Finland’s first science fiction film “Hormones on the Loose” from 1948 doesn’t boast a mad scientist as much as a mad patient. In this screwball comedy a stuck-up businessman realises his life is much better when an injection he receives reduces his mental state to that of a child’s. While it fails as a crazy-comedy, it has decent production values and naive charm. (4/10)
Hormoonit valloillaan. 1948, Finland. Directed by Orvo Saarikivi. Written by Orvo Saarikivi & Armas J. Pulla. Based on novel by Armas J. Pulla. Starring: Joel Rinne, Hilkka Helinä, Reino Valkama, Rauha Rentola, Lasse Pöysti. Produced by Risto Orko. IMDb: 5.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Väinö Kehkonen (Joel Rinne) is the director of a struggling business in Helsinki, Finland. He also happens to be an unbearable bore and push-over, to the point that his beautiful wife Helena (Hilkka Helinä) has started dating his hunky employee Kivi (William Markus), who is secretly swindling the company out of its profits. At a dinner reception, the Kehkonens and their business rivals, the Ärmäläs (Reino Valkama and Rauha Rentola) hear about a new hormonal treatment by a certain Doctor Leander Tiburtus Puosu (Arvo Lehesmaa) that will revert the patient to the mental stage of a child. Spurred on by the women, the two men reluctantly agree that all four of them submit to Puosu’s treatment, which consists of a simple injection of a serum.
Rejuvenated in spirit, the quartet wreaks havoc on the town, playing hijinks and pulling childish pranks. Having had their fun, however, Helena and the Ärmäläs decide that enough is enough, and visit Dr. Puosu for their antidote. Väinö, however, refuses. For the first time since childhood he is enjoying his life, and his eccentric behaviour even seems to be good for business, as he finally picks up the courage to investigate Kivi’s embezzlement and impresses the manager of a big company by conducting a crucial partnership negotiation wearing an “Indian” head dress and playing with toy trains. And he is spurred on by the prank-prone office boy Pena (Lasse Pöysti), who now has a newfound respect for his boss. The serum also seems to awaken long-forgotten feelings for his wife and after some hesitation towards the state of her husband, Helena ultimately finds that this new Väinö is a lot more fun, both in and out of bed, than the old, prudish stiff she used to be married to.
One could be forgiven for thinking this Finnish screwball comedy was inspired by the Hollywood blockbuster Monkey Business (1952) starring Cary Grant, which has a distinctly similar plot. But in fact Hormoonit valloillaan was made four years prior, in 1948. The title of the movie can be translated as “Hormones on the Loose” and it was adapted from the novel Hormoonit hallitsee (“Hormones Rule”) by author Armas J. Pulla and published in 1946. The adaptation was done by Pulla himself along with director Orvo Saarikivi.
Hormoonit valloillaan has the distinction of being the first Finnish science fiction film, making Finland the second Nordic country to enter the SF movie business. Denmark was of course the forerunner with silent classics like The End of the World (1916, review) and A Trip to Mars (1918, review). Norway would follow suit in 1956 with the near-future drama Kvinnens plass (“A Woman’s Place”) and Sweden — sort of — in 1959 with Invasion of the Animal People, which was largely an American production filmed in Sweden. The history of cinema in Finland goes back a long way: The Lumière Brothers held their first screening in Helsinki as early as 1896, and in 1904 the first Finnish short film was screened. The first feature film was produced in 1911, but during the politically unstable years of the 1910’s, when Finland was still a part of the Russian Empire, film production was almost negligible. Industry picked up in the twenties and entered a Golden Age after the coming of sound in the early thirties, when the director of Finland’s dominating film company Suomi-Filmi was ousted and founded rival studio Suomen Filmiteollisuus, or SF for short.
