Biography Comedy Film Hollywood Silent Film

Doing the Larbert Walk

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.

Route from the Plough Hotel, Stenhousemuir to Victoria Road, Larbert
Source: Google Maps

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.
Detail from Ordnance Survey map Stirlingshire nXXIV.14 (Revised: 1943, Published: 1947) showing the Picture Palace cinema and the Plough Hotel in Stenhousemuir with the Dobbie Hall to the west
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

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.
Detail from Ordnance Survey map Stirlingshire nXXIV.13 (Revised: 1943, Published: 1947) showing Larbert Village School and Victoria Road in Larbert with the Torwood Foundry to the north
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

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.
The Dobbie Hall around the time of James’ visit
Photo: Falkirk Herald Photographic Collection, Falkirk Council Archives

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.
S.S. Paris
Photo: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington

He would return again to Scotland the following year,4 when he stayed at the Plough Hotel mentioned in the short story above.

The Plough Hotel around the time of James’ stay
Photo: Kemp Postcard Collection, Falkirk Council Archives

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.


  1. ‘MAJOR DOBBIE’S GIFT TO LARBERT & STENHOUSEMUIR’, Falkirk Herald, 27 June 1900, pp. 4-5.
  2. 1924 Incoming Passenger Lists for the port of Glasgow,, 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.
  3. “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924”, database with images, FamilySearch ( : 30 January 2018), James Finlayson, 1924.
  4. 1925 Incoming Passenger Lists for the port of Liverpool,, 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.
Biography Broadway Comedy Film Hollywood Silent Film Theatre

A Clean-up on the Curb

James Finlayson played the part of a street cleaner in this Rosco Ates RKO comedy two-reeler, which was directed by Lloyd French and released on 12 Sep 1931.1

The film’s title gave me the idea of clearing up some of the rubbish that has been written about James Finlayson over the years. After thorough research, I can tell you that every biographical article I’ve read contains untrue statements that are, well, garbage. It’s been very disappointing that few writers seem to bother with source citations and this has led to unfounded speculation on aspects such as his family background, education and the beginnings of his acting career. Typically, the absence of research results in lazy pigeon-holing that he must have followed the journey of other British comedians (e.g. Chaplin, Laurel) by playing in music halls before coming over to America in a performing troupe. Much has been copied unchallenged from his 1953 obituaries (no doubt thrown together quickly) and in turn copied from other biographies and embellished to fill in the blanks. The biography I am writing is, however, built from the bottom-up by examining contemporary primary sources such as genealogical records (e.g. census returns, passenger lists, etc.) and newspaper archives. I won’t be copying and pasting anyone else’s work.

So, let’s look at a few of the more common claims made about James’ life and career and play a game of Truth or Trash, or more appropriately Yes or D’oh!

James Finlayson was born in Falkirk

D’oh! To the shame of the British Film Institute, their filmography of James has his place of birth as Falkirk.2 Other biographies say “Larbert, Falkirk”. A 1997 article in The Stage even claimed that James was from my hometown of Grangemouth.3 While his maternal grandparents (my great-great-grandparents) James and Isabella HENDERSON did eventually move to Grangemouth, and he had a number of aunts and uncles there (including my great-grandparents), he most certainly wasn’t born there. James was in fact born in the village of Larbert in the parish of Larbert in the county of Stirling (or Stirlingshire).4 Larbert only became part of Falkirk District Council in the 1975 local government reorganisation in Scotland, so “Larbert, Falkirk” is not correct. “Larbert, near Falkirk” would be acceptable given their geographical proximity.

1897 map of Stirlingshire showing Larbert, Falkirk and Grangemouth.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

James Finlayson came to America in the cast of ‘Bunty Pulls The Strings’

D’oh! James’ obituary in the LA Times claimed that “in 1912 he came to America as a juvenile player in a Scottish comedy that played Broadway for 13 months – ‘Bunty Pulls the Strings'”. However, James was not a cast member of the London production of Graham Moffat’s comedy at the Haymarket Theatre in August 1911,5,6 nor was he an original cast member of the Broadway production in October 1911.7,8 James’ part of Rab Biggar was played by George Tawde in London,6 and initially by Edmond Beresford in New York.7,8 In fact, James came to America for family reasons, arriving in New York with his younger brother Robert in June 1911.9 He was a 24 year old actor, so hardly “a juvenile player”. James joined the cast of ‘Bunty’ in May 1912,10,11 as well as appearing in a couple of other New York theatre offerings.12

Lewis Waller will present “The Great Game”, a one-act play by W. Cronin Wilson, as a curtain raiser to “The Explorer” at Daly’s Theatre, beginning on Thursday evening. The piece has never been produced in this country, but was used by Mr. Waller as a curtain raiser to several of his London productions, and it has also been given in the English music halls. The three characters will be played at Daly’s by Frank Woolfe and Lewis Broughton of “The Explorer” company and James Finlayson, who is appearing in the second act of “Bunty Pulls the Strings”.

