Scottish comedian James Finlayson attended the University of Edinburgh with the intention of pursuing a business career. He was deflected by his best friend, stage actor Andy Clyde, who encouraged Finlayson to give theatre a try. After serving his apprenticeship in regional repertory, Finlayson was cast in the West End production of Bunty Pulls the Strings in 1912, a production which brought him to New York. He embarked on a vaudeville tour with Alec Lauder (brother of the more famous Sir Harry Lauder), then headed to Hollywood, working at the Ince and L-KO studios before settling at the Mack Sennett fun factory in 1919. While with Sennett, Finlayson developed his famous, apoplectic caricature of the old-fashioned "me proud beauty" Victorian villain.
In 1923, Finlayson moved to Hal Roach, where he would spend the next 17 years as both a star comic and (more successfully) a supporting player. During his Roach years, Finlayson perfected his comic signature, the "double take and fade away": a reaction of surprise, followed by several turns of the head and an upraised eyebrow, capped with the expletive "Doh!" Legend has it that one of Finlayson's double-takes was so energetic that it caused him to crack his skull against a wall and lose consciousness! Though he worked with everyone on the Roach lot, Finlayson became most closely associated with Laurel and Hardy, co-starring with the team on 33 occasions between 1927 and 1940. Fin's most memorable films with L&H include Big Business (1929), Another Fine Mess (1930), Chickens Come Home (1931), Our Wife (1931), The Devil's Brother (1933) and, best of all, Way Out West (1937), wherein as western saloon keeper Mickey Finn, Finlayson outdoes himself with his own hilarious brand of double-dyed villainy. He also appeared frequently with another team, Clark and McCullough, over at RKO.
While some of Finlayson's feature-film roles were sizeable, notably his assignments in Dawn Patrol (1930) and All Over Town (1937), he was most often seen in unbilled bits, sometimes (as in the 1938 Astaire-Rogers vehicle Carefree) minus his trademarked paintbrush moustache. Because of his long associations with Sennett and Roach, James Finlayson was frequently called upon to appear in nostalgic recreations of Hollywood's silent era, notably Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) and The Perils of Pauline (1947).