The Clock (M.G.M.), at its best, is so good that it inspires ingratitude for not being great. Its basic story is about as simple and moving as they come. A country-bred corporal (Robert Walker) arrives in New York to spend his last two days' leave before going overseas. After one brief look at the overwhelming city he ducks back into Penn Station. There he stumbles across a girl (Judy Garland), a little Manhattan office worker as lonely as he is.
Together they spend the afternoon sightseeing, the evening strolling in a tamed glade overlooking the Hudson River. A milkman (James Gleason) gives them a lift that turns into a nightlong ride through the city; his wife (Lucile Gleason) gives them breakfast and some easygoing advice about marrying in a hurry. Almost against their will, they come to suspect, that they are in love. The suspicion becomes a desperate certainty when, still without knowing each other's last names, they get separated in a subway crush.
When they finally find each other again, there is no question about it: they are going to get married. All afternoon, working against the city's implacably ticking clocks, they fight their way through the cruel bureaucratic mazes of getting a blood test, a license, a waiver of the 72 hours' invalidity. They tear in just under the wire for a grimy little civil ceremony that is shattered to bits by the passage of elevated trains. There follows a beautiful, bleak scene in an off-hours lunchroom where a munching stranger at the next table looks on and listens in as they droop over their inedible food, trying to fight off their bewilderment, their disappointment, their misery, their freezing shyness.
There are quite a few things wrong with this picturesome of them basic. The average lonely soldier in New York doesn't have the good luck to pick up Judy Garland, or true love, or anything remotely resembling either. But it could be justly argued that such things do occasionally happenand ought to happen more often. Once you accept the basic premise, however, there are still drawbacks. The young lovers wouldn't be likely to spend the night so whimsically, to lose each other so casually in the subway, to find each other if they did, or to run into quite so picturesque a combination of gruffly kind metropolitan types. The trouble is more detailed than that. The pretty-enough "background music" (one of Hollywood's worst habits) reduces some of the storytelling from the sadly tender grandeur which the players and the monumental closeups earn to a sort of oversweetened, high-grade M. G. Mush.
But Director Vincente Minnelli's talents are so many-sided and generous that he turns even the most over-contrived romanticism into something memorable. He has brought the budding dramatic talents of his betrothed, Judy Garland, into unmistakable bloom. He has helped give Robert Walker an honest, touching dignity in place of the shucks-fellers cuteness he has sometimes seemed doomed to. It is Director Minnelli who gives a passage like the silent breakfast scene its radiance. He has used most of his bit players and extras and crowds and streets so well that time & again you wonder whether some swarming, multitudinously human scenes were made in the actual city, with only a few of the actors aware of concealed cameras.