It is a rather wet Friday afternoon in Stenhousemuir in July 1924. At the back of the Picture Palace cinema, a small clean-shaven bespectacled man puffs on a cigarette. Although only in his mid-thirties, he is balding and looks much older. He is somewhat tanned and dressed immaculately in what some would describe as “the American way” down to his tortoise-shell shoes. A sign at the front of the building reads “TODAY: ‘A Day in the Life of a Cinema Artiste’, an illustrated lecture by James Finlayson”.
Whilst the talk had covered his days at Mack Sennett with his friend Ben Turpin and then being hired by Hal Roach to work opposite Stan Laurel, most of the presentation had been spent viewing the several thousand feet of film James had brought with him from Hollywood. This had featured scenes from some of his latest films including ‘Rupert of Hee-Haw’, a lampoon of the sequel to ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’. The audience having long since filed out, James decides to go for a short walk back to his old family home. After first having been tempted to cross the street to the Plough Hotel for a small libation, he makes his way out west along Main Street.
Within a couple of minutes he passes the Dobbie Hall and, making a dramatic pause, recalls his first tentative appearances on the stage inside with the Stenhousemuir Amateur Dramatic and Musical Association. He also remembers the large parade in 1900 celebrating the laying of the foundation stone with full Masonic honours. Some two thousand marchers, led by the Carters on horseback and including representatives of the Foresters, Rechabites, Free Gardeners, Shepherds and Ironmoulders as well as the Boys’ Brigade, stretched for nearly a mile all the way from Pretoria Road to Larbert Railway Station.
James continues on his stroll along Main Street, past the station and Foundry Loan which leads to the ironworks. Twenty-three years ago, James had been a young tinsmith at the Torwood Foundry. He smiles as he thinks how fitting that he appeared in a film called ‘The Village Smithy’. Suddenly, he hears heavy footsteps behind him, then turns around and does a double-take – it’s a large, fat man wearing a bowler hat. D’ooooooh!
After passing the Village School where he learned to read and write, he turns right down Victoria Road, mimicking the parade route. There he stands outside his parents’ old home. He thinks of how much he loved them and weeps. The tears of a clown are shed as he recollects the painful shocks of the sudden losses of first his mother, then his older sister, and finally his father. He hopes that they would have been proud of his cinematic achievements and reflects that he has done not too bad for a wee orphan boy from Larbert.
The short story above was submitted as an entry to the ‘500 Words for Falkirk’ short stories competition held by Great Place Falkirk in 2021. It depicts an imagined stroll by James Finlayson from a cinema in Stenhousemuir to his family’s house in Larbert and was inspired by a couple of newspaper articles: the first described the parade marking the start of construction on the Dobbie Hall in June 1900,1 and the second James’ film lecture at the Stenhousemuir Picture Palace in July 1924:
Local picture-goers had the opportunity on Friday last of acquiring first-hand knowledge about the famous film centre – Hollywood. Mr Jim Finlayson, of whom reference has already been made in this corner, appeared in person at Mr Faulkner’s establishment and gave a sort of illustrated lecture.
Mr Finlayson brought with him from Los Angeles several thousand feet of film depicting a day in the life of a cinema artiste, with himself as the character study in this instance. His remarks, together with the picture, were interesting to a degree.Source: ’JOTTINGS OF THE WEEK – LARBERT AND STENHOUSEMUIR’, Falkirk Herald, 19 July 1924, p. 4.
James had sailed from New York to Glasgow on the S.S. Tuscania, travelling First Class and arriving in Scotland on 9 Jun 1924.2 The ship’s manifest gives his occupation as Actor & Film Director, which opens up speculation that perhaps he had shot a behind-the-scenes Hollywood documentary? He arrived in his native Larbert on the same day, impressing the local youth with his stateside garb:
After chronicling from time to time items of interest regarding Jim Finlayson, the film star, who, amongst other distinctions, can say he is a Larbert chiel, this week we are able to report his arrival in the “dear auld hame”.
Mr Finlayson got here on Monday, to the delight of the younger generation, who seemed greatly taken on with his decided American appearance. With his “tortoiseshells”, the lad o’ pairts does not seem to have altered much during his thirteen years’ absence.
To a friend, Mr Finlayson confided that he saw no difference in the townlet, except that it was wetter than it used to be. Just to show that he hasn’t lost his skill in the tinsmithing line, Jim visited Torwood Foundry on Tuesday and produced a dustpan.Source: ’JOTTINGS OF THE WEEK – LARBERT AND STENHOUSEMUIR’, Falkirk Herald, 14 Jun 1924, p. 6.
After his visit to Larbert, he went to London and then on to Europe:
Jim Finlayson, the “film punster” (as he was designated by a Los Angeles contemporary) is not going back to the States without seeing a big slice of Europe.
Mr Finlayson left for the South on Sunday night, and after a brief stay in London he means to visit most of the Continental capitals, not by common or garden rail transport, if you please, but by the more up-to-date air service.Source: ’JOTTINGS OF THE WEEK – LARBERT AND STENHOUSEMUIR’, Falkirk Herald, 5 July 1924, p. 4.
He returned to New York from Le Havre, France aboard the S.S. Paris on 16 Aug 1924.3 He had been staying at the Hotel Rochambeau in Paris. His subsequent return to work being reported in the movie press:
Jim Finlayson, Roach comedian, has returned to New York en route to the Coast from Scotland to begin work on Labor Day.Source: ’Finlayson Returns’, The Film Daily, 27 Aug 1924, p. 1.
He would return again to Scotland the following year,4 when he stayed at the Plough Hotel mentioned in the short story above.
Finlayson would repeat these transatlantic crossings a number of times in his lifetime, with at least four voyages on the S.S. Paris. If only they had sail miles in those days instead of air miles – d’oh!
With apologies to Lupino Lane for the title of the short story.
- ‘MAJOR DOBBIE’S GIFT TO LARBERT & STENHOUSEMUIR’, Falkirk Herald, 27 June 1900, pp. 4-5.
- 1924 Incoming Passenger Lists for the port of Glasgow, Ancestry.co.uk, The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 755.
- “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JNH4-QMW : 30 January 2018), James Finlayson, 1924.
- 1925 Incoming Passenger Lists for the port of Liverpool, Ancestry.co.uk, The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 792; Item: 6.