Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Breaking bad… The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

It’s all so easy to laugh at this one and to shake your head in condescension – what were they thinking; making a comedy based on a drug-addled “scientific detective” who solves his crimes through frequent use of narcotics? Didn’t they know that stuff was dangerous; had they no idea that these ultra-addictive drugs would soon be out-lawed, Hollywood would stand to be accused of institutionalized decadence and that one of the film’s cast, Alma Rubens, would later die of addiction?

Sadly, unlike pretty much every one of the drugs involved, hindsight just wasn’t readily available over the counter and the involvement not just of Douglas Fairbanks but also Anita Loos (the titles), Tod Browning (the script) and even DW Griffith ( a little), showed just how “accepted” recreational drug use was as a source of humour... I don’t think the team was advocating drug use nor even the opposite – in the manner of The Devil’s Needle (1915) – just taking the idea of a self-medicating Sherlock to its extreme.

Everything the modern "scientific detective" needs...
In fact they didn’t really mean anything: it’s a joke albeit an odd one. Not to judge then but to understand…

Fairbanks later disowned the film after a lot of water passed very quickly under this particular bridge: after drugs had clearly become a killing joke. But even on release the film was banned in Boston and elsewhere: cocaine was available on prescription or over the counter from pharmacies but it had been otherwise made illegal by the the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914.

The Ennyday-Mobile in "street disguise" mode...
Directed – eventually - by John Emerson (after Christy Cabanne was fired…), The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was made during a period of consolidation in Fairbank’s burgeoning career but clearly before his action adventure persona was solidified. He plays Coke Ennyday a man whose clock tells only four times: "EATS, DRINKS, SLEEPS, and DOPE" and generally goofs around as the tripping detective. He’s pretty good but sometimes quite annoying but when he takes on the baddies near the end, bouncing around in perpetual motion he’s “our Doug” alright.

Allan Sears is rolling in it!
Coke is roused from his reveries by the arrival of the local police chief I.M. Keene (Tom Wilson), there’s a gentleman on the loose who is rolling in wealth – literally – and with no visible means of having earned it (Allan Sears) time to get the needle in and set off in pursuit of this mystery millionaire.

The Bad Men and their fish
Coke dons his ‘tec-togs, a fancy check suit that is matched by his car – a superbly-stenciled vehicle with the driver’s footman (Joe Murphy) – without whom Coke might not make it through any day -  positioned at the back in matching suit.

They arrive at the beach where the man was last seen and here the mystery of the leaping fish is revealed as the “fish” in question are inflatables loaned out to bathers…

Bessie on the blower
A Little Fish Blower (Bessie Love) is employed to blow the fish up – very slowly from the looks and size of her – and she is also having pressure applied to marry the boss of the blow-ups (William Lowery) a mean character – she could do better.

Eagle-eyed Coke spots his target frolicking in the waves and sets off in pursuit of him and his accomplice (Alma Rubens) enabling what is perhaps the first sea-based inflatables chase in cinema history… Coke’s flying fish springs a leak after he tries to inject it with cocaine and he spins off out of control enabling the dodgy duo to make good their escape.

Doug's mustache is detached and they just keep on filming... Bessie can't stop laughing!
Coke befriends the pretty little fish blower and maintains his watch on the beach… it’s surely only a matter of time before inspiration is chemically-induced and the flying fish get fried.

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is well made, energetic, wacky and slightly shameful… It’s probably not responsible film-making but it also fails to be funny for long stretches abandoning Doug’s natural charm for bad moustache twirling and repetition of the same injection jokes… Granted the hero’s recourse to drugs eventually saves the day in unexpected ways but that’s more by accident than design.

"You are at my mercy woman..." Nope, not a bit of it!
In a cop-out twist at the end we see the real Fairbanks having his “idea” turned down by the studio head who suggest he sticks to acting and not scripting. They knew… they knew very well.

The film is available on Kino’s excellent Modern Musketeer DVD set, either direct or from Amazon

That'll be a no then...


  1. I admit, I got a kick out of this one, it's the teens version of a stoner comedy. And Doug is just so much fun!

    1. I think Cheech or Chong ended up using Doug's mustache!

      I need to watch it again after a few bottles of legal beer! :-)