Taxi driver Tanu (Tauno Palo) is in love with Ansa (Ansa Ikonen), but she is suffering the unwelcome attentions of her tour-bus driver Jopi (Joel Rinne). After she rebuffs Jopi’s handsy molestations, Jopi feigns ignorance of the bracelet she is wearing – she had told him that it was lost property awaiting return to its owner, but he allows her boss Mr Anger (Kaarlo Angerkoski) to believe that she has stolen the bracelet from a tourist. Fired from her dream job, Ansa ends up working back in her mother’s kiosk, where she slowly warms to the earnest and similarly hard-up Tanu.
With a plot that could have been written on the back of a beermat, a title that might as well have been Finnish Film Company Film, and a cast that doesn’t even bother to come up with names for their characters, SF-Paraati is an odd confection, shot during the summer of 1939, but mothballed for a year as the Finns were plunged into the Winter War. Although surely beaten to the punch by The Two Vihtors (1939), it was intended as “Finland’s first musical film” by writer Tapio Piha – a plot as a thin excuse for a “revue”, cramming as many songs as possible into the narrative, and utilising the regular players of the Suomen Filmiteollisuus studio. Piha was so sure of who he wanted for most of the roles that he wrote in the real actors’ names as place-holders, most of which survived into the film’s final cut. The original title, however, Helsinki Sings, was changed at the last moment.
It was released in May 1940, after the Finns had fought the Russians to a standstill in Karelia, and signed away a huge chunk of their borderlands. This unexpected development adds a particular note of pathos to the film’s subplot, which Toppo (Toppo Elonpëra}, a Finn from the Russian side of the border, arrives in town in search of his missing brother Aku (Aku Korhonen). The film is also the last appearance for Kaarlo Angerkoski, who died shortly after his shots were completed, and for teenage tap-dancer Jacob Furman, who would leave cinema behind and go on to become a jazz drummer (he does, in fact, also sneak into the same year’s Lapatossu & Vinski’s Department Store, although he is credited there as Jaakko Vuormaa).
Owing much to the let’s-do-the-show-right-here attitude of the US hit Footlight Parade (1933, released in Finland under the title of Shanghai Lil) SF-Paraati was planned as an international film to wow visitors and would-be visitors for the Helsinki Olympics, scheduled for 1940 but cancelled because of WW2. Much is made of the multinational flags adorning the boulevard in Central Helsinki, with the Nazi swastika given pride of place, and Ansa Ikonen effortlessly switches between English and German as she tells her tourist clients that she will show them “the capital of Finland” – although if they hadn’t worked out where they were by the time they were on a bus in the centre of town, I’d say they were past helping.
For the first five minutes we are treated to Ansa’s bus tour of the Helsinki sights, including Kaivopuisto, the statue of Mänttä, and the Kappeli esplanade, where kiosk owner Siiri Angerkoski (suddenly and shockingly white-haired) and florist Aku Korhonen dance like a pair of bell-ends to a military marching band. We see the street that would soon be renamed Mannerheimintie, and even the 1931 parliament building, which is apparently the “most up-to-date parliament in the world.”
But this is all set dressing for the musical plot of the film, as Tanu and Ansa become known throughout Helsinki for their self-penned duet, “The Song of Love.” They briefly fall out when they argue over how the music should be locked down, leading to a live stand-off between two rival orchestras, with Tanu conducting the boys on brass, and Ansa conducting the girls on strings, and the whole song turning into a garbage fire. They are, of course, both ultimately proved right, with their variant tunes functioning as point and counter-point when they are eventually forced to sing them both together.
For a film that makes such a big deal of music, the visuals are oddly ignorant of how music actually works. As in the earlier Red Trousers (1939), footage of marching bands show soldiers excitably banging drums that are making no sound, while Tanu is somehow able to stop playing his saxophone in the middle of a number without any noticeable change to the tune when he does so. But Tanu and Ansa are made for each other, since both of them are obsessed with songs, singing snatches at each other as if they are in a Baz Luhrmann musical, not out of any evasion of copyright, but because they are trying to come up with the hit of swinging Helsinki for the summer.
SF-Paraati is a sweetly endearing film. It is truly remarkable how little central Helsinki has changed in the last eighty years, and the grungy focus-pulling, which is often a few seconds behind the action, makes the whole thing seem as if it was snatched on the run. Much of the music is diegetically convincing – we see Tanu putting his song together in pieces, and then see it as it spreads like a meme through the population, sung at first at an outdoor piano near Ansa’s kiosk, and then picked up all over Helsinki, heedless of the class divide, sung by mothers to their babies, and secretaries in a typing pool, before getting the big band treatment at a dance hall. In a moment of meta comedy, Tanu is chewed out by the police commissioner for writing songs instead of doing his job, although you had to know that the commissioner is played by the film’s composer, Georg Malmsten, to understand why this is funny.
Inevitably, the film ends with big song-and-dance number, prolonged for two or three minutes, it seems, solely so that the pretty violinists can dance around in their underwear to take the film over the line to feature-length. Ansa and Tanu kiss and make up, their song is a big success, and their friends and family cheer them on from the audience. The Karelian brothers Aku and Toppo are also finally reunited, but in a feature of the film’s outdoor-broadcast quality, they drift in and out of focus and their dialogue stumbles over itself, as if not only their joy and surprise is real, but so, too is the unreadiness of the cameraman, who has had to scramble to capture a moment that is spontaneous and unexpected.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films, so you don’t have to.