The Heath Cobblers (1938)

Cobbler’s son Esko (Unto Salminen) is excited about his forthcoming wedding to Kreeta (Ester Toivonen), but even as he delivers a monologue to thin air in his father Topias’s forest shack, he is clearly a few logs short of a sauna. Esko is a simpleton, kind-hearted but hapless, and his parents are trying to marry him off quickly before their foster daughter Jaana (Laila Rihte) gets hitched and qualifies for a long-coveted inheritance – I have no idea why the inheritance is contingent on two unrelated people racing to get married, but that’s the least of this film’s problems. Jaana has eyes for Risto (Vilho Ruuskanen, one of the worst actors I have ever seen), and the race is on to get to the church on time.

Originally written in Finnish by Aleksis Kivi, the stage version of Nummisuutarit won a national award in 1865, setting it up as one of the early examples of Finnish entertainment for the Finns, as opposed to art and literature forced on them in Swedish or Russian. I suspect that its pioneering role in Finnish-language drama left local audiences rather more forgiving of its clunky plot, but Toivo Särkkä’s dramatization for Suomen Filmiteollisuus does itself no favours by clinging to the small sets of the stage play without exploiting much of the potential of the camera. Instead, he acknowledges the power of cinema simply by zooming in on the leads’ faces while they declaim their lines. As the money-grabbing parents, Aku Korhonen and Siiri Angerkoski do their best with thin material, but it is difficult to love a “comedy” that derives its humour from the confusions of a retarded man and the lick-spittling greed of a pair of social climbers.

Aku Korhonen, however, steals every scene he is in, with Särkkä’s camera lingering lovingly on the gentle, sincere love he has for his son. Times change, and there was presumably nothing untoward about the characterisation of Esko as some sort of Holy Fool. Drunken old men witter about their plans for trading in young women, while as Septeus the sacristan, Eino Jurkka blunders through all the scenes wearing a ridiculous top hat like the king of the Oompa Lumpas. This, however, is not the most laughable headgear on show, since Ester Toivonen dons a massive spangly crown for her wedding (not to Esko, as it scandalously turns out), transforming herself into a human chandelier for a large chunk of the film.

I presume that the whole thing is supposed to be a celebration of Finnish culture and country life, but the whole thing seems like a ham-fisted school play, not the least when the big wedding scene turns out to be a half-hearted dance sequence to the music of an off-key fiddler.

All’s well, after an interminable series of delays, that ends well, with Jaana’s dad Niko (Yrjö Tuominen) turning out not to have been lost at sea after all, but blundering his way on a drunken journey (everybody is drunk) from Turku to Hämeenlinna. If this were the only artefact of Finnish culture to survive the apocalypse, you would be forgiven for thinking that Finland was a dismal backwater populated by addled old alcoholics and sulky ingénues, where the main topic of interest was who was going to marry whom, or who they really should have been marrying. It is difficult to imagine anyone liking this film, even the people who made it. What a load of cobblers.

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

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