"The Clock"-a New York Story


Joe: “Where will I meet you?”
“Under the clock at the Astor at seven.” 

Released in May 1945, The Clock was filmed entirely in California, but set in New York City, with scenes taking place in sets standing in for Central Park, the Subway, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Astor Hotel, Pennsylvania Station, and various other locations.
Vincente Minnelli directed the film for MGM on the heels of his success the previous year, Meet Me In St. Louis, and once again he directed his future wife: Judy Garland (the couple married a month after the release of The Clock). Minnelli was the third director on the film and he took charge, re-writing the script substantially and bringing his characteristic actor-centered touch to the film. Actor Robert Walker played Garland’s romantic interest, Joe, a soldier on 48 hour leave in New York City, his first visit to the city. He meets Alice (Garland) and what follows is a kind of mythic love story whose twists and turns are determined by the city itself.

Robert Walker in a New York hotel; the city unfolds behind him

From getting separated in the subway crowds to talking about life, art, and eventually marriage, Joe and Alice tour the city and slowly begin to create their lives together. They ride buses, deliver milk in the middle of the night, lie on the grass in the park, snack in a lunchroom, and eventually, after overcoming many challenges, they proclaim their love for each other.

All this is magically set in the city; the scenery that appears behind them in many scenes looks quite fake to the modern eye–the jittery black and white shots played out in the background are never evenly matched to the action filmed on the California sets, but there is something so magical about them and they heighten the fairy tale quality of the film.

First meeting in Pennsylvania Station

At the time of the film’s release, however, the special effects were dazzling. Film critic Bosley Crowther praised the film’s authentic portrayal of the city: “The atmosphere of the big town has seldom been conveyed more realistically upon the screen than in this picture,” Crowther wrote in the New York Times. “Much of the background footage actually was made here [New York City], and the director, Vincente Minnelli, has recorded the pulse beats of Manhattan—the roaring elevators, the screeching police sirens, the basso whistling of big boats in the Hudson, the crashing of garbage cans on the midnight pavements and all the other voices of cosmopolitan life—with electrifying effect” (New York Times, May 4, 1945).

At the Zoo

After their first chance encounter in Pennsylvania Station, Joe and Alice famously plan to meet that evening under the clock in the lobby of the Hotel Astor. The Astor, built in 1904 and located on Broadway between West 44th and 45th Streets, was a lavish hotel with numerous ballrooms and restaurants, such as the “American Indian Grill Room,” and even a rooftop garden. The tradition of meeting under the clock at the Astor was actually very real–dates had long entered the hotel’s lobby with a twinge of nervousness and excitement. The hotel’s lobby, recreated on a sound stage in Hollywood, mimicked the real lobby of the Astor, where Joe buys a gardenia for Alice.

…..And off the two go on their whirlwind Manhattan romance…..

Hotel Astor was built in what was then called “Longacre Square,” now Times Square.

While I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, the film doesn’t end as so many Hollywood films of that era end. There is a mixture of sadness, longing, and even emptiness the film touches on–and that feeling is exemplified in the portrayal of the big city with its crowds, its culture, its bureaucracy, and its characters that surround the young couple. While it is their young romance that keeps the film upbeat, the film also conveys a kind of haunting sense–a sense of loss.

After all, this was a city, and a country, on the very tail end of four years of war. Frivolity and entertainment were not dead, but they had been muted by the war. And so, Alice and Joe are, in a sense, “the future.” Their dreams and plans, set against the “electrifying” city, are given new life in a new era.

That poignant mixture of hope and fear that so pervaded the post World War II era was palpable in a city on the verge of its own future. The original Pennsylvania Station built in 1910 and designed by McKim Mead and White was demolished in 1963; just four years later the Hotel Astor would be demolished.

The city was changing to be sure. Couples may have had to find other spots to meet; But the city still provided an electrifying backdrop for the lives played out within it.

~Jenny Thompson



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