Review: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)
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.
The 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.
Read more about The Mystery of the Leaping Fish:
- At Only the Cinema
- At Lolita’s Classics
- At W-Cinema
- Check out the intertitles at Intertitlerorama
- And dig on your home video options at The Silent Era
Thanks to the wonders of the interwebs, you can watch The Mystery of the Leaping Fish right now!