Manila Calling (1942), a new release 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 communication 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 find food and water on the plantation, also, but discover there's nothing, and the situation grows direr 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 has the misfortune to be stranded after the invasion.
Some of the men work to repair a crash-landed Japanese plane hoping to fly Edna and a couple of wounded men off the island. The rest of the men accept 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 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 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 flag-waving, triumphant victory, but 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 the 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 always interesting to watch.
Nolan has the most screen time of the ensemble, 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 Cornel Wilde's career, 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 he 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 mysterious past. In one of the most touching scenes, she helps the dying Irishman Tim (James Gleason) 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 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.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.