The competition between the two large studios, and a number of smaller ones, proved fruitful, as both the quantity and quality of Finnish movies rose rapidly. Nationalist themes dominated the scene in the young republic, having won its independence in the aftermath of the Soviet revolution at the tail end of WWI, followed immediately by a bloody civil war between socialists and capitalists. Rural drama and comedy were the dominating genres, and in the thirties the movie business became highly professionalised, with the larger studios acquiring their own stables of actors, directors, writers and crew, modelled on the Hollywood studio system. Film production sagged during WWII, but bounced back after Finland’s two wars with USSR. In the thirties Suomi-Filmi paired actors Tauno Palo and Ansa Ikonen, who became the most legendary movie couple of Finnish film history. As a complement, or a B team, if you wish, the studio set up Joel Rinne and Hilkka Helinä, the two leads of Hormoonit valloillaan, both distinguished theatre actors in their own right, as were most movie actors in Finland at the time. 1948 was a record year for the Finnish film history, with heavier movies, so called “problem films” taking their place beside comedies, melodramas and costume dramas.
Hormoonit valloillaan is a classic fairy-tale based on the age-old premise of a self-centered, rude character confronted with the results of his behaviour, thus learning to live and love to the fullest. The prototype for this kind of story is, naturally, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a story which has lent itself well to numerous SF adaptations, one of the earliest being Richard Ganthony’s play A Message from Mars (1893), filmed in 1920 (review). In Hormoonit valloillaan there is no Martian taking Väinö on a tour through the misery he leaves in his wake, but youth serum works as a medium for the main character to find the curiosity and courage to investigate his life and the world around him.
As mentioned, the film is based on a novel by Armas J. Pulla. Pulla, born in 1904, was an extremely prolific writer, producing over 80 novels in his career, in a number of genres, although he is best known for his humorous output and army-based adventure comedy novels, hugely popular during the war and post-war years. He had huge success with a 14-book series about sergeant major Ryhmy and ensign Romppainen (known as the Ryhmy ja Romppainen series), which also served as propaganda books during WWII. But aside from his folksy humour and nationalist tendencies, Pulla was a well-read reporter and artist and held high positions in the advertising business. He was also an expert on French history and culture and wrote a number of historical novels set in France, which appealed to the academic and culture elite of Finland. He wrote a number of theatre plays, some original and some adapted from his books, including one based on Hormoonit valloillaan. While not exactly considered a classic, it is still being performed occasionally. Pulla also collaborated with the famed Mika Waltari, co-writing adventure novels under the shared pseudonym “Captain Leo Rainio”.
Hormoonit valloillaan was produced by Suomi-Filmi, the country’s oldest and largest film studio, and although decidedly not a prestige project, the routine, talent and resources show. As far as production values or technical and artistic qualities, Hormoonit valloillaan is light years ahead of, for example, the horror comedies being churned out by Hollywood’s Poverty Row studios, and could perhaps be compared rather to Warner’s SF B movie screwball comedy The Body Disappears (1941, review), sans the special effects and the casual racism. The direction by Orvo Saarikivi is workmanlike and without finesse, and some of the setups seem downright lazy. On the other hand, there’s a lot of nice location footage from the streets of Helsinki and some beautiful shots from the city’s rooftops. If nothing else, they will appeal to those interested in seeing what Finland’s capital looked like in the forties. Veteran Saarikivi, primarily a comedy director, made his comeback to Suomi-Filmi with Hormoonit valloillaan, having been previously with SF. This was to be his last feature film, and he later commented in typically dry Finnish fashion that in hindsight he “might as well have passed on making the movie”. Disillusioned with the lack of artistic ambition in the Finnish movie business, he spent his last professional years as the head of Suomi-Filmi’s short film department, “churning out commissions by the bulk”.
Orvo Saarikivi had one other run-in with science fiction: In 1950 he directed a 12-minute short film, to be shown at the beginning of movie screenings, called Vuonna 2000, or: In the Year 2000. The film was commissioned by the Finance Ministry of a short-lived centre-right government and written by the ministry’s press officer Helena Kangastus. In essence, In the Year 2000 is a right-wing propaganda film criticising the left wing parties and unions in the year 1950 for demanding better working conditions and salaries and threatening with general strikes. However, what makes it interesting is its framing story, which takes the viewer to a future anno 2000, where a young pilot visits his grandfather asking him about history. In his futuristic TV lounge, the grandfather shows him an educational video about the end of WWII in Finland, and its economic rebuilding in the post-war years, ending on a tragic note, as the narrator explains that all progress came to a halt in 1950, when parties and organisations “drove their own interests and not that of the general good”, and the film ends with the young man realising the importance of pulling together and making personal sacrifices for the good of the nation. Of special interest is, of course, the futuristic sets and costumes, which are clearly inspired by the British 1936 film Things to Come (review).
