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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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