Based on a 1921 novel by Kersti Bergroth, Rich Girl premiered in September 1939, just before the Soviet Union would bring peace tumbling down. It is suffused with flapper-era jazz, born both from its 1920s origins and a certain, desperate attempt to feel good in the face of impending conflict.
Anni Hall, no really, is the titular rich girl played by Sirkka Sari, revealed in a prolonged montage of wakings, dressings, washings and nights out, as she busies herself with the apparently exhausting job of doing nothing in Helsinki.
“All this riding and dancing is starting to feel retarded,” she says – the English subtitles presumably also belonging to a less enlightened age. But her friend Lea (Lea Joutseno) suggests that they go off somewhere exciting and strange. For a moment, there is a tantalising prospect that his film will take Finns off to Morocco or Iceland, but no, things take a different turn when Anni’s horse is spooked by a car in the road, and the upheaval causes her and her friend Lea to meet the handsome Mr Vinter (Olavi Reimas).
Love is in the air for the rich girls, but only once they have vaguely come to appreciate the message that money isn’t everything (although as the film inadvertently implies, IT REALLY HELPS). Particular fun is had at the expense of Edla (Eija Londén) a loan-shark’s daughter who cluelessly bounds over the class fences when she attracts the marriage proposal of the well-to-do Lasse (Uolevi Räsänen). At least there is something interesting about Edla – as the film relentlessly drives home, the main cast have nothing in their lives but sailing and riding, leaving them even boring themselves.
“What are your hobbies?” Anni asks Allan (Turo Kartto).
“Same as yours,” he shrugs, in a conversation liable to be repeated on Tinder all over contemporary Finland.
Anni attempts to take poor-girl Irja (Irma Seikkula) under her wing, but only frustrates her by offering solutions to her love life and career that require a privileged easy access to wealth. She pleads the potions and lotions she offers her are gifts, but is scolded for not understanding that Irja will not be able to afford to replace them once they are gone.
The film is infamous in Finnish cinema history for the tragedy that hung over it. After her star turns in The Women of Niskavuori and The Man from Sysma, this was Sirkka Sari’s third and last film, and premiered two months after its lead actress had died in a freak accident towards the end of filming. Finishing early one day due to bad weather, the cast retired to Hotel Aulanko in Hämeenlinna, where, Sari went to the roof to see the view with a man she had met. He took the elevator, she took the stairs. He arrived on the roof but found no sign of her.
Her body was recovered soon after from the hotel furnace, into which she had tumbled down a chimney from the roof. It has always been presumed that she mistook the chimney for an observation platform, discovering a moment too late that it had no floor. The film was completed without her, and she was buried in the church where she had planned to get married in 1940. Sari’s scenes were completed with a body double.
The grisly scandal did the film no harm at the box office, but is pretty much all it is remembered for. That’s something of a disservice to the young singer Olavi Virta (“Finland’s Bing Crosby”), who turns up briefly here crooning in a night club, and would go on to become one of the greatest Finnish stars on or off-screen.
Five decades later in 1993, Tapani Maskula in the Turun Sanomat argued that Rich Girl was a deeply under-rated film, far ahead of its time, praising its nuanced ability to see both sides of the class divide. I think that’s rather forgiving for a movie that ends with Mr Vinter revealing to Anni’s parents that he was only pretending to be a workman all along, and that their daughter has cleverly fallen in love with a Rich Boy.
The DVD includes a repeat of What is Suomi-Filmi?, as well as the short Pelle-Petteri and The Height of Fashion, an advertorial of some of the best in European fashions, just before the women of Europe would spend the next five years making their clothes out of old potato sacks.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.