Hormoonit valloillaan got mostly negative reviews upon its release. In the evening paper Ilta-Sanomat, Juha Nevalainen wrote: “It is false to assume that brawling, shouting, gasping, planlessly leaping, in a word a completely infernal cacophony and chaos is comedy. And if someone has a claim to the opposite, then at the most it is extremely cheap comedy. Any sense of proportion or good taste is absent from this film and its comedy”. Paula Taalaskivi at newspaper giant Helsingin Sanomat wrote that “only an audience member in the right mood and with very low expectations would have found it enjoyable”. Greta Brotherus in Swedish-language Nya Pressen was of the opinion that “if this film succeeds, one will lose one’s faith in the relative decency of the human intelligence”. Hans Kutter at Finland’s major Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet admitted the film’s qualities, but thought it tried to swallow more than it could chew: “The Finnish temperament and tempo is too leisurely for achieving the the right effervescence: the cheek and cockiness that “crazy” needs to be enjoyable. The idea of Armas J. Pulla’s script is not bad. We are all happiest when we are child-like. An often used trope in crazy, one that Frank Capra has spawned. But the merry-go-round doesn’t spin fast enough and the creativity doesn’t come close to where it needs to be.”
However, there were some who were not quite as negative, even appreciating the chaos. The pseudonym Tita in the weekly Appell wrote that “one happily forgives the film’s flaws in favour of its qualities”. And Kauko Peltola wrote for the regional newspaper Satakunnan Kansa: “The most important thing is that it moves along at a good pace and it’s funny: that is, the film itself is, and not just it’s adverts, which has been the case with many other movies. Even the most critical viewer will be swept along with the movie’s downright un-Finnish fluid narrative.”
Later reviewers have, on the whole, been critical of Hormoonit valloillaan. In an article for the magazine Ruumiin kulttuuri, Tapani Bagge notes the similarities to “Howard Hawks‘ masterpiece” Monkey Business, but states that “Joel Rinne was no Cary Grant and the direction by Orvo Saarikivi was not particularly agile”. In the evening paper Iltalehti Jyrki Laelma notes that author Pulla’s special blend of witticisms, verbal slapstick and odd ideas never translated well to film, “and neither does Hormoonit valloillaan“. Laelma notes that “the childishness sometimes overflows the brims: there was no need to try and fill the pot straight from the barrel”. Laelma gives the movie 1/5 stars. Newspaper Keskisuomalainen states that “the humour in old Finnish comedies is usually pretty stiff, and Hormoonit valloillaan is no exception”. In Finland’s leading newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, Pentti Avola writes that as a screwball comedy, the picture is an interesting experiment and an anomaly in Finnish movie history, but that compared to its US counterparts, it is “hopeless”.
I personally don’t think the film is hopeless at all. Sure, its clunky and it’s predictable and the direction is bland and the acting for the most part either amateurishly stiff or theatrically overblown. One could also say that it fails to properly take advantage of its nutty premise. But Hormoonit valloillaan has a certain childish charm and a few moments of sheer joy. The actors are all competent even if some of them don’t quite know how to behave in a screwball comedy like this. Its take on sexuality and lust is innocent by today’s standards, but there are some shots of partial nudity and exposed garter suspenders that probably wouldn’t have passed the Hays Code. On the whole, I find the film livelier and more unhinged than most movies made in Finland at the time, and I respect that ventures outside the decidedly narrow comfort zone of Finnish post-war farces. It is a bit too loud and obvious for its won good, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable Sunday afternoon comedy.
