Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Manila Calling (1942)

MANILA CALLING (1942), available on DVD from the Fox Cinema Archives, stars Lloyd Nolan, Carole Landis, and Cornel Wilde. Originally released in October 1942, it's a somber patriotic story set during the darkest days after America's entry into WWII.

The film concerns a group of American radio communications experts working in the Philippines. When the Japanese invade, the men hide in the jungle along with some Filipino scouts, sabotaging the Japanese communications lines when they can.

The group, led by Lucky (Nolan) and Jeff (Wilde), successfully fight the Japanese for control of a small plantation with a radio transmitter. The men hope to also find food and water on the plantation but discover there's nothing, and the situation grows even more dire when the Japanese poison the nearest water supply.

Another local plantation owner (Lester Matthews) manages to drive his station wagon through a barrage of Japanese gunfire and make it onto the compound held by the Americans. It turns out he also has a passenger hiding on the floor of the car, Edna (Landis), an American nightclub singer who had the misfortune to be stranded after the invasion.

Some of the men work to repair a Japanese plane which crash-landed, hoping to fly Edna and a couple of wounded men off the island. The rest of the men accept that their situation is grim, but resolve to go down fighting. Until then, they radio inspirational messages to the citizens of the Philippines which start with the phrase "Manila calling! Manila calling!"

MANILA CALLING is an absorbing film with appealing actors, which is critically important, as it is also one of the very darkest of the many war films released during WWII. The film's tone reflects the uncertainty of the hard early months of the war in the Pacific, when Allied success was far from guaranteed. According to a biography of Carole Landis, the film was in production in the summer of 1942, just as the first signs of hope emerged with the U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway.

MANILA CALLING sought to inspire viewers not by showing a flag-waving, triumphant victory, but by showing the brutality of the enemy and the "never say die" spirit of the Americans and Filipinos in the face of certain death. Lucky's closing radio speech to Filipinos as bombs fall, exhorting them to continue to fight the Japanese and assuring them of America's commitment to win the war, is somewhat reminiscent of the ending of Hitchcock's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940).

It's an effective low-budget film utilizing one main set, with jungle scenes filmed at the Los Angeles Arboretum. The movie was fortunate to have Nolan heading the large cast, as he's a special actor with a gift for breathing life into sketchily written characters. His line deliveries seem both authentic and unique, and his reactions and body language are also always interesting to watch.

Nolan has the most screen time of the large cast, and it's particularly compelling watching him as he philosophically accepts his likely fate. There's a scene near the end where he and Landis declare their attraction for one another, after which he shakes his head and says something like "It's too bad," knowing they won't have a future together. There's no agonizing, but more a rueful "It is what it is" acceptance of the situation.

This was an early film in the career of Cornel Wilde, who to this point had mostly been playing supporting roles. In his previous film, the "B" level comedy THE PERFECT SNOB (1941), he'd moved up to playing the romantic lead. In MANILA CALLING Jeff (Wilde) inherits command of the group early on, backed by Lucky, and he makes the case for the radio as a critically important tool to fight the Japanese and counteract their propaganda. Wilde doesn't have much chance to add dimension to his character, but he's handsome and rugged. The film was a good step up the career ladder; by 1945 Wilde would be Oscar nominated as Best Actor for A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945).

Carole Landis is excellent as the lone woman in the group, simultaneously looking gorgeous and believably dirty. She gets to work helping the wounded, fires a weapon alongside the men when the Japanese attempt to retake the compound, and never complains despite the lack of food and water. In short, she's an all-around good gal, despite her somewhat mysteriously sketchy past. In one of the most touching scenes, she helps the dying Irishman Tim (James Gleason) to cross himself as he says his final prayers.

Off the screen Landis worked tirelessly on behalf of the troops throughout the war; some of her USO touring experiences were chronicled in the film FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944), with Landis playing herself.

The film has a bit of an AND THEN THERE WERE NONE feeling as one by one the men are killed off. Ralph Byrd, Elisha Cook Jr., and Louis Jean Heydt are among the fine actors who help elevate this "B" film into something a little more powerful than the norm.

MANILA CALLING runs 81 minutes. It was directed by Herbert I. Leeds and filmed in black and white by Lucien Andriot. The story and screenplay were by John Larkin.

The Fox Cinema Archives DVD is a fine-looking print. There are no extras.

MANILA CALLING is recommended as an interesting example of Hollywood's contributions toward raising morale as America and its allies fought for victory in World War II. As we count our blessings at Thanksgiving this week, the film is also a timely reminder of those to whom we are grateful for sacrificing all for our freedom.

This post is adapted from a review originally published by ClassicFlix in 2014.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

This sounds a really quite worthwhile film, Laura, and one I have never seen. Very nice cast too, especially Nolan, as you say. He elevated any film he was in.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Jerry, it's definitely interesting and I hope you can check it out some time. As you say, a really nice cast led by Nolan. An interesting peek at wartime entertainment and
"messaging," also.

Best wishes,

6:06 PM  

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