Clock, The: How Minnelli Saved MHM and made Judy Garland a Dramatic Actress

A dramatic event on the Metro lot helped to cement director Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland’s professional and romantic relationship.

On August 24, 1944, after three weeks of shooting, The Clock, a romantic drama starring Judy, was shut down. Judy and her director Fred Zinnemann didn’t get along and the footage was vastly disappointing. Judy was desperately eager to make the picture, but Louis B. Mayer saw no point in continuing under those conditions. In a last effort to keep the project alive, Judy turned to Minnelli.

Minnelli was about to take a vacation, when he received an unexpected call from Judy, inviting him to lunch at the Players Club. “What picture are you doing next” Minnelli asked. “You know The Clock has been canceled,” Judy said. “But I have told Arthur how much I believe in it.”

Minnelli understood immediately that the meeting with Judy was orchestrated by Freed. “Would you consider directing it” Judy asked. “I guess I can look into it,” Minnelli said. “Let me look at the script and the existing footage.”

To his dismay, every scene seemed to belong to a different picture, though much of the problem stemmed from the flat script, not from Zinnemanns direction.

A few days later, Minnelli told Judy that he would commit to the project on two conditions. First, that Zinnemann did not object to his taking over, and, second, that he would be given complete freedom and Judy’s total trust.

Robert Nathan and Joseph Schrank’s screenplay had interesting shadings, capturing the romantic mood of Paul and Pauline Gallico’s original story. But it didn’t play well onscreen, and it was confusing. Each scene looked as if it had come from a different picture. Minnelli could see why Metro had canceled the project. He thought he could make it work, but would not touch it without Zinnemann’s approval.

A gentleman of the old school, he talked to Zinnemann . Though irritated by Judy’s lack of confidence in him, Zinnemann promised not to stand in Minnellis way. Delighted, Mayer and Freed allowed Minnelli to make all the necessary changes. About $200,000 had already been put into The Clock, including a full-scale replica of the interiors of Penn Station.

Three days after his lunch with Judy, Minnelli reported to the set of The Clock With the exception of some exteriors, shot by a second unit in New York, all the footage was scrapped. Except for the main stars, Judy and Robert Walker, the only other carryover from the original shoot was the Penn State set, where the couple meets, embarks on a weekend courtship, and then parts.

Scrapping all the footage shot, Minnelli started afresh. His idea was to make Manhattan an integral character to the story, which was ambitious, considering that the entire film was shot in Culver City. To create the required atmosphere, backgrounds shot by location crew were combined with studio footage. Watching The Clock, the viewers were made aware of New York City as a modifying influence on the relationship of the couple.

If Minnelli and Judy began the year of 1944 in bitter conflict, they ended it with a midnight kiss at Jack and Mary Benny’s New Year’s Eve party, which was attended by many stars and studio execs. Judy’s picture on the cover of Life magazine in December 1944, was a boost to her ego and morale.

Minnelli might have been inarticulate in his guidance, but he was a thoughtful and sensitive filmmaker who was able to make Judy shine. The Clock sealed Judy’s fate to Minnelli’s. On January 9, 1945, a few days before Judy was to begin work on the musical Western, The Harvey Girls, her first picture without Minnelli, the couple announced their engagement. The Clock finished shooting in early 1945. As expected, the film achieved immediate success when it was released in May 1945.

Despite Minnelli’s fears, no one had asked why a filmmaker known for his musicals was entrusted with a romantic drama. In fact, the press was more curious to know why Judy was eager to appear in a non-singing dramatic role.

Judy behaved extremely well throughout the shoot, but Minnelli thought she was taking her acting too seriously. He had to convince her that her natural talent was sufficient. In the end, he coaxed out a great dramatic performance out of her devoid of affectation. Insecure about her dramatic skills, Judy began working with a drama coach. She would come back from her classes with all kinds of tricks, anxious to demonstrate them to her director. But Minnelli felt that Judy’s instincts were sufficient.

Minnelli was about to shoot the scene where Judy and Walker meet at Penn State. In a typically cute movie meeting, Judy’s high heel snaps off and Walker comes gallantly to the rescue. Based on her extensive work with the drama coach, Judy limped along as if one leg were shorter than the other. Minnelli thought it was ridiculous. He asked Judy, “Why do you limp A girl would walk on her toes in order to keep her balance.” He then told her to do away with coaching. Surprisingly, Judy readily accepted. Having already proven she was a dramatic actress, she needed stronger self-confidence and trust in her director.

Minnelli then volunteered to do something he had not done before, write an essay with answers to all the questions Judy might have about her character. What was the girl like The magazines she read Her hang ups, her favorite movie stars He also devised a similar essay for Walker’s ordinary guy. Minnelli didn’t share these essays with either actor, and offered bits of their characters history and psychology only when asked. The exercise proved helpful to both director and actors.

A single scene in Central Park, established Judy as a mature actress. While Judy and Walker are talking about the sounds of the city, Minnelli shows a brief closeup of Walker but lingers much longer on Judy’s face. Cinematographer George Folsey captured Judys face lovingly and expressively. For the first time, Judy revealed onscreen that special glow of hers. People who saw The Clock held that it was obvious Minnelli was deeply in love with Judy because of that scene. Not surprisingly, the shy Minnelli expressed his strongest feelings for Judy through the camera.

Minnelli shot the parting scene, which contained pages of dialogue, at the very end. A crucial decision was made on the morning of the shoot. Walker’s speech would be given to Judy; it seemed nobler for her to say it. Minnelli then staged the rest of the scene in pantomime, hoping their gestures would imply, after spending their first night together, that their marriage would endure. He instructed the couple to smile, but Walker couldn’t smile, when he discovered he would have to descend via non-existing stairs to the train below. In the midst of this emotional scene, Walker had to play the old vaudeville’s trick, lower his body as he descended, so that only his head was visible. Walker never forgave Minnelli for that humiliating bit.

At the end of the shoot, to express her gratitude, Judy sent Minnelli a present, a desk clock. In a personal note, she wrote: “Darling, When ever you look to see what time it is–I hope you’ll remember The Clock. You knew how much the picture meant to meand only you could give me the confidence I so badly needed. If the picture is a success (and I think it’s a cinch) my darling Vincente is responsible for the whole damn thing. Thank you for everything, angel. If I could only say what is in my heart–but that’s impossible. So I’ll say, God bless you and I love you!”