James Finlayson, or Fin, is of course best known for his role as a supporting actor. The pop-eyed, forever exasperated Scot is beloved as Laurel & Hardy’s nemesis, but before this, he had held ambitions of being a star comic, and was briefly groomed for stardom with leading roles in a number of Hal Roach comedies. After being increasingly singled out for his work opposite Stan Laurel, Snub Pollard and Clyde Cook, Fin was given a chance at carrying his own series.
In 1925, he made a couple of one-reel starring shorts. The most well-known is YES, YES NANETTE. This short would be quite obscure if not for the fact it was directed by Stan Laurel and featured Babe Hardy in the cast; as a result, it has featured on several Laurel & Hardy solo collections.
Less often seen is IN THE GREASE, in which Fin tries his hand at becoming a school teacher for a day. The idea of setting his reactionary comedy against a class of unruly school kids is a good one (and can’t help but bring to mind his later role in Laurel & Hardy’s PARDON US!), but the one-reel length doesn’t really give enough time to develop the material. Still, some nice little gags and a fun way to spend ten minutes:
The difficulty in starring Fin was that his funniest talent was reacting to others. This naturally meant that most of the action went to the other actors in his films, and with the wide array of talent around Roach in the mid-20s, he soon slipped from the limelight.
By 1926, Fin was billed as one of Roach’s “all stars”, and if not carrying the action entirely he still got some great opportunities. Here’s a less-often seen example, WISE GUYS PREFER BRUNETTES, featuring Fin alongside Ted Healy (of Stooges fame) and Helene Chadwick, and directed by Stan Laurel in a bizarre and slightly risqué campus comedy:
As the Laurel & Hardy team rose in prominence, Fin’s role in the all-star shorts began to contract. Even so, as late as THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS (1927), publicity still refers to Stan, Babe and Fin as a new three-man team! However, his role in HATS OFF! was clearly a demotion, and soon he was off to find pastures new. Despite some interesting roles, such as LADIES’ NIGHT IN A TURKISH BATH (1928), he was soon back at Roach in the supporting role that would earn him his immortality. It’s fortunate for film fans that he came back to do such wonderful work with L & H, but his starring shorts remain an interesting footnote.