Department Store Lapatossu & Vinski (1940)

Workshy layabouts Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen) and Vinski (Kaarlo Kartio) are reduced to reading recipe books to stave off hunger, when they suddenly find themselves inheriting a department store. They throw themselves into swindling the public by over-charging for material goods instead of their usual hustles, only to be plunged into a price war with Senttinen (Toppo Elonperä), the dastardly owner of the rival store across the street. Senttinen, meanwhile, hopes to seduce the innocent Kirsi (Laila Rihte) a woman who mistakenly believes that her beloved Erkki (Onni Korhonen) has been killed in the war.

The critic for the Helsingin Sanomat was unforgiving – noting that while there was indeed an actual plot, huge chunks of Tavaratalo Lapatossu & Vinski were devoted to bloated comedy sidebars, as well as two pointless musical interludes, common in Finnish film since the late 1930s. This seems a trifle unfair on the Lapatossu franchise, both former instalments of which followed a similar pattern of letting Korhonen and Kaartio steamroller a series of comedy set-ups through the middle of an otherwise gormless romance among the supporting cast.

In fact, it’s the pointless comedy business that supplies the most memorable moments of this film, particularly in the opening reel, as Vinski pleads that they should find some work so they should not go hungry, only for Lapatossu to grimly intone that work is a serious business, as if his companion has just proposed strolling into Mordor. Lapatossu and Vinski capitalise on the locals’ love of lining up for bargains (Finns, as the saying goes, “will stand in line for a free bucket”), by creating a fake queue for a non-existent sale. They then make their way back down the line, selling their places in the queue, before announcing that the “sale” has ended before anyone can get in. Similarly, once they take over the store, they try to tart themselves up as salesman, resulting in a pair of camp toadies like the “Suits-You-Sir” tailors, ably assisted by Jacob Furman (last seen as a tap-dancing telegram boy in SF Parade) and a robot dancing instructor.

Whereas Lapatossu & Vinski in Olympic Fever (1939) clocked in at a surprisingly short running time, this sequel is bulked out by a far more cunning means, stretched to feature length in part by a long, rambling closing speech, as Lapatossu ties up the plot strands and leaves his store to the young couple. Director Toivo Särkkä shoots the whole address in a single take – Lapatossu is giving a prepared speech and so is even permitted a crib sheet in front of him – and tries to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with occasional cutaways to the crowd plainly filmed at a different time. It’s a clever way to stretch out the film by eight minutes, but it is also a tediously Finnish way of doing so.

After the film’s opening in November 1940, there was a certain degree of excitable trilling in the press about the surname-less newcomer “Annakaarina” (in fact Kaarina Salonoja, who had been previously glimpsed in Have I Arrived in a Harem? and The Culprits? both in 1938), whose Karelian accent was a bit of over-the-border exotica for the Finns, not unlike Catherine Zeta-Jones going full-on Welsh. But despite an electrifying smile and killer cheekbones, she, like her co-star Laila Rihte, is somewhat defeated by frumpy austerity-era fashions and servant headscarves, and it doesn’t help that the script takes her ingénue role to breathless, Bible-thumping extremes. I confess I had a bit of trouble following the Karelian lines, which sounds like Finnish put through an Estonian wringer, but clearly the cast have much the same problem, too, with Vinski reduced to smiling and nodding at some of Hilma’s weirder vocabulary. The sudden presence of Karelian accents in Finland, of course, was a matter of some contemporary notice, with so many refugees from east Finland flooding into the country – a phenomenon also referenced in the same year’s Anu and Mikko and Foxtail in the Armpit.

The whole film is tinged with tragedy, starting with its matter-of-fact incorporation of the recent (and as it would turn out, ongoing) war into the romantic subplot. Erkki (Onni Korhonen) has lost his arm in the conflict, and mistakenly believes that his betrothed Kirsi (Laila Rihte) will no longer love him. Ihantala, the Karelian village where much of the action takes place, would prove to be the site of the apocalyptic battle of Tali-Ihantala four years after this film was released. It, along with 10% of the rest of pre-war Finland was trimmed off by the Soviets, drastically altering the shape of the map that forms this film’s opening shot. Today, as part of the lost lands of Karelia, it is the Russian town of Petrovka. And this would prove to be Kaarlo Kartio’s last film, since he would die before completing his next. Confined to character roles since his star turn in Scapegoat (1935), the Lapatossu films were his last chance to shine as a leading man. At least in this one he got the girl, if only for about half a minute.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

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