Borrowing Some Matches (1938)

Fat old man Antti Ihalainen (Aku Korhonen) pops out to get some matches, and runs into his old friend, the widower Jussi Vatanen (Uuno Laakso), who has just hitched a new horse to his cart, and is on the road to give it a test. But Jussi is also in a celebratory mood, having waited a reasonable year since the death of his wife. Agreeing on a vague plan for finding Jussi a new bride, the two men go off on a drinking spree, forgetting all about the matches. They cause several accidents on the road, and start several fights, and as news of their escapades drift back to the farm, Antti’s family comes to believe that he has decided to abandon them and emigrate to America.

While his daughter Maija-Liisa (Ester Toivonen, in a wacky Princess Leia hair-do) cries on the shoulder of her idiot farmhand beau Ville (Joel Rinne), Antti and his drinking buddy become involved in chasing a piglet around the nearby town. Then they forget where they left the horse, so they steal another one.

They really should have called this one Dude, Where’s My Horse? At least Tulitikkuja lainamassa is mercifully short, and if the misunderstanding-about-man-off-on-a-common-errand plot is already tired and weak in Finnish film narrative (see, for example, The House at Roinila, 1935), there’s plenty of broad humour to be had. There’s also a lot of unintentional comedy provided by the cast, with Ester Toivonen entertainingly unable to take the plot seriously enough to weep convincingly, a piglet that often outperforms the professionals, and a series of policemen trying a little too hard to be funny, through outrageous facial hair and a running style inspired by the Keystone Cops.

For the 21st century viewer, there is also an intriguing glimpse at the customs and mannerisms of the era, not the least the ready way that the menfolk are prepared to trade their daughters in marriage, with only the merest acknowledgement that the ladies (still eight years away from the right to vote when the original story was written) might want a say in it. The cast also have a strange and stilted way of saying “America”, referring constantly to Amerriikka, as if they have misheard someone speaking of Amer-reich or Amer-riike, a mythical Land of Amer across the sea.

The Finns provide ample material for passing anthropologists with their custom of drinking coffee from a saucer (juoda tassilta), pouring their drink into a cup, staring at it for a while as if wondering what it is for, and then decanting it into a saucer so they can slurp at it like kittens. This was apparently the way of cooling one’s drink down faster – only the upper classes had the time to drink from one of those cup things. Antti also ostentatiously holds a sugar lump in his mouth as he drinks, the better to offset the bitter taste of his discount coffee.

Aku Korhonen reprises much of his Lapatossu schtick as the silly old Antti, adopting the one-eyed school of acting whereby winking constantly substitutes for any other expression. Notable in part for the degree to which the camera can’t keep its eyes off her is the 18-year-old former Miss Heinola, Nora Mäkinen, in the role of a young girl who attracts Jussi’s fancy. She has appeared in bit parts in a couple of previous Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, but here visibly shines.

The original novel on which the film was based was published in 1910 as by “Maiju Lassila”, a pseudonym for the left-wing radical author Algot Untola (1868–1918), who famously edited the last edition of the Työmies newspaper single-handed in 1918, even though there was nobody left in Helsinki to read it. As well as his exhortations to overthrow the state, he paid the bills by knocking out potboilers under a variety of names, with Borrowing Some Matches sharing shelf-space with his The Barn Boys, The Young Miller and Love. His life took him from what is now Russian Karelia to St Petersburg, and then Finland, where he fled after being implicated in a terrorist conspiracy. His first marriage ended within days, allegedly because Mrs Untola turned out to be a hermaphrodite. His second ended in tragedy when his child died and his wife poured sulphuric acid on his genitals. It ended under doubtful circumstances in 1918, when, captured by the White Guards and on the way to his execution in Helsinki, he either jumped from the deck into the icy waters, or was shot and pushed overboard. He was himself the subject of a biopic, the 1980 film Tulipää (Firehead), which concentrated on his radicalism and ignored his “Maiju Lassila” works entirely.

As if this couldn’t get any more surreal, the screenplay for Borrowing Some Matches was adapted by Jorma Nortimo, a regular player in front of the camera, appearing briefly here in a cameo as a disapproving magistrate. And because once wasn’t enough, the story was adapted as a film a second time, in 1980, the same year as the Tulipää movie pretended it didn’t exist.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

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