Engineering student Ari Karma (Tauno Majuri) tries to pitch an innovative motorcycle design to industrialist Mr Virmala (Hugo Hytönen) but is laughted out of the presentation. Undeterred, he vows to create a motorcycle that will trounce the Salama (“Lightning”) factory model at the next big race. Meanwhile, Virmala’s spoilt daughter Arja (Helena Kara) heads off to the beach in a colossal sulk, because her father’s declining factory profits have deprived her of the all-expenses-paid trip to Paris that she was promised. Complaining to her increasingly distant boyfriend Jali (Ville Salminen), she rashly accepts a wager from her friends that she will be unable to work in a real job for more than three months.
These initially unrelated plots soon merge at Hauka Manor, where Arja, already fired from her first job for failing to correctly make coffee, is now working as the world’s worst kitchen maid, while Ari is moonlighting as a chauffeur in order to use the mansion’s garage as a place to build his wonder-bike. Amid a series of backstairs romances and kitchen disasters, Ari and Arja fall for each other, only for Jali to show up at a dinner party where Arja is a server. Ari misunderstands their conversation, and leaves in a rage, convinced that Arja is having an affair.
In the fateful motorcycle race, Arja shocks her father by not cheering for the Salama rider, but for the unknown Ari with his home-made bike. Ari’s design beats Jali on the Salama factory model, and in the celebrations, Ari and Arja are reunited, their true identities revealed.
Based on a 1932 Swedish film, itself deriving from a 1930 Norwegian novel by Sigrid Boon, In the Kitchen’s incredibly dull English title somewhat unfairly dooms it to sound like a crappy home farce, rather than, a multi-location comedy, shot not only in several Finnish towns, but also across the water in Tallinn at the Kloostrimetsa race track — the first “international” Finnish film I can recall in this watchathon. The film went into production shortly after the success of the similar Have I Arrived in a Harem? (1938), and was originally set to star Olavi Reimas, who has been similarly chasing posh totty in Rich Girl (1939) and Green Gold (1939). However, filming was split on either side of the Winter War, during which Reimas was wounded, leading to his replacement with Tauno Majuri. But Majuri does fine in his new role, while Helena Kara, ever bright-eyed and perky onscreen since her star-turn in The Bachelor Patron, is a fine foil.
Kara, in fact, was paused on the brink of meteoric success in Finnish film. She was already a popular star, and was one of three actresses put on a permanent salary by Suomi-Filmi, each of them notably without a background in theatre. However, her former flatmate Sirkka Sari died in a tragic accident on location for Rich Girl, while the third actress, Tuulikki Paananen from The Jaeger’s Bride (1938) fled for America with the outbreak of war. This left Kara as the undisputed queen of Suomi-Filmi, a role she sealed early in 1940 by marrying the studio head and sometime director Hannu Leminen, with whom she would work on a dozen later films.
Not for the first time, Finnish film flirts with the difference between “upstairs and downstairs” as a poor little rich girl cosplays as a working-class servant, learns a little bit about life (in particular, the powerlessness of the subaltern class to defend itself against accusations of theft), and eventually gets the rich boy she deserves. The press reacted with customary Finnish understatement, with Eila Paicheff in Ilta-Sanomat damning it with the faintest of praise: “Two hours spent In the Kitchen is undeniably fun,” she conceded, “and it probably fulfils its purpose.” Latter-day critics have been far kinder; the same newspaper’s Heikki Kataja observed in 1977 on its television broadcast that it featured “witty romance, carefree beautiful people, and pre-war domestic film-making at its most typical, if not least-worst.” Displaying what, for a Finn, was unbridled exuberance, Arto Pajukallio in a 1989 issue of Katso admitted that it was “in some places, a little bit fun, in others, even thrilling.”
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.