James Finlayson

James Henderson Finlayson or ‘Fin’ was born in Larbet, Stirlingshire, Scotland on 27 August 1887. He worked in both silent and sound comedies usually with a fake moustache. Fin had many trademark comic mannerisms and is famous for his squinting, outraged, “double take and fade away” head reaction, and characteristic expression “doh”, and was the most famous comic foil of Laurel and Hardy.

Fin with Stan in the silent classic, Big Business (1929)

Young Jimmie Finlayson started his working life in his fathers foundry while studying business management at George Watson College in Edinburgh where he met Andy Clyde and his father John, the latter being an actor-producer. He lost two toes from his left foot in an accident at work which perhaps helped convince him he might not be suited to a career with hot metal!

He joined the Clyde’s theatrical troupe, emigrated to the U.S. in 1911 and became a U.S. citizen in 1942. Contrary to popular belief, he was not an original member of the Keystone Cops, though he would appear as one much later. Confused? You soon will be…

He appeared in the Broadway production of in Bunty Pulls the Strings in 1912 . While initially appearing in Vaudeville as members of Graham Moffat’s troupe, in 1916 Fin and Alex Lauder (brother of Sir Harry Lauder) left and toured with a their own sketch called The Concealed Bed which finished its run in LA in 1918.

Fin’s pre-film days are still largely uncertain, but are the subject of ongoing research. But rather than return to Scotland, Jimmy decided to try his hand in the movies. He joined Mack Sennett Studios in 1919 playing crooked bankers, lawyers and other villains, though Sennett had already been forced to sell his interest in the Keystone Studio including the Keystone name. Sennett had already decreased his production and crawled along for years, even making cop movies, but of course he couldn’t use the Keystone name. The Mack Sennett Studios eventually closed down in the early 30s.

With Stan and Ollie in Me and My Pal (1933)

Finlayson however went on to bigger and better things with the Hal Roach Studios and in the early 20’s was being groomed to be a leading player, but the effort was unfocused and he never caught on. At one point he was also being considered as part of a trio with Stan and Babe. In 1927, some studio publicity actually referred to Finlayson, Hardy and Laurel as the “famous comedy trio”, but Roach staff producer and director Leo McCarey recognised the great potential of a Laurel-Hardy pairing and began developing their characters and expanding their roles toward that end.

A rare behind the scenes shot on location for Two Tars with a moustache-less, bespectacled Fin, Stan, Babe and some real sailors!

By the autumn of 1928, ‘Laurel and Hardy’ was a formal studio series, yet so memorable an antagonist was Fin, even with his diminished billing he was considered by many to be an indispensable part of the Laurel and Hardy team (and of course, he still is!) His first coincidental appearance with the boys was in Love ’Em and Weep (1927), his first in a Laurel and Hardy comedy was the Second Hundred years (also 1927). His first appearance in a sound movie was in Two Tars and his final appearance with the boys was in their final Hal Roach production, Saps at Sea in 1940.

A young, suave James Finlayson (From a Hal Roach Studios publicity picture)

Fin went to England in May 1933 (with Thelma Todd and Dennis King) to promote Fra Diavolo and stayed there for just shy of two years. During this time he appeared in eleven films, several of them “quota quickies” made at Warner Brothers Teddington Studios. His directors included Clyde Cook and Monty Banks. Finlayson appeared as a police constable in three films, one of which was titled Big Business! Now, that rings a bell!

Some of the confusion regarding Fin’s role as a Keystone Cop stems from his appearance in 1939’s Hollywood Cavalcade, a film about a young performer (Alice Faye) making her way through Hollywood in the silent era and the transition to sound. Fin appears as a Keystone Cop in a pastiche of the Sennett productions.

Finlayson can be seen far left as a ‘Keystone Cop’ in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)

Altogether, Finlayson had roles in 33 Laurel and Hardy films, see below, usually as a villain or an antagonist, notably in the celebrated Big Business (1929) and Way Out West (1937). He also starred alongside Stan in 19 films and opposite Ollie in five films before Laurel and Hardy were teamed together, as well as in dozens of Roach Studio films, with Charley Chase, Glenn Tryon, Snub Pollard, Ben Turpin and others. IMDB credits him with 251 film appearances in total, and the last of these was as Fred Astaire’s cabby in Royal Wedding (Wedding Bells in the UK) in 1951

James Henderson Finlayson died of a heart attack 9 October 1953. He was 66 years old.

From the New York Times 10 Oct 1953
James Finlayson on the deck of the liner ‘Paris’ arriving in New York on April, 17, 1935 after the trip to Europe. He then flew on to Los Angeles, as pictured below.

Our thanks to our friend and fellow Son, Liam Muldowney, with this article.

As noted, James Finlayson had 33 roles with Stan and Babe, and these are listed alphabetically below:

Another Fine Mess                Colonel Buckshot

Any Old Port                        Shipmate

Big Business                       Christmas tree ‘customer’

Block-Heads                        Obnoxious man in top hat

Bohemian Girl, The              Captain Finn

Bonnie Scotland                   Sergeant Major

Call of the Cuckoos               A ‘cuckoo’

Chickens Come Home           Ollie’s butler

Chimp, The                         Ringmaster

Chum at Oxford, A                Baldy Vandevere

Fra Diavolo                         Lord Rocberg

Do Detectives Think?            Judge Foozle 

Flying Deuces, The               Foreign Legion Jailer

Flying Elephants                  Aged Saxophnus

Hats Off                              Shop Proprietor

Hoose-Gow, the                   Governor

Liberty                                Shop Proprietor

Love ‘Em and Weep              Titus Tillsbury

Me and My Pal                     Peter Cucumber

Men O’War                          Soda Jerk

Night Owls                          Meadows, the butler

One Good Turn                    Community player

Our Relations                      Chief Engineer Finn

Our Wife                             Father of the Bride

Pack Up Your Troubles         The General

Pardon Us                           Prison teacher

Pick a Star                          Director

Saps at Sea                         Dr J H Finlayson

The Second Hundred Years    Governor Browne Van Dyke

Sugar Daddies                     Cyrus Brittle

Thicker Than Water              Auctioneer

Way Out West                     Mickey Finn

With Love and Hisses           Captain Bustle

Bonnie Scotland would’ve have been unthinkable without Fin, so after sailing from England to New York, Finlayson flew to Los Angeles, and on April 19, 1935 he arrived at the Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, where he was met by Stan, writers Charlie Rogers and Albert Austin, and director James Horne. Roach Studios stills cameraman, Stax Graves. brought his camera to document the happy reunion (with thanks to Randy Skretvedt.)

If you’ve any thoughts or views on the greatest ever Scotsman – to star with Laurel and Hardy – or have anything to add, please leave then in the reply box below. Your input will be much appreciated and will receive a response on this page.

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