By Hank Jones
Copyright ©1969 Way Out West Tent
On the morning of Friday, October 9, 1953, English actress Stephanie Insall wondered why her breakfast companion of twenty years was late. The short, balding Scot was usually punctual in arriving for his morning visit. Since her friend had not been well, a worried Miss Insall left her home on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood and went to her friend's residence on nearby North Beachwood Drive. Upon arriving, she found that Jimmy Finlayson was dead.
The obituaries in the local papers were, unfortunately, brief in their resume of a life which had given pleasure to so many people. The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, read; "Funeral services will be held today for Jimmy Finlayson, 66, one of the original Keystone Kops, at 3 p.m. at Pierce Bros., Hollywood. The actor, who was also the heavy in Laurel & Hardy two reelers, died in his sleep at his Hollywood home Thursday night."
Interestingly, the emphasis in most of the obituaries was on "Fin's" appearance in the Mack Sennett films, as opposed to his more numerous, and probably more memorable roles in the Roach productions. Among the mourners at his rites were Keystone Kops Hank Mann, Billy Bevan, Snub Pollard and Tom Kennedy, as well as Mr. Sennett himself. No mention was made of any Roach associate being there, although there doubtlessly was.
For a few moments, let us examine the career and personal life of Jimmy Finlayson - "Mr. Double Take."
James Finlayson was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1887; the exact date is subject to question since he often expressed a reluctance to discuss exactly how old he really was! At a young age, he was apprenticed to his father's iron foundry. Apparently, the interest in his father's business was short lived, for we next hear of Fin at the University of Edinburgh studying for a career in the business world. According to Kalton C. Lahue's excellent book, "The World of Laughter-The Motion Picture Comedy Short 1910-1930," he became friendly with John Clyde, the famed Scottish actor, and developed an intense interest in the stage.
After playing both character and comedy roles in the British Isles, he accepted a part in Graham Moffal's "Bunty Pulls The Strings." Stan Laurel recalled that Finlayson had prepared himself for the prime "Bunty" role with appearances in music halls and Scotch plays for Alec Lauder, brother of the renowned Sir Harry. In 1912, Jimmy played "Bunty" on Broadway, and the hit show lasted eighteen months. Stan also recalled that Fin toured with Alec Lauder in vaudeville throughout America in a very successful sketch, "The Concealed Bed."
While on tour in one of these endeavors, Jimmy Finlayson stopped in Hollywood in 1916, and decided to stay and try his luck in films. He had some jobs in movies made by Thomas Ince and L-K0. But he made a bigger mark for himself on the Sennett Lot. Jimmy was under contract to the Sennett group three years. He often appeared as one of the crazy Keystone Kops. He also appeared opposite "cross-eyed" Ben Turpin in other Sennett comedies.
Finlayson then signed a four year deal with Hal Roach at his Culver City Studios. Roach starred him in many two reelers, hoping that he had another Turpin on his hands. Fin was capable and very funny, but as a solo name never quite caught on with the public. Often Laurel or Hardy appeared in early Roach films starring Fin, and so a gradual blend of their talents emerged. When Stan and Ollie began making "Laurel & Hardy" films, Finlayson became their number one comic foil. Stan himself often acknowledged that the raised eyebrows and deadly squint of Jimmy helped establish the success of the Laurel and Hardy films as much as they themselves did.
After Jimmy Finlayson's contract with Roach expired, he free-lanced in nineteen features for other studios. He worked often and had an excellent agent in Arthur Landau, the man who Brought Jean Harlow to stardom.
Offscreen, as Jack McCabe states in his now-classic study, "Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy," Finlayson was often as dour and eccentric as on the screen. He was quite a club man, being a member of the Lambs Club, The Masquers, and, in Scotland, a life member of the Masonic Lodge. In his last years, he returned to England and made several films there. Among his last American works were several shorts for Television. Illness forced him to retire many years prior to his death in 1953.
His brand of dour comedy enhanced many a "Laurel and Hardy" film and we, of "Sons Of The Desert," salute him...as Stan wanted us to toast: "HERE'S TO FIN!"