The Betrothal of Student Pöllövaara (1920) A Silent Film Review

A Finnish short film about a young fellow who is just trying to announce his engagement but, alas, everything that can go wrong does. One of the early films of producer/director/screenwriter/actor/studio head Erkki Karu.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.

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Before we begin, this review was made possible with a lot of help. You know who you are.

One of the great tragedies of mainstream silent film discussion is that a handful of countries get the lion’s share of the attention (USA, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Sweden, etc.) but silent films were made on every continent and there are so many interesting pockets of creativity if you just look for them.

Wants to get married. Has no other vices.

Or, in this case, have them pointed out to you. You see, a large portion of Finland’s silent film heritage was made available in the epic Suomi-Filmi box set and it was anonymously sent to me for review.

I have big plans for this box but I tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to gathering information and was sidetracked with researching a particular film that was included. But perfectionism leads to procrastination and so I decided it was high time to throw myself into the deep end of the Finnish film pool, so I chose to review the first film on the first disc. (My big review is still on the way.)

An engagement party. We all know this cannot end well.

Also, I discovered that this review will publish on the exact day of the film’s anniversary. That’s right, The Betrothal of Student Pöllövaara premiered on February 16, 1920, so happy 100th anniversary.

This film and the studio that produced it were the brainchildren of Erkki Karu, who served as producer, screenwriter, director, actor, chief cook and bottle washer. He shrewdly chose smaller pictures to launch his Suomi-Filmi studio, learning the ropes of the narrative film trade and eventually building the biggest filmmaking house in Finland during the silent era.

The director attempts to make off with the bride.

Starting small was quite sensible as the 1910s were littered with studios that seemed so promising on paper. One only has to think of L. Frank Baum’s ill-fated Oz studio or the deaths of industry titans like the Edison and Lubin film companies, both of which shuttered before the dawn of the new decade.

So, small it was. In this case, a comedy short. If there’s one thing the movies have taught us, it’s that you should never under any circumstances try to get married. Whether due to mishap, misfortune or misbehavior, something is bound to go terribly wrong. But silly Pöllövaara (Väinö Lehmus) doesn’t know this and attempts to announce his engagement to his fiancée (Elli Karu) anyway.

The judge’s wife interferes.

To do so, he needs his announcement approved by a judge (Martti Tuukka) but he delivers the paperwork at the last possible minute. The reading of banns of marriage was (and still is in some cases) a tradition throughout Europe, spreading word of the impending nuptials and as such was a prudent safeguard against, say, a dark and brooding lord of the manor marrying his illegitimate daughter’s teenage governess while his insane and violent first wife is locked in his attic.

Nothing so dramatic goes wrong here. Instead, by accident or through malice, the judge’s wife (Elsa Aarni) writes that Pöllövaara intends NOT to marry his fiancée on the announcement papers. Meanwhile, Pöllövaara is having a hard time keeping his potential bride’s attention because the head waiter of the restaurant (Erkki Karu) flirts shamelessly with her. (Which is pretty funny because Elli Karu was married to Erkki Karu in real life. I should also state here that the head waiter role was originally uncredited but smarter people than me have identified Karu. My powers of identification are sorely lacking even for performers I have seen dozens of times.)

Battle for the bride’s heart.

The judge shows up at last with the announcement but poor Pöllövaara finds himself reading his refusal to wed his own fiancée, she leaves in a huff with the head waiter and it looks like all is lost. Will the judge and his wife be able to sort matters out and save the day? Watch The Betrothal of Student Pöllövaara to find out.

“Will these crazy kids get married?” is a perennially popular comedy trope and for good reason. Most people have some experience with weddings and since they are generally such big, important events, something is bound to go wrong.

Our hero’s dark solution.

This picture is reminiscent of the romantic slapstick mastered by French comedian Max Linder with the main character stuck in a pickle that is half his fault and half that of an unfriendly universe. The scenes of Pöllövaara attempting to throw himself in the sea were also par for the comedic romance course. (Harold Lloyd spent most of the opening of Haunted Spooks trying to do himself in and there’s a Max Linder comedy called Attempted Suicide in which he spends almost the entire runtime hanging from a noose.) There’s a bit of mugging, to be sure, but it’s all generally kept under control especially compared to some of the broader slapstick that was being made at the time.

The film premiered as the opener for the American picture Those Who Pay (1917) produced by Thomas Ince. Unfortunately for anyone hoping to reenact this double bill, the feature seems to be missing and presumed lost but don’t give up hope. After all, The Betrothal of Student Pöllövaara was also once considered to be a lost or at least an incomplete film.

The reconstruction apparently included the re-creation of title cards as the originals were lost along the way. (A similar thing happened to The Curse of Quon Gwon.) I heartily approve of the decision to restore the titles even if the exact original wording is now lost. After all, movies must be seen to be truly alive and a silent film cannot be really enjoyed if all the titles that its makers intended are lost.

Please do not blow your nose on ladies’ skirts, no matter how bad your love life is.

One more thing to note: one of the great pleasures in going international in one’s viewing is seeing how different nations interpret the fashions of the era with their own spin. In the case of The Betrothal of Student Pöllövaara, the summer of 1919 outfits worn by the cast are simple and tidy and everyone looks as fresh as a daisy. I would wear the bride’s polka dot blouse right now with a pair of skinny jeans.

Where can I buy this blouse, please?

When I judge a silent film, I try to think about what the filmmakers were attempting and what they actually accomplished. In this case, Erkki Karu was trying to make a light comedy that would allow him to cut his teeth on filmmaking and amuse his audience. I would say that The Betrothal of Student Pöllövaara succeeds on these scores. It’s not a grand masterpiece but it was never intended to be one. I was indeed amused and entertained by it, so I would call that a win all around.

Where can I see it?

Available on disc as part of the Suomi-Filmi box but also released for free online streaming on Elonet. The intertitles are bilingual Finnish and Swedish but there are no English subtitle options.

☙❦❧

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3 Comments

  1. Steve Phillips

    I enjoyed your review (as usual).
    Just curious if you happen to read Swedish or Finnish — or did someone translate the intertitles for you?

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I have a process when I am reviewing a film in a language I don’t speak:

      1. I run the title cards through Google Translate to rough them out. In this case, Swedish and Finnish are extremely different and so running both gave me more information.
      2. After going as far as I can on my own, I ask a native speaker for help. Here, a kind Finnish speaker was able to clear up two aspects that might be confusing: the document was a marriage announcement and not a marriage certificate and the reason for the judge’s wife to mess with the document is not clear even in Finnish as the original title cards are lost.

      I like to do as much as I can before asking for help because I learn best when I have no safety nets or training wheels. Also, I don’t want to take up someone’s time by asking about very basic stuff.

      I am learning a bit of Finnish just so I can pick apart word roots but it’s a famously challenging language for English speakers to pick up, so I am not sure how far I can get. That being said, it’s very pretty to the ears and I have been having a lot of fun with it. I just don’t think my language skills would impress even a Finnish toddler.

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