Saturday, March 11, 2017


I don't know enough early films to say whether The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is the first American drug comedy film, so let's make a more modest claim: John Emerson's two-reeler, conceived by that beloved humorist of the cinema, Tod Browning, is the Birth of a Nation of drug comedies. I suppose we could be more modest still and call it the Inherent Vice of 100 years ago. It's almost certainly the weirdest performance ever given by Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who plays the "scientific detective" Coke Ennyday. While the name is a loose play on Arthur B. Reeve's then-popular scientific detective Craig Kennedy, the character's awesome drug habit is taken from Sherlock Holmes, and expanded upon immensely. The great detective sits at his desk, injecting himself with something every couple of minutes to restore his spirits -- he chuckles after each injection -- while a huge jar labeled COCAINE is within easy reach. A closet holds the detective's many disguises, clearly labeled as such, while a clock divides Ennyday's routine into four phases: drinks, eats, sleep and dope. This film was made two years after the federal government first cracked down on the distribution of cocaine and other narcotics, so Leaping Fish flies in the face of a national anti-drug hysteria in the admirably irreverent fashion of that era's films. A police chief, I.M. Keen, rings Ennyday's doorbell, and the slightly paranoid scientific detective pulls out his "scientific periscope," a proto-TV apparatus to verify the man's identity. After his servant, dressed like a giant bellboy, opens three layers of doors, Ennyday hears the lawman's appeal. There's a man in Short Beach rolling in wealth despite lacking apparent means of support. Certainly something requires investigation there!

In Short Beach we are introduced to the mysterious leaping fish, which are inflatable floating devices for coastal frolicking. We are also introduced to the film's heroine, Inane the Fish Blower (Bessie Love). That's what they call the girl who inflates the inflatables with an air pump. The lurking Coke Ennyday discovers her in distress, having fallen off a pier into shallow water. Skipping into action with the celerity of a Keystone Kop, Coke flings himself off the pier and plants himself head-first in the mud. Inane has to rescue him from this predicament, but he'll return the favor later. The man Ennyday was assigned to trail, earlier shown literally rolling in money in his bed, is, in fact, a drug smuggler; he sends two Japanese minions out to sea with Leaping Fish, and they return with contraband. Poor Inane knows nothing about this, but is threatened just the same by the amorous attentions of Fishy Joe. Another member of the criminal ring is the Chinese launderer Sum Hop. For you youngsters, that was more drug humor. Despite his perpetual daze some instinct drives Coke Ennyday to discover a cache of opium, which he commences to eat like cake batter out of the bowl. In the double climax Coke must battle the yellow perils and their white master, while Inane must defend her virtue against Fishy Joe. She defends it with all the vim and violence you'd expect of Douglas Fairbanks himself, wiping the floor with Joe, while Ennyday, quivering as if he'd OD'd on Acme Earthquake Pills, uses his trusty hypodermics to inject his foes into various states of stupefaction. One virtually floats through the ceiling, while another throws himself out a window. Finally comes the showdown with the mastermind, which conveniently goes down in darkness, with Coke conveniently victorious when the lights go on again. Once more Coke Ennyday has conquered crime, and this time he gets the girl, too -- only that's not the end of the story. Before we really got started with the story we were shown a quick shot of Fairbanks out of makeup, laughing at something he'd just read. The film closes with the real Fairbanks trying to sell the very story we've just seen to the scenario department at the Triangle Studio. The department head tells him to stick to acting, and Fairbanks exits with a pout. He actually did a lot of his own writing under the Elton Thomas pseudonym, but here he gives one of the great good-sport performances ever in what some have seen as a send up of his own already-formed frantic screen persona. It's an all-out fearless physical performance that shows the young star unafraid to look like a complete idiot, flaunting the fakeness of Ennyday's moustache, rocking his ridiculous outfits, and pretty much pogo-ing through most of the story as if he, the actor, really were on something. He helps mightily to make The Mystery of the Leaping Fish one of the damnedest things you'll ever seen. And you can see it right here, as uploaded to YouTube by one Ivan Smirnov. Check it out, man...

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