Lured by tales of bright lights and the big city, country girl Hulda Juurako (Irma Seikkula) comes to Helsinki to make her fortune, but finds herself the object of study in the salon of judge Soratie (Tauno Palo), where girls like her, migrating to urban areas, are regarded as “the pinnacle of social problems.” The outspoken and sharp-witted Hulda bristles at the class divisions of 1930s Helsinki, where servants are not permitted to use the same entrance as their masters, and buries herself in studies in the hope of bettering herself.
She does so, with Pygmalion-like success, despite the patronising attitude of the men around her, and the outright hostility of the women of Helsinki parlour society, who regard her as an upstart hick, devoid of manners or class.
The release of a complete Suomi-Filmi box set late last year, to complement the previous Suomen Filmiteollisuus box already in use, means that this blog can now start interpolating the works of two Finnish film companies from the 1930s, beginning with this, the first of several in which director Valentin Vaala adapted originals by the author Hella Wuolijoki.
This film has had a wild ride in terms of critical reception. It sold a million tickets at the box office in 1937, a tall order in a country with only three million inhabitants, while many of the locations became tourist spots in their own right. Some praised it as a piquant puncturing of bourgeois tastes, while some home-owners forbade their servants from watching it, lest they get dangerous ideas. The film was denigrated during the 1970s, but rediscovered in the 1990s, quite possibly because its approach to upstairs-downstairs interactions, while mansplainy and naïve by today’s standards, was nevertheless fiercely progressive when compared to similar films of its era. Certainly, Seikkula is an actress ahead of her time, boldly claiming her space on the screen, parading around the kitchen with her hands in her pockets and speaking with her mouth full, but most notably giving as good as she gets in fast-paced arguments with the menfolk. The film was remade in Hollywood as The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), for which Loretta Young won an Oscar, and in the 1990s, Kari Uusitalo selected it as one of the Top 100 Finnish films of the twentieth century.
But there’s more, because the class tensions of this film have, deep, deep roots in Finnish identity, back to the Red-versus-White conflict of the Civil War, and even further to the Fennicisation of its upper class in the late 19th century – Mr Soratie, it is revealed, was once the more Swedish-sounding Mr Sanmark, but changed his name along with many other Finns. Author Hella Wuolijoki (1886-1954) was a vehement left-winger and Communist sympathiser, and long suspected by the Finnish police of being a Russian sleeper agent. She would, eventually, be arrested for harbouring a Soviet spy in 1943, and sentenced to life imprisonment, although she only served a few months before her release, and soon after becoming a politician in the Finnish People’s Democratic League, a king-making left-wing alliance in post-war politics.
All of which seems a world away from a spunky country girl, singing to herself as she washes the windows while perched precariously on a sixth-floor balcony, but let’s not forget that in the same year, the rival company Suomen Filmiteollisuus released The Assessor’s Woman Troubles, supposedly a light-hearted comedy, promoted with a shot of Aku Korhonen literally raising his fists to a cowering Laila Rihte. Hulda is a creature from a different dimension, who believes that a simple education will turn her into a better person, ready to stand up to the braying ninnies in the parlour who think that they are smarter than her because their husband bought them a nice necklace. She is shown climbing the steps of the polytechnic in a seasonal montage, inadvertently foreshadowing a similar march of progress in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex (2018). She is in fact, the first of several powerful women to appear in screen adaptations of Wuolijoki’s books plays, although the following year’s The Women of Niskavuori (1938) would not have quite such a happy ending.
[The DVD of this film also came with a seven-minute documentary Vaala’s Film Rolls, about the work of the director Valentin Vaala.]
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.