I think Judy Garland might well have been the greatest performer in the history of motion pictures. We all know she was a great singer, but she was also a superb dancer (Gene Kelly rated her as his most gifted partner) and one of the great underrated comic actors of classic cinema. She was also, not incidentally, a fine dramatic actor. She didn't do many non-musicals, unfortunately, but her work on pictures like A CHILD IS WAITING (1963) and JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) nicely demonstrates that as an actor she could draw on the same depth of feeling that made her a great singer. The best example of this is probably found in George Cukor's 1954 musical drama masterpiece A STAR IS BORN, which called on every skill that Judy Garland had, to glorious results.
But Garland's most underrated dramatic role was the one she gave in Vincent Minnelli's fascinating 1945 war drama THE CLOCK. Judy plays Alice Mayberry a young secretary in New York who meets solider Joe Allen (Robert Walker) who is on a 48-hour leave before he'll be shipped off to war. The two walk around the city together, flirting and fighting and falling in love, until they decide to get married in a rush. In the end, Alice sees Joe off at the station as he returns to war and she returns to her life.
With this kind of material, one would expect the romance to be lush and light and thick with sentiment. Yet the script by Robert Nathan and Joseph Schrank, from the story by Paul and Pauline Gallico, grounds things in a kind of reality. Alice holds Joe at arms length, afraid of being "picked up" by a solider, and thus being thought of as "that kind of girl." (The film hints that this is a constant danger of single young women in the city.) Their whirlwind romance is marked by uncertainty about the future, and their rush to get married is hampered at every turn by a bored bureaucracy that regards their love affair as just another pile of paperwork. This lack of sentiment is a Minnelli specialty. Even in something as heartwarming as MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, the mood is complicated by dark humor and sudden flashes of anger and violence. In THE CLOCK, the romance between Alice and Joe is placed in a decidedly unromantic context. This juxtaposition has the effect of making the romance all the more moving.
Garland and Walker are excellent. Judy gets to play a street smart young woman, a nice change of pace from all the doe-eyed innocents she had to play for MGM. She's eminently believable in the role, perhaps because Judy herself was far from a doe-eyed innocent in 1945, despite her public image. She was, in many ways, a shrewd working girl, closer in spirit to Alice Mayberry than to OZ's Dorothy Gale. Walker compliments her nicely because there's an edge to his performance. Walker was going through a painful divorce during the making of the film (his wife Jennifer Jones had already left him for producer David O. Selznick), and he gives Joe an unsettled quality. He's not just a nice kid from Indiana. There's something slightly dangerous about him. Watching him here, you can see why his most famous role would be as a psycho in Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.
The most fascinating element of THE CLOCK is the unsettled quality of the romance between Alice and Joe. You can believe that they fell in love and you can believe that they got married in a fever, but you can also believe that the marriage might not work out in the end. There's a lot unresolved at the end, and not just because Joe is shipping off to war. There's the fact that Alice and Joe seem to want different things. She seems very happy working in the city and doesn't seem in a rush to have kids, while he wants to go back to where he came from. The ending is sweet but restrained, with the newlywed couple telling each other, "See you soon." Then Joe boards his train and Alice turns and walks into the crowd at Penn Station, merging and disappearing in the crush of people.
In its quiet way, THE CLOCK is one of the best romances of the wartime period. It's not epic like CASABLANCA, but it's also more nuanced and, in some ways, more mature. It's about two small people whose love affair is insignificant to the outside world. They marry out of love and fear and a sense that time might run out on them. It's the kind of movie where you can be happy for the crazy kids while not being altogether sure that they're going to make it as a couple. If you can appreciate the fragile beauty of their love affair then THE CLOCK takes takes on real resonance as an artifact of World War II.