Review: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

Posted by Brandy Dean May 3, 2012 10 Comments 11215 views


Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of an awesome Toronto film fan, I had the opportunity to see The Mystery of the Leaping Fish last weekend. I’ve seen this silent short before, but it’s been awhile and I had forgotten how truly weird and oddball it is. I think a lot of silent film fans probably skipped this one, or never quite caught it. I also think a lot of viewers, even seasoned silent film viewers, will be surprised at how very subversive this little gem is.

dope-clock-Mystery-of-the-Leaping-FishThe Mystery of the Leaping Fish stars Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday, the “scientific detective.” Old Coke divides his time between, as the movie so delightfully informs us, “Sleeps” “Eats,” “Dope,” and “Drink.” Despite the fact that he’s coked out his gourd, he stumbles across an opium smuggling ring. The Chinese or Japanese or some kind of hybrid Chapanese are smuggling opium via “Leaping Fishes” amusements, i.e. inflatable fish rafts for rent by the seashore. For some inexplicable reason, a Gent Rolling in Wealth (A. D. Sears) is blackmailing the Gang Leader (William Lowery) to force the Little Fish Blower (Bessie Love) – yeah, you read that right – to marry him. Zaniness ensures, Coke Ennyday helps the Police Chief I.M. Keene (Tom Wilson) bust the smugglers, the Little Fish Blower doesn’t have to blow any more fish, do any more blow, or marry anybody, and all is right with the world.

The plot isn’t the wildest part. Aside from starring silent powerhouse Fairbanks, the scenario was written by Tod Browning. And an uncredited  D.W. Griffith. And intertitled by Anita Loos. Basically, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is the Traveling Wilburys of movies, with about the same results. Much like that pop super-group, the final product doesn’t measure up to the collected talent pool. In fact, the whole thing is just very… odd. Dare I say it seems like the product of some coke fueled lost weekend? The sort of thing that seemed like a good idea at the time?


None of which is to say you should not watch The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. You should watch it. One, Fairbanks, though he doesn’t look quite himself in this flick, is always Fairbanks. To see him do “coked up” is to see some of his patented amazing physicality. But mostly you should watch it to be boggled by the daringness of the subject matter and boldness of the satire. I mean, The Little Fish Blower? How very outre. Most viewers who sit down to watch a silent film made in 1916 probably aren’t quite prepared to see a lead actor wearing a bandolier of hypos and taking handfuls of white powder from a bucket labelled “cocaine” and rubbing it all over his face. It takes a lot to shock a modern cinema goer, but there are some, if not shocking, at lease very surprising things here.

Often, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is described as a pro-drug farce. I wouldn’t say that, but mostly because the narrative is too muddled to be pro or con anything. Coke Ennyday and the police seem to be a-ok with Coke’s coke use, but they take a less approving approach to the opium smugglers. Yet Coke dips into the opium as well. While the filmmakers have a firm grasp on the effects of cocaine, opium doesn’t typically get ya all jazzed up. Or, um, so I’ve been told. If there was some point being made here, I’m not at all sure what it was.

All in all, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is deeply weird. See it for the sight gags (check out Coke’s checkered car!) and Fairbanks at his absolute nuttiest. Also see it for strangely discombobulating experience of seeing it and puzzling over it.

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About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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There are 10 Comments

  1. Pingback The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) – Pretty Clever Films Pretty Clever Films – Silent Films & Classic Movies Discussed

  2. - May 3, 2012
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    Love your review! I truly agree it’s watchable and weird.

  3. - May 3, 2012
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    I remember seeing this film with a theater audience that howled at the casual drug use in the film, which is still startling to watch today, particularly Doug shooting up every few minutes with his trusty little hypo. You’re right that that movie doesn’t take a stance, pro or con, about using drugs; they seem merely there for the joke. The actual film itself is too loose and meandering to be truly funny, and it quickly loses speed (no pun intended). One wonders to what surreal heights the film could have reached if someone with the visual flair and discipline of Buster Keaton had made it.

  4. Pingback Win a Charlie Chaplin Modern Times Watch – Pretty Clever Films Pretty Clever Films – Silent Movies & Classic Films

  5. - July 11, 2013
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    Thanks, Pretty Clever Films, for an understandable critique of this “subversive gem”! I have read some truly strange comments on “Mystery of the Leaping Fish” that make me wonder if these writers comprehended anything at all about the movie. And then, there’s the problem that the 1916 attitudes towards drugs is not well understood in the 2000s. From stories my stepmom, Letitia Fairbanks, Doug’s niece, told me, cocaine was looked upon more benignly (used by white Americans) while opium was the scourge of Asia (used primarily by Chinese). There are all sorts of racial overtones that are hard to understand from our modern perspective, unless you read between the lines – correctly! And as you point out, with this subversive gem of a silent movie, that hasn’t happened.

    Thanks for your excellent review: intelligent, thought-provoking, and well-written. Douglas would have enjoyed the discussion!

  6. - September 16, 2013
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    This movie was a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s cocaine using detective Sherlock Holmes. The lampooned checkered deerstalker, inverness, and even car were hilarious.

  7. Pingback Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), The Butcher Boy (1917), Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Laughter (1930) | CarensClassicCinema

  8. - July 13, 2014
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    It’s called a Sherlock Holmes parody, but it also parodies Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective. Popular in its time, the Craig Kennedy stories haven’t held up as well as Holmes. You can find Arthur Reeve’s stories at Project Gutenberg or, as they are in the public domain.

    More ironic is the fact that Fairbanks agreed to do this movie, as he was something of a clean-living, physical fitness nut. He didn’t smoke or drink, and I’d be very surprised if he ever did cocaine or laudanum.

  9. - July 15, 2014
      -   Reply

    macsnafu — It’s true Douglas Fairbanks was famous for his teetotaling (he forbade the serving of all alcohol at Pickfair during Prohibition) yet Douglas was equally well-known, among those that met him in person, for smoking 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day. While Douglas Fairbanks Sr was perhaps the original and first Fitness Guru of America, he was always ashamed that he smoked cigarettes. And it was the cigarettes that led to Douglas’ early death, at 56 years old, from coronary failure, brought on by decades of smoking.

    • - July 28, 2014
        -   Reply

      Thanks for the reply. I didn’t know about Fairbanks’ cigarette habit.

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