As stated, almost all actors in the film are seasoned stage veterans. Joel Rinne was attached to the Finnish National Theatre for nearly fifty years, from the twenties to the seventies, and achieved his greatest fame playing the legendary detective Palmu in four movies based on Mika Waltari’s novels in the sixties. As mentioned earlier, Rinne was paired with Hilkka Helinä during WWII as a romantic duo for Suomi-Filmi, and by 1948, the 51-year-old Rinne was admittedly a bit long in the tooth to make for a credible romantic interest for the almost 20 years younger Helinä. Rinne was awarded with the Jussi statue for best leading actor twice.
Hilkka Helinä, born 1916, began acting on stage in the late thirties, and was one of thousands of women serving in the voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation Lotta Svärd during WWII. In 1941 she was recruited to Suomi-Filmi, and unlike many female film actors avoided getting typecast as either ingenue or femme fatale, but naturally inhabited a range of characters. Never among the biggest stars in Finnish film, she was nonetheless a respected actor both in movies and on stage.
The Ärmälä couple was performed by Reino Valkama and Rauha Rentola. Valkama was known for his comedic roles both in film and on stage, and is remembered for playing the previously mentioned Ensign Romppainen in a number of Ryhmy ja Romppainen movie adaptations. Rauha Rentola was attached to the National Theatre for over 50 years and especially renowned for her roles in Eino Kalima’s Anton Chekhov adaptations. She appeared in more than 70 films in her career, making her the third most prolific female movie actress in Finland. She won a Jussi award for best female supporting actor thrice.
The most enjoyable actor in Hormoonit valloillaan is 21-year-old babyface Lasse Pöysti as the juvenile office boy, who gets a surprising amount of screen time. A former child actor, Pöysti was a star thanks to the leading role in a string of family-friendly movies about the Suominen family during the war years, and already a veteran in stage, both in Finnish and Finland’s second official language, Swedish. With time, Pöysti became one of Finland’s most respected and influential figures in Finnish theatre (as well as film), spawning something of a dynasty of actors and directors, with grandchildren Alma and Oskar Pöysti currently carrying on the family tradition, both in film and on stage. During his career Pöysti won six Jussi awards, became Finland’s first Theatre Professor, became artistic director at Sweden’s most prestigious stage, Dramaten and did a long career with wife Birgitta Ulfsson as establishing “The Little Theatre” in Helsinki as one of Scandinavia’s most interesting theatre houses. He has been awarded a Lifetime Jussi, the Pro Finlandia medal, and holds the rank of Knight in the French Legion of Honour. In Sweden he is best known as the Moomin Troll. I am privileged to have met Lasse Pöysti on a couple of occasions, even if he never remembered who I was. Sadly, Pöysti passed away in 2019.
Worthy of mention is also a young Kyllikki Forssell in a small role as a typist. Helsinki-born Forssell was a long-time actress and director, and one of Finland’s first female film directors. She was also active in local politics in the right-wing National Coalition Party. Forssell likewise passed away in 2019.
The music for Hormoonit valloillaan is not exceptional in any way, but pretty much what you’d expect for a film like this. Still, it is classy and never intrusive. Unlike a lot of music for farcical films of the era, it never feels plastered on or designed to especially highlight pranks and pitfalls, but follows the characters and the plot fluidly. Composer on the film was legendary composer, conductor and pianist George de Godzinsky, who worked with the National Opera the Swedish Royal Theatre and the Eurovision Song Contest, to name but a few. He composed so called light music, like schlagers and tango, and worked as composer and arranger for two of Finland’s most famous vocal groups. In addition, he was a prolific film composer, creating the scores for over 60 movies.
Hormoonit valloillaan. 1948, Finland. Directed & edited by Orvo Saarikivi. Written by Orvo Saarikivi & Armas J. Pulla. Based on novel by Armas J. Pulla. Starring: Joel Rinne, Hilkka Helinä, Reino Valkama, Rauha Rentola, Lasse Pöysti, Arvo Lehesmaa, William Markus, Kyllikki Forssell, Paavo Jännes, Uuno Montonen. Music: Georde de Godzinsky. Cinematography: Eino Heino. Art direction: Ville Hänninen. Sound: Hugo Ranta. Produced by Risto Orko for Suomi-Filmi.