‘Waller to Give a One-Act Play’, The New York Times, 14 May 1912, p. 11.

James Finlayson toured America with Alec Lauder in ‘The Concealed Bed’

D’oh! The origin of this particular nonsense nugget appears to be a letter written by Stan Laurel in 1964 to researcher Hank Jones,13 who subsequently wrote an article for the first ‘Pratfall’ magazine of the Way Out West tent.14 Stan was in the last year of his life, and perhaps his memory was not as good as it had been. In any event, he has confused James with his fellow Scotsman and good friend Andy Clyde, who did tour in the Graham Moffat sketch ‘The Concealed Bed’ along with Helen MacDonald, Janet Gardner, Bessie MacDonald and Stuart Black.15,16,17 The Alec Lauder reference is perhaps to the play ‘The Night Before’ – written by Harry Lauder – that James produced and appeared in alongside Andy Clyde in 1916.18,19

Sansone [sic] and Delila, a pair of sensational gymnasts, started the ball rolling. They were followed by the Earl and Curtis Company, who paved the way nicely for the Grahame [sic] Moffat Players in The Concealed Bed. Here is an act that will never fail to please any kind of an audience. It is written in Mr. Moffat’s best vein and is acted by an exceptionally competent Scottish company. The work of Andrew Clyde as Bob Dewar, and the impersonation of a scandal mongerish, trouble-making character by Miss Bessie McDonald, are particularly worthy of notice in a cast of five people that, for general excellence, has never been beaten, at least in vaudeville.

‘Keith’s Union Square’, The Billboard, 2 Nov 1912, p. 10.

James Finlayson was a Keystone Cop

Yes! Of course, James wasn’t an original Keystone Cop (as stated in almost every obituary) as he was still in theatre in 1912-17,12 but he played one in both the Masquers’ comedy STOUT HEARTS AND WILLING HANDS (1931),20,21 and Darryl F. Zanuck’s HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (1939).22,23,24 James also made a number of public appearances dressed as a Keystone Cop, including at Mack Sennett’s testimonial dinner held by the Masquers in 1948,25 and at the Shriners parade held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1950 where he, Tiny Ward, Snub Pollard, Chester Conklin, Heinie Conklin and Hank Mann careered around the track in a old Model T, to a rousing ovation from the 90,000 crowd.26

Roscoe Arbuckle, Bobby Vernon, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Clyde Cook, Mack Swain, James Finlayson and (reclining) Hank Mann.
Picture: The New Movie Magazine, Aug 1931, vol. 4, no. 2, p. 70.
  1. Radio to Offer 56 Short Films‘, Motion Picture Herald, 16 May 1931, p. 68.
  2. James Finlayson‘, British Film Institute.
  3. Irving, Gordon. ‘Master of the double-take’, The Stage, 7 Aug 1997, p. 8.
  4. 1887 Birth of James Henderson FINLAYSON in Larbert, ScotlandsPeople (Statutory Births 485/00 0151).
  6. ‘SEVEN MOFFATS IN A PLAY BY MOFFAT’, The Sketch, 9 Aug 1911, p. 133.
  7. ‘EVENING OF RARE JOY WITH SCOTCH PLAYERS’, The New York Times, 11 Oct 1911, p. 11.
  8. ‘SCOTCH ACTORS SUPPLY TREAT OF A LIFETIME’, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11 Oct 1911, p. 5.
  9. Ship’s Manifest of the S.S. California arriving in New York from Glasgow on 5 Jun 1911, FamilySearch.
  10. ‘”THE GREAT GAME”‘, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 14 May 1912, p. 15.
  11. ‘SCOTCH COMEDY PLEASES’, Long Branch Daily Record, 29 Aug 1912, p. 6.
  12. Theatre career of James Finlayson‘, Larbert Loon.
  13. Letter from Stan Laurel to Hank Jones, 26 Sep 1964, The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project.
  14. Jones, Hank. ‘Here’s to Fin!‘, Pratfall, 1969.
  15. ‘With Folk of the Stage’, San Francisco Chronicle, 24 Mar 1912, p. 23.
  16. ‘Keith’s Union Square’, The Billboard, 2 Nov 1912, p. 10.
  17. Ship’s Manifest of the S.S. Columbia arriving in New York from Glasgow on 12 Mar 1912, FamilySearch.
  18. ‘”THE NIGHT BEFORE” AT THE COPLEY’, The Boston Sunday Globe, 9 Jan 1916, p. 10.
  19. ‘THEATER NOTES’, Syracuse Journal, 6 Mar 1916, p. 14.
  20. The Keystone Cops Return‘, American Cinematographer, May 1931, pp. 16-17.
  21. BACK on the BEAT AGAIN‘, The New Movie Magazine, Aug 1931, vol. 4, no. 2, p. 70.
  22. ‘Keystone’s Finest’, The San Francisco Examiner, 27 Aug 1939, p. 25.
  23. HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE‘, The Movies … and the People Who Make Them, vol. 1, no. 52, p. 132.
  24. Hollywood Cavalcade‘, Motion Picture Herald, vol. 137, no. 1, 7 Oct 1939, p. 35.
  25. Masquers Fete Sennett; Friars Honor Wynns‘, Variety, 25 Aug 1948, p. 2.
  26. Chill, Smoke, Miscues Fail to Mar 79th Annual Shrine Fez-tivities‘, Variety, 28 Jun 1950, pp. 2,61.

