Vacationers Aarne (Tauno Palo), a pharmacist, and Paavo (Leo Lähteenmäki), a lieutenant in the army, offer to help the flustered station-master Mr Virimäki (Jalmari Rinne) get back home from the Finnish countryside. The trio set out in a motorboat, in an attempt to catch the steamer or reach the train station, but engine failure and a dunking in the lake leaves the two Good Samaritans wet, naked and marooned on an island.
Dressed like Adam and a Little Bit Like Eve began life as a 1928 novel by Agapetus, the unfunny scribe who has bafflingly provided so many Finnish “comedies” of the 1930s. By the time this 1940 production rolled out, it had already been turned into a film in 1931, as Finland’s first partial “talkie”, starring Jalmari Rinne’s brother Joel, and would re-made in East Germany in 1959, and again in Finland in 1971.
Terrifyingly, Dressed Like Adam begins in song, as Aarne and Paavo dick around their campsite boiling water and singing about the joys of sunshine. Mercifully, however, they soon stop, and get on with the story, a veritable comedy of errors.
As the nervy Mr Virimäki, the unrecognisable Jalmari Rinne boasts a pair of buck teeth that only add to the impression he gives of being the ever-late White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. His panic is pointlessly overblown – the boys pick him up at the dockside mere moments after the steamer has left the harbour, and frankly if he had only stopped pratting around and threatening to swamp the boat, they could have easily caught up with it.
The set-up, of course, superficially recalls Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and since Finns are involved, one might readily imagine that this, too, would turn into a bunch of people wittering about pets and discussing imaginary illnesses. But no, because within minutes, the boat has broken down, Aarne and Paavo have lost their clothes, and Mr Virimäki is beset upon by a field full of cows. The location work was shot on the manor at Pyhäniemi, a manor near Hollola that can also be glimpsed in several other Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, including The House at Roinila (1935), All Kinds of Guests (1936), Seven Brothers (1939), and Serenade on a War Trumpet (1939). Its most recent use as a location was for Hella W (2011), a film about the writer Hella Wuolijoki, author of The Women of Niskavuori (1938).
The farce is inevitably compounded when we are introduced to Alli (Sirka Sipälä) and her coterie of beauties exercising in the forest – a bevy of Finnish women in industrial-strength swim-suits, rhythmically lifting medicine balls like a dehydrated Esther Williams routine. She, however, is merely a bit of local colour to distract from the actual drama, which is escaped prisoner Vilho Vikström (Yrjö Tuominen, who played Paavo in the previous 1931 version), hiding out in the forest. Having got into a fight with Vikström and stolen his clothes, Paavo is mistaken for the criminal and arrested by the local police. When Paavo doesn’t return that night, Aarne also swims to the shore in search of him, and ends up having to climb a tree to escape from a dog in Alli’s garden.
Alli throws Aarne some clothes, causing him to spend much of the next act dressed as (and mistaken for) a woman. Cross-dressing comedy then ensues, with actor Palo convincing playing the ingenue, all except for his broad shoulders and prominent hairy chest threatening to give him away… but then again, this is Finland.
To be frank, I see so much nudity in modern-day Finland that it is difficult to take the jeopardy in this film as anything but manufactured. When my neighbours have proclaimed Topless Thursdays down by the lakeside near my house, and there are more baps on show than a Burger King assembly line, the fact that Paavo and Aarne haven’t got any pants on doesn’t feel all that much of a big issue. Like many other Finnish farces of the period, Dressed Like Adam relies on unconvincing slapstick and misunderstandings that could reasonably be dispelled by people simply having a conversation. Before long, all three men are incarcerated on suspicion of being Vikström, singing at each other in jail while Alli roams the countryside in search of the real criminal, who has, of course, got into their boat and made himself ill drinking a bottle of something he thought was moonshine.
That’s not to say there aren’t some moments of genuine humour, such as Paavo introducing himself to Vikström in the forest, standing to attention and reciting his name and division within the Jyväskylä Regiment, but with his cock plainly waving in Vikström’s face. High-jinks inevitably ensue, with Aarne falling for Alli, who remains blissfully and somewhat worryingly unaware that he is a man – compare to similar gender-bending in the earlier The Man from Sysmä. By the time Alli was crawling into bed next to Aarne for an all-girls-together slumber party, and then demonstrating her exercises scandalously and boobily in the nude, I was tittering away like a 1940s Finn, and unexpectedly warming to a script from an author whose work I usually find about as welcome as a prostate exam. Possibly, the victory here does not belong to Agapetus, but to Nisse Hirn, the screenwriter who adapted his novel. Hirn was also responsible for The Man from Sysmä and The Bachelor Patron, but at this point in his career, his greatest works were still ahead of him.
Extra points awarded for Alli’s pert nipples, which manage to be prominently on display even when she is wearing clothes again, poking through her summer dress. I guess that’s why actress Sipilä got top billing, even though the film’s triumph, among audiences and critics, was Palo’s prolonged and often convincing experiment with what constitutes femininity in 1940s society.
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.