Foxtail in the Armpit (1940)

Evacuated from the city of Viipuri, recently lost to Russia in the war, Valle (Arvo Lehesmaa) sets up a musical group with his old war buddies Nalle (Leo Lähtenmäki) and Jalmar (Martti Lohikoski). The boys are soon thrown into the company of a trio of fun-loving office ladies, who unwittingly drag them into a series of misunderstandings about a valuable fox-fur scarf that comes into their possession. Eventually, all’s well that ends well, three couples find love, but the women dutifully donate their engagement rings to the Finnish war effort, since every little helps.

Released in the last week of 1940 and not making it to many provincial theatres until the following spring, Ketunhäntä Kainulossa rounds up a bunch of B-list actors, overlooked by the Suomi-Filmi and Suomen Filmiteollisuus studios. Leading ladies Mirjami Kuosmanen and Aune Häme, for example, had only managed bit-parts in films for the majors, while Aino Angerkoski might have a familiar surname, but only because the recently deceased star Kaarlo Angerkoski was her brother. All gamely throw themselves into a farce that tries to make light of the war raging just outside – famously, Finland had banned dancing during the Winter War as a mark of respect to the hardships on the frontline, and the jazzy, toe-tapping resumption of fun times seen here would soon be repealed again when hostilities resumed. As a result, the cast desperately try to cram in as much singing and dancing as they can, from impromptu a cappella singalongs on apartment stairwells, to a full-on variety show that bulks out the running time in the last reel.

The film’s odd title derives from a Finnish slang term – a foxtail in the armpit, not unlike a wolf in sheep’s clothing, denotes a wily predator trying to pass himself off as something he is not. In this case, it refers to a folktale about a fox trying to pass as human by cramming itself into an overcoat, only for its tail to poke out, giving it away. It is also the title of one of the many songs sung during the course of the film – in this case, at a bizarre masked ball that the cast attends, and where people throw paper streamers in an attempt to make things more interesting. The song is reprised at the end in a song-and-dance number in which Lähteenmäki is surrounded by a bunch of lissome Finnish girls in hotpants, so life could be worse.

The film was written to order by Reino “Palle” Hirviseppä, a prominent radio scenarist hired to dash something off to capitalise on the armistice. His revue-style caper (compare to the contemporary S-F Paraati and the same company’s earlier Kaksi Vihtoria), throwing together a bunch of stock characters better known from Finnish radio, often lumbers towards incomprehensibility when divorced from the memes and call-backs of its original era. Hirviseppä openly feuded with director Blomberg over liberties taken with his script – rushed into production so fast there was no time to wait to shoot planned summer scenes, losing most of the first-choice cast to also-rans, and a bunch of rewrites that he regarded as ruinous. He would later comment that the premiere at the Helsinki Savoy was an unmitigated disaster, and that he was ashamed to be present. Audiences agreed, in a year for which cinema attendance was already in a slump – this was the fifth and last film for the production company Eloseppä, and its box-office failure caused the cancellation of the planned follow-up, Singing Cinderella (Laulava Tuhkimo).

The Helsingin Sanomat was unimpressed, with movie critic Paula Talaskivi archly noting that a movie billing itself as the “funniest Finnish movie of all time” failed to elicit a single chuckle in the cinema. Instead, she found it to be “the saddest thing imaginable,” betraying the audience’s trust by committing the most unforgiveable crime for any comedy: being boring. Olavi Vesterdahl was similarly damning in Tampere’s Aamulehti, berating the film for even bothering to staple its song-dance routines together with such a flimsy plot. The Swedish-language press commentary is beyond me, but I cannot resist sharing the Google translation of the review in Hufvudstadsbladet, which reads: “”This is an insertion for the whole of the landfill and the landfill of the landfill. However, the number of landfills used is not open to the public from the operative coupling of the ramp.” Say what you mean, Sweden.

Critics were more easily swayed in the Finnish provinces, where the Savo Sanomat called it a veritable “herring salad” (sillisalaatti – this is apparently a good thing if you come from Savo), and commented: “There’s such a vibrancy and momentum in the movie, so that no one sleeps at all while watching it. In places, the film touches such limits of respectability that it should be categorically kept from children.”

Two years later, director Erik Blomberg would marry leading actress Mirjami Kuosmanen, so I suppose someone found it raunchy enough outside Savo. Hirviseppä and Blomberg, however, never spoke to each other again, and were still bitter about the whole thing in interviews four decades later.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

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