Biography Comedy Film Hollywood Silent Film

Tell It To A Policeman

Tell It To A Policeman - A Knock 'Em Dead Comedy
Excerpt from May 1925 cinema listing for the Majestic Theatre, Madison, WI

James Finlayson, comedian at the Hal Roach studio, reported to the police yesterday an attack on him by a robber, who he beat off. Finlayson said he left the apartment of a friend at Forty-sixth street and Western avenue about 1 a.m. As he was getting into his car, a man with a hat pulled down over his eyes approached and said he was an officer. Finlayson said he asked to see the man’s badge and the man struck him with a blackjack, but the actor dodged and the blow fell on his shoulder. Then he shoved his knee into the man’s stomach and ran, he said.

‘FILM COMEDIAN TELLS OF FIGHTING OFF THIEF’, Los Angeles Times, 9 Jan 1925, p. 27.

Somewhat ironically, just a few months after this incident, the film TELL IT TO A POLICEMAN was released on 24 May 1925. This Roach-Pathé comedy two-reeler, directed by Fred Guiol, features James with Glenn Tryon and Blanche Mehaffey. It’s the first in a series of films where Finlayson supports Tryon, the others being THUNDERING LANDLORDS, MADAME SANS JANE, CUCKOO LOVE and FLAMING FLAPPERS. The review in Motion Picture News described it as “fair entertainment”,1 whilst Exhibitor’s Trade Review thought it “chock-full of laughs and thrills”.2 Make up your own mind by viewing it on the Internet Archive here.

Blackjack: a small, flat, blunt, usually leather-covered weapon loaded with heavy material such as lead or ball-bearings, intended to inflict a blow to the head that renders the victim unconscious with diminished risk of lasting cranial trauma.


Six years later, James was once again assaulted by a blackjack-wielding robber, but this time did not make good his escape:

Struck with a blackjack in the hands of a highwayman, James Finlayson of 6141 Afton place was knocked unconscious today when his assailant found he had no money.

‘SHOOTING THUGS FLEE WITH $45’, Los Angeles Evening Express, 20 Nov 1931, p. 3.

6141 Afton Place was the address of the Afton Arms, where Finlayson had been staying for at least 4 years.3,4

Afton Arms Apartments, 6141 Afton Place, in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #463.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, taken by user Downtowngal.

The idea of a movie star not having any money seems far-fetched, however in March 1932 James was sued by the accommodation for $620 rental (the equivalent of about $11,000 today).5

The intimation of his death in The Falkirk Herald – which was no doubt based on information from his younger brother Bob who was an occasional correspondent – mentions that Finlayson “lost a large part of his capital in the California bank crash”.6 This could refer to one of the many bank failures which occurred in America in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

So, maybe James Finlayson was broke in November 1931 and had no d’oh after all!

  1. ‘Tell It To A Policeman’, Motion Picture News, vol. 31, no. 21, 23 May 1925,
  2. ‘Tell It to a Policeman’, Exhibitor’s Trade Review, vol. 17, no. 26, 23 May 1925, p. 58,
  3. 1927 Ship’s Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States on S.S. Paris sailing from Le Havre, France on 27 Jul and arriving in New York on 3 Aug, FamilySearch,
  4. 1930 United States Census of Household of James Henderson FINLAYSON, Los Angeles, California, USA, FamilySearch
  5. ‘NEWS FROM THE DAILIES’, Variety, 1 Mar 1932, p. 42.
  6. ‘Larbert and Stenhousemuir’, The Falkirk Herald, 17 Oct 1953, p. 6.

