On the Larbert trail of Stan and Ollie’s comic co-star

James Finlayson, with the classic look in which he appeared in the Laurel and Hardy movies.
James Finlayson, with the classic look in which he appeared in the Laurel and Hardy movies.

The movie Stan & Ollie (now screening in Falkirk) is a poignant take on two of the greatest film comedy actors of all time.

But few of even their biggest fans probably know that their most famous “straight man” - the bald, mustache-wearing James Finlayson - came from Larbert.

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan as Stan and Ollie.

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan as Stan and Ollie.

Starring John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel newly-released Stan & Ollie has received rave reviews for its sensitive and also often hilarious take on the real-life drama behind the double act whose antics invariably ended in “another fine mess”.

However while the big man and his diminutive partner are instantly recognisable to countless millions, few may be able to put a name to their would-be nemesis and sparring partner.

Three years ago a petition to erect a statue in his honour in Falkirk town centre collected nearly 700 names, but had been seeking 1,000.

However it’s just possible the new movie may give that effort a new lease of life.

Tne man behind the petition complained: “While Stan and Ollie have numerous commemorative statues and plaques around the World James Finlayson, who was born in Larbert, Falkirk, has nothing but a small, easy missable, innocuous plaque in Falkirk Civic Hall.

“This legend deserves to be immortalised with a statue in the town centre of his birth”.

James was an indispensable element in (for example) the legendary marching column sketch in Bonnie Scotland, in which the pair become kilted Scots soldiers fighting on the North-West Frontier.

Even fewer probably know that his famous catch-phrase expression of frustration: “Doooohhhh!” was adopted for a very modern comedy star - cartoon character Homer Simpson.

“The Simpsons” writer Don Castellaneta is said to have used it (shortened to “Doh!”) for Homer.

James Finlayson (1887 - 1953), was born in Larbert to Alexander and Isabella Finlayson, and worked as a tinsmith before discovering his true vocation - as an actor on stage and in both silent movies and then the new-fangled talkies.

He moved to the USA in 1911 at the age of 24 with brother Robert after both parents passed away, and eventually became a naturalised US citizen.

He earned a solid reputation for his acting abilities on both sides of the Atlantic, after an early break in Edinburgh theatre, and while his career highlights were by no means restricted to Laurel and Hardy movies he starred in no less than 33 of their films.

According to one account he enjoyed equal billing with Stan and Ollie in early movies, but at one time was even described as part of “a comedy trio”.

By the late 1920’s Stan and Ollie became a “brand”, and while he remained a hugely important part of their act they were clearly set to achieve their greatest fame as one of entertainment history’s greatest - perhaps “the” greatest - duos.

He passed away in Los Angeles, California, in 1953, aged 66, but achieved a special kind of immortality - even if his actual name is remembered mainly by serious film buffs - and is said to be commemorated in Larbert by the name of a street, Finlayson Place.