Cheeky soldier Malakias Paavonen (Kaarlo Angerkoski) is supposed to be peeling potatoes but is caught sculpting one, instead, into the image of a woman. The angry Sergeant Tiainen (Ossi Elstelä) orders him confined to kitchen duties for the duration of the ongoing military manoeuvres, which are just about to be thrown into chaos. Battalion commander Major Harteinen (Tauno Palo) insists on conducting the military exercise on the grounds of the Mäkipalo estate, chiefly because he has designs on the lady of the manor, Oili Mäkpalo (Ansa Ikonen).
For reasons that defy understanding, an earlier Suomen Filmiteollisuus military farce by “Topias” (Toivo Kauppanen), The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938), was one of the biggest successes of the decade at the Finnish box office. This half-hearted respray, which crams many of the same actors into similar roles and situations, was intended to rake in more money from the punters, but failed to garner quite the ticket numbers as its predecessor, both in the theatre in 1938 and at the cinema the following year. Notably, the outdoor location shots were all completed first to make the most of the short Finnish summer in June and July 1939. The interiors, comprising the bulk of the footage, were shot in September, when the decline in good weather would not be an issue. The film was planned for a national release in November, but was held up by the outbreak of war. A few scattered provincial screenings did occur before the official Helsinki opening night on 1st January 1940, which is why I, along with the Finnish film archives, continue to list this film as a 1939 release.
As with The Regiment’s Tribulation, (and indeed its 1939 imitation Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman) the most interesting element of Serenaadi Sotatorvella is the primitive nature of the military equipment. Paavonen’s mess unit entirely comprises horses and carts. The sergeant tries to interfere with Paavonen’s cooking of that old military staple, pea soup, which ends with a bag of salt dropped into the pot and a ruined meal. Paavonen falls for local milkmaid Sandra (Siiri Angerkoski), providing a rare element of meta-textual comedy, in which Kaarlo Angerkoski is obliged to woo the actress that everybody in the audience knew to already be his wife.
Unfunny comedy business is provided by Korni-Mikko (Toppo Elonperä), a venerable veteran of the Turkish Wars, determined to befriend the young Finnish conscripts and lead them in a bunch of hearty shanties – as with Our Boys in the Air (1934), the film that began this watchathon, the script repeatedly calls for the cast to burst into song in precisely the same way that Finns don’t.
Misunderstandings and hijinks subsequently ensue, the Major loses his trousers and mistakenly believes that Oili doesn’t love him, and all’s well that ends well in a war game that entirely downplays the vicious conflict that Finns were already knee-deep in by the time this film actually saw the light of day. In theatrical exhibition, it laboured under the unfortunate alternate title of Soldier Paavonen’s Lucky Pants.
Perhaps luxuriating in the fact they got to see the film before all those hipsters in Helsinki, the provincial press acted like it was the best thing since non-stick frying pans. “A great stimulant to the mind” wrote an anonymous local critic in Vaasa, where people are apparently easily impressed. “Vigorously and briskly performed,” wrote some toady in Tampere. It may well be that they were moved to give the film more credit than it deserved because like the same year’s Rich Girl, it was tinged with tragedy. Leading man Angerkoski died shortly after filming was completed, suffering a heart attack in Kotka at a stage performance of The Jäger’s Bride. He died in his wife’s arms, and the Finnish media made much of the punishing hours of Finnish film-making, and the toll they had taken on him in late-night shoots, coffee and cigarettes.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.