Biography Comedy Film Hollywood Silent Film

The Village Smithy

This 1919 silent film comedy features James Finlayson as a blacksmith.

With Louise Fazenda, Chester Conklin and Phyllis Haver (also a small cameo from Ben Turpin). Mack Sennett two-reeler. Directed by F. Richard Jones. Distributed by Paramount. Released 9 Mar 1919.
Sources: ‘For Art’s Sake – BEN TURPIN’, Ben Turpin Filmography – Sennett 1917-1927; Sherk, Warren M., The Films of Mack Sennett: Credit Documentation from the Mack Sennett Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, Scarecrow Press, 1998, p. 215; ‘How To Advertise THE VILLAGE SMITHY’, Paramount Comedy Releases Press Books (Sep 1918-Sep 1919).

James Finlayson, Chester Conklin and Louise Fazenda on promotional material for THE VILLAGE SMITHY (1919)
James Finlayson, Chester Conklin and Louise Fazenda on promotional material for THE VILLAGE SMITHY (1919)

As noted previously, in real life James had in fact been a tinsmith, as was his older brother Alex. Their father Alexander was a blacksmith and their paternal grandfather Robert was an iron grinder.

James Finlayson in 1901 Census
Excerpt from 1901 Census of the household of Alexander Finlayson in Larbert
(ScotlandsPeople: Census 1901 485/0A 001/00 043)

The excerpt below from The Falkirk Herald confirms that James worked at Jones and Campbell’s Torwood Foundry which was located at 55-59 Foundry Loan just a short walk from the Finlayson family home on Victoria Road, Larbert.

The Falkirk Herald, 27 Jul 1927, p. 16
The Falkirk Herald, 27 Jul 1927, p. 16

Biography Film Hollywood

Men O’ War

United States Draft Registration Cards are a useful genealogy resource. They are freely viewable at FamilySearch, both for World War One and Two.

World War One

James’ U.S. WWI Draft Registration Card from 1917 shows he was living at the Hotel St. George on 115 East 3rd Street in Los Angeles, California, USA. He is registered as an Alien from England. His profession was given as Theatrical and his employer is given as Elco Company in Hollywood. This is presumably the L-KO Kompany. Marital Status is given as Single.

WW1 Draft Registration Card
World War One United States Draft Registration Card of James Finlayson, Courtesy of FamilySearch.

His height is listed as 5ft 7in, his build as Slender, his eyes as Blue, his hair as Brown. The question Bald? is answered as No and then scored out and replaced with Little! His distinguishing features are given as Lost Two Toes On The Left Foot, from which we could perhaps conjecture to be as a result of an industrial accident when he was working as a tinsmith before his acting career.

World War Two

James’ U.S. WWII Draft Registration Card from 1942 lists his address as 1966 North Beachwood Drive, Hollywood, California and his employer is given as Hal Roach, Culver City, California.

WW2 Draft Registration Card
World War Two United States Draft Registration Card of James Finlayson, Courtesy of FamilySearch.

The card also shows that his brother Robert lived at 2019 Canyon Drive, which looking at Google Maps is only 4 blocks away. It also looks like both houses are still pretty much as they would have been in the 1940’s.

  • Men O’ War‘ was the title of a 1929 film starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy where James Finlayson played the role of Soda Clerk.

The Whole Truth

Some websites claim that James Finlayson went to George Watson’s school in Edinburgh and then on to Edinburgh University where he apparently dropped out. However, no source is given for either of these statements.

Given that his father was a blacksmith, and that he himself is listed as a tinsmith on the 1901 Census, these claims seem dubious. e.g. How would the family have afforded the tuition fees?

James Finlayson in 1901 Census
Excerpt from 1901 Census of the household of Alexander Finlayson in the parish of Larbert
(ScotlandsPeople: Census 1901 485/0A 001/00 043)

I looked into this some time ago and could find no reference to him in the Edinburgh University online archives, nor is he listed on George Watson’s site. I emailed both institutions and the archivists could find no record of his attendance.

As a result I removed these claims from his Wikipedia page, having previously added the {{citation needed}} tag some time beforehand.

Perhaps James himself invented these wee white lies to make out his past was grander than it actually was?

  • The Whole Truth‘ was the title of a 1923 film starring Stan Laurel where James Finlayson played the role of Defense Lawyer.