Today is the birthday of James “Jimmy” Finlayson (1887-1953), often known to his fans as “Fin”. Finlayson is best known today as Laurel and Hardy’s comic foil, although he had a substantial and varied career as an actor and comedian prior to this.
Finlayson dropped out of college in his native Scotland to become an actor with John Clyde’s company in Edinburgh in the late oughts. (Though Fin became a U.S. citizen in 1920, he never was to lose his distinctive burr). In 1911, he moved to the U.S., where he appeared in two Broadway shows, The Great Game and Bunty Pulls the Strings.
He began getting movie roles in 1918 first working for Thomas Ince and L-KO before begining at Mack Sennett in 1919. There he played any number of villains and foils for three years, generally as second fiddle to the likes of Ben Turpin. He became frustrated with playing supporting roles, so he moved over to Hal Roach in 1922.
He did get to star in quite a few shorts for Roach, and then was considered part of a loose team with Laurel and Hardy as they began to form around 1927. But gradually, as L&H formed a solid duo, Fin was back to playing the foil again, although he did it so well that he became one of the most well-known and beloved foils in the business.
He is best loved for his highly individualistic double-take, which involved the squinting of one eye in a suspicious manner while his head perked up in surprise. When talkies came in, Fin was to develop a comedy trademark that was to long outlive him: that was a habit of exclaiming “D’oh!” when Laurel and Hardy’s antics would make him inarticulate with exasperation. It was in tribute to Fin that the creators of The Simpsons gave this beloved trait to Homer in the 1990s.
Fin was to appear in 22 Laurel and Hardy films, both shorts and features, and to support many other Roach stars in classic turns, such as Our Gang/ Little Rascals. When Roach got out of the comedy business in the early 1940s, Fin was kind of left high and dry. His last decade was spent essentially as a highly-recognizable bit player in major movies. His last turn was in Frank Capra’s Here Comes the Groom (1951) with Bing Crosby.
To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy and great comedians like James Finalyson, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc