Aunt Eulalia (1940)

In the sleepy seaside town of Tukkilahti (Uusikaupunki here in exteriors), local banker Mauri (Eino Jurkka) is so busy that he has three back-to-back meetings in the evening, and no time to even stop to consider the marriage proposal from local law student Eino (Onni Korhonen) to his daughter Kyllikki (the vivacious Tuire Orri). That’s fine because neither me, nor you, nor cast, nor crew seem to care either, and the gormless young-lovers subplot is largely ignored in favour of a series of comedy capers.

Mauri and his friend Roger (Arvo Lehesmaa) are packed off to Helsinki on business, ostensibly so that local rivals can manufacture a means of ensuring their dismissal. In fact, they are intent on tracking down “Aunt Eulalia”, a wealthy widow whom they believe to be the custodian of a large inheritance for them. However, Eulalia (Birgit Kronström) turns out not to be the daffy old lady the men were expecting, but an attractive young woman who sings raunchy songs in nightclubs, and has already remarried a wealthy doctor, thereby confusing the legal standing of her late husband’s will.

A series of manufactured misunderstandings soon ensue, with Mauri’s trustworthiness called into question and the mistaken belief that someone has kidnapped someone’s cat, culminating in a hot-headed council meeting in which Tukkilahti shop stewards demand Mauri’s resignation, only for the overlooked Eino to deliver an impassioned speech in his defence.  Mauri realises that Eino is ideal son-in-law material (albeit rubbish at pretending to play the piano, I will observe), Eulalia reveals that she has ten thousand marks each set aside for Mauri and Roger, and Roger’s long-suffering wife Edla (director Eino Jurkka’s wife Emmi) comments that none of this would have happened in the first place if the men had just listened to their womenfolk – a sentence that functions as both a plot synopsis and a review.

The Finnish press was more forgiving, thrilling to the adaptation of the original 1929 play by Hjalmar Nortimo, and praising the Sampo-Filmi production team for integrating many of the songs from the original with a bunch of sea-shanties and variety pieces. Reading between the lines of the reviews in Helsingin Sanomat and Uusi Suomi, everybody loved the original play so much that a cinema version would have to be terrible indeed to get a bad notice – the sole complaints, that Aunt Eulalia wasn’t in it enough (this is true – the film is halfway done before they get to the Helsinki trip) and that the script flagged a bit in places, pointedly single out some of the only elements changed for the movie version. On the subject of which, Suomi-Filmi’s Ilmari Unho again penned this one under a pseudonym as he had done with Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman (1939), but rather gave the game away by writing on Suomi-Filmi headed paper. Don’t ever let that boy write a detective drama!

One also suspects that there was something about Nortimo’s original satire of small-town concerns that people who’d moved to the big cities could feel superior about, and ten years after the original play, that was almost everybody! Damning with faint praise, the student paper Ylioppilaslehti commented that “by the middle, you don’t want to leave.” By the middle, I was shouting at them to get on with it, but then again, when they do get to Helsinki we are treated to a bizarre Tarzan-and-Jane dance sequence, a teenage ballet recital and Eulalia’s singing, all as part of the “variety” sequence at her night-club.

Truth be told, at the time of the November 1940 premiere of this film, it had been a while that the Finnish cinema had seen such an obvious adaptation of a repertory-theatre farce for the screen (compare to All Kinds of Guests and For the Money), so perhaps there was a hope among critics that audiences were ready for it. Ironically, however takings were only mediocre in Helsinki, and slightly better than average in the provinces. As a result, despite such widespread praise, this second feature film from the Sampo-Filmi company was its last. Sampo-Filmi would make a handful of shorts over the next few years, but hereafter only shows up on databases as a distributor for foreign movies, in which capacity it continued to function into the 1960s.

Seen with 21st century hindsight, Aunt Eulalia is most memorable for the brief opening glimpses it offers of 1940s Uusikaupunki, majestic ships in the harbour, and unpaved streets still spattered with horse manure, wooden single-storey shops, with modest signs put up in the days before marketing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

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