Judy Garland! Vincente Minnelli! M-G-M! The 1945 drama The Clock [Warner] is the antithesis of what you might expect from Garland and Minnelli at M-G-M; a heartfelt, romantic and involving drama of a secretary and a soldier on a 48-hour leave. They meet at Penn Station (the old, vanished Penn Station, that is); meet once again under the clock in the lobby of the Astor (ditto); and find their lives transformed in a two-day whirlwind.
Garland made her non-singing debut in this film (falling between "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "The Harvey Girls"), and it might well be her most affecting performance. Robert Walker, the ingratiating but troubled actor best remembered for Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," plays Joe Allen. The soldier, not the restaurateur. There is also a marvelous supporting performance from the great James Gleason, as a friendly milkman who helps steer the romance. Gleason's wife, Lucile, plays his wife, and Keenan Wynn has a drunk scene that's worth watching. Keen-eyed viewers will find cameos by M-G-M's Arthur Freed (giving Walker some matches in Penn Station) and Roger Edens (as a cocktail-lounge pianist). Location shots of wartime New York add extra layers to the movie's charms. Look, there's the Metropolitan Museum back in the days when Fifth Avenue was a two-way street! "The Clock" is a little-known and almost forgotten film, but quite a treat.
Speaking of Jimmy Gleason, he is at his best in another recent release, Here Comes Mr. Jordan [Columbia]. This is the 1941 comedy starring the droll Robert Montgomery as boxer Joe Pendleton. The star is mistakenly killed in a plane crash, accidentally snatched up by overeager novice angel Edward Everett Horton. Joe is sent back to earth in a new body, under the guidance of head angel Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains). Gleason, meanwhile, plays the boxer's understandably perplexed trainer; he picked up an Oscar nomination for his efforts, as did Montgomery. If this all sounds familiar, let's try to get it right: screenwriter Harry Segall wrote an apparently unproduced play called Heaven Can Wait (which was finally staged decades later). Columbia bought the script and had it adapted into the film "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," winning Segall an Oscar for Best Original Story. A different "Heaven Can Wait," another heavenly comedy totally unrelated to "Mr. Jordan," was made in 1943 (starring Don Ameche and Gene Tierney, directed by Ernst Lubitsch). In 1978, Warren Beatty remade "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," calling it: "Heaven Can Wait." Is this all clear? No matter. The film at hand – "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" – is the best of them all, and a real charmer.
Also in time for Valentine's month comes another Manhattan-based romantic charmer. Crossing Delancey [Warner] takes place some 40 blocks lower, and 40 years later, than "The Clock"; it might as well come from a different world. Boy meets girl, once again; here, he sells pickles. Yes, pickles from brine-filled barrels on the corner of Delancey. Amy Irving and Peter Reigert star, and you'll find yourself rooting for them as much as you do for Garland and Walker. "Crossing Delancey" also features Sylvia Miles and (in a smaller role) Rosemary Harris; it was directed by Joan Micklin Silver (of Rags) and features music by Paul Chihara (of Shogun, The Musical). But don't let those credits stop you from enjoying Irving and Reigert on Delancey.
Fascinating is the word for Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist [Criterion]. This is a four-DVD collection including seven vintage Robeson films, ranging from 1925 to 1942; a 1979 documentary; a 1958 radio interview with the actor; and four new videos, with Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones among the participants. Most interesting among the contents, by theatrical standards anyway, is the 1933 film version of "The Emperor Jones." Eugene O'Neill's 1920 play helped establish the playwright's reputation; Robeson, similarly, created a stir when he appeared in a 1925 Broadway revival. The film is a greatly expanded version, including an overly extended and not very interesting non-O'Neill prequel. (The culprit seems to be no other than DuBose Heyward, author of the novel and play "Porgy," who soon after the "Emperor Jones" film joined with George Gershwin to write the opera Porgy and Bess.) Even so, the movie does give us an idea of Robeson's performance in the play. He is supported by Dudley Digges, an important actor and director for more than 30 years; he starred in The Adding Machine, On Borrowed Time, and with the Lunts in The Guardsman. Shortly before his death in 1947, Digges created the role of Harry Hope in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.
The other films in the Robeson set include the 1925 silent "Body and Soul" (unrelated to the John Garfield movie of the same title), Zoltan Korda's 1935 "Sanders of the River," and the outspokenly left-wing "Native Land" (1942). As we've come to expect, Criterion gives us films that are expertly restored and handsomely packaged. There is also a fascinatingly illustrated booklet of essays. These include an excerpt from Robeson's 1958 book, "Here I Stand," and a recent handwritten note from Pete Seeger apologizing that he can't write a full essay (due to his advanced age). However, the note itself is a fine historical and political statement, signed by Seeger with a drawing of a banjo.
Criterion calls "Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist" a "landmark box set," and that label is on the mark.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)