Carefree Finnish nobleman Arnold (Tauno Palo) makes the mistake of beating a Russian prince at cards, and is challenged to a duel over the attentions of a lady. Fearing he is wanted for murder, he flees from St Petersburg back to his native land, switching clothes and identities on the train with a violinist. Hiding out among circus folk, he becomes the unwitting centre of a love triangle between an acrobat and a strongwoman, and has to flee once more, throwing in his lot with a band of gypsies who love his violin-playing.
He soon charms local lady of the manor, Helena (Ansa Ikonen), who is torn between the man she believes to be little more than a tramp, and local rich boy Eric (rent-a-cad Jorma Nortimo, sneaking back in front of the camera after many months directing behind it). Arnold plays up his vagabond status, wriggling out of an illegal fishing charge by pretending he can’t read the sign, and eventually accepting Helena’s charitable offer of a low-ranking job at her mansion in order to “better himself”. The two would-be lovers are surprised by the apparently justifiably jealous Eric, leading to a tense wedding in which Arnold and his gypsy band dominate proceedings. Arnold and Helena elope, only for him to drive her up to his own family mansion, and reveal that he has, somewhat cruelly, been lying to her all along.
All’s well that ends well, because he’s rich.
Leading man Palo is initially unrecognisable beneath a 19th-century moustache, in a film that comes loaded with baroque, imperial sets, hearkening back to the Bad Old Days when Finland was but a Grand Duchy within the Tsar’s Empire, and even posh Finns were little more than servants to the Russians. Much of the fun derives from the slurry of women that Arnold leaves spattered in his wake, including Athalia (Lida Salin), the incredibly enthusiastic circus strongwoman, and Cleo (Laila Jokimo), the lithe acrobat. Regina Linnanheimo in a black curly wig is uncharacteristically joyous and smouldering as “Rosinka the beautiful gypsy girl” for whose affections Arnold briefly wrestles, before being told something borderline racist about how “gypsies should keep to their own kind.”
Of course, he’s also “keeping to his own kind,” pursuing the usual wet-lipped and grasping Finnish film romance of a woman with pots of cash, although one imagines that the producers would plead that, at the time she elopes with him, Helena doesn’t believe he has two pennies to rub together. Ansa Ikonen’s face, in the final scene, is a picture of wounded pride, as she gets a happy ending, but only through a deception that has been perpetrated on her for the entire movie. She genuinely looks like she’s going to slap him, and then she actually does. Their romance is only saved at the last moment by Arnold’s fearsome mother (Elsa Rantalainen), who literally commands them to kiss – a dramatic device we have seen before in The Regiment’s Tribulation and Did Emma Laugh at the Sergeant.
The “Vagabond’s Waltz” was originally a Swedish tune written in 1909 by J. Alfred Tanner. It was the film director Toivo Särkkä who decided that such a well-known ditty deserved a film built around it, in a sort of precursor to modern juke-box musicals. He threw 50,000 marks at the writer Mika Waltari, whose summery script was then lensed in the dark and rainy days of a Finnish autumn, leaving the cast looking somewhat drab and bedraggled when they are supposed to be having fun.
Despite such tribulations, the film became one of the most popular ever at the Finnish box office, circulating in a dozen prints and making it as far afield as Bulgaria and Turkey. “One of the finest products of the Finnish film industry,” enthused the unimpressable Paula Talaskivi in the Ilta Sanomat. “A beautiful, glossy picture,” agreed Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti. “The viewer is happy to forget all the impossibilities of the plot for a couple of hours and surrender to the flow of events when they happen quite effortlessly and in a brisk good-natured way.”
“The film is the Finnish counterpart to the melodrama Gone with the Wind,” wrote Antti Lindqvist in Katso magazine in 1990. “Both works nostalgically describe the idyll of a bygone era that never existed.”
The real stand-out star, however, is Regina Linnanheimo, usually a bored-seeming and often sulky blonde onscreen, suddenly transformed into a vivacious dancer with flashing eyes. Maybe it was the wig?
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films, so you don’t have to.