly director Vincente Minnelli is in love with Garland—the two were married exactly three weeks after the film’s release. Even though he restrains from overdoing the close-ups, he films her as the essence of loveliness, giving her a womanliness that was absent from her earlier roles. She shines here in her first dramatic, non-singing role.
Walker is an adept leading man. His earnest naivety never descends into corn or stupidity, which would certainly detract from the love story. Joe projects an underlying confidence even as he admits he is “green as grass.”
The biggest supporting role in the film is played by New York City. The city acts almost as a matchmaker for Alice and Joe, leading them into love through its landmarks and neighborhoods. Ironically, however, most of the action was filmed on Hollywood soundstages, where Penn Station and the Astor Hotel lobby were given detailed, accurate recreations. The characters’ appearances at other New York locations were created using process shots, in which an optical printer places the main action into background footage. These shots look obviously false in the era of high definition and more sophisticated special effects, but part of enjoying the magic of movies involves suspending technical criticisms, particularly with films made when technology was limited.
Maybe not everyone will agree that this is “the most romantic movie ever made.” But the movie contains all the sentimental appeal of classic Hollywood romances—killjoys, sourpusses, sticks in the mud, and faultfinders be damned.