Sunday, May 12, 2013

THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH (1916)

A  good pipe and a hypodermic needle is all a man needs.
The 3-reel comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is the kind of movie that the word "bizarre" was created for.  Critically-reviled in its day and all but disowned by its star, Douglas Fairbanks, the short was rediscovered by a more welcoming audience during the early days of home video. Not so much for its quality, mind you, but its quantity. Like, in kilos. For this is the birth of drug humor in motion pictures.


Every person in Hollywood today is wondering,
How do I get my hands on that can?
You think Cheech & Chong took a lighthearted approach to drugs? 
They're like the Moscow Art Theater compared to Douglas Fairbanks, who, as detective Coke Ennyday, shoots up regularly as Jay Carney obfuscates. No other movie in my memory makes mainlining such a source of zany comedy. Ennyday's regular reaction to shooting up cocaine is to giggle like a madman, swing his arms wildly and dance a jittery two-step. Put him at the elbow of Liza Minnelli and he would've fit right in at Studio 54. 

Ennyday, sporting a phony mustache which he turns upside down or removes depending on his mood, is hired by the Secret Service to investigate an unnamed "gentleman" living the good life without any visible means of support. If that's a crime, somebody call the cops on Anthony Weiner.

And it's even better on toast with jam!
Ennyday discovers his prey has been smuggling opium inside the Leaping Fish floatation devices rented at the beach. Always up for a new thrill, Ennyday decides to taste the opium, which appears to have the consistency of vintage Nutella. And instead of knocking him out as opium is wont to do, it sends him into a frenzy that lasts for the rest of the movie. Was nobody concerned with realism while making this movie?!

Ennyday's sweetheart, whose job is inflating the Leaping Fish, is kidnapped by the smuggler and his Asian henchman. Tracing them to a Chinatown laundry, the detective subdues the smuggler with a hit of cocaine, which sends him literally flying to the ceiling. The cops arrive. Ennyday saves his sweetheart. Fade out.

But wait! In the positively meta epilogue, we see Douglas Fairbanks (as himself) in the office of a movie producer, to whom he has just read the script for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. The producer advises him to stick to acting. This was the last time anybody said no to a movie star. 

Kim Kardashian's favorite mode of transportation
when trying to avoid paparazzi.
You'll notice that nowhere in the preceding paragraphs did you find the word "funny." For The Mystery of the Leaping Fish doesn't evoke laughter as much as it does open-mouthed disbelief. It's not just the drug gags that make you shake your head. Ennyday's front door is set up with a closed-circuit camera connected to his television -- in 1916. He travels in an ostentatious check-print auto (to match his clothes) with his butler perched on the backseat blowing a horn. Cops literally drive around in circles at the climax. The whole movie seems to be an elaborate private joke concocted by Fairbanks and his pals over a few drinks. When you consider that the scriptwriter was Tod Browning -- who went on to direct Freaks -- it all starts to make sense.

I've got a photo of me doing the same thing.
Fairbanks' career was ascending at the time, so just why he thought playing a cocaine addict in a drug comedy was a good move is a mystery greater than that of the Leaping Fish. Being the kind of guy who not only couldn't stand still but also enjoyed the occasional dangerous stunt -- like a handstand on the edge of a cliff  -- perhaps this was one of those "personal" projects he had to "get out of his system" before going back to, you know, good movies.


If I have my way, this will soon be a
common sight at Coney Island.
By the way, the Leaping Fish were a real craze in Los Angeles at the time, and ripe for reintroduction for swimmers today. (Memo to self: check on patent expiration date.) Ennyday makes them float faster, of course, by injecting them with cocaine, but I seriously doubt that would work in real life.

As with many movies shot on location at the time, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish provides a fascinating look at how provincial a city Los Angeles was decades before freeways and the post-war population boom transformed it into a sprawling mass of houses and traffic. The brief exterior shot of L.A.'s Chinatown shows an area as dusty and unpaved as in the days of Jesse James. What was once simply just another comedy is today an artifact of a time and place that no longer exist.

Some modern day viewers consider The Mystery of the Leaping Fish one of the most hilarious pictures they've ever seen. I've watched it a few times over the years and have laughed at two things: 
  1. Ennyday's telescope doubles as a hat. 
  2. Ennyday's sweetheart is identified only as The Little Fish Blower. 
It's coke time.
Neither of these are necessarily worthy of Oscar Wilde or even Olivia Wilde, but with a movie like this, you have to get your fun where you find it. Not that The Mystery of the Leaping Fish isn't worth a half hour of your time. But maybe it works best if you have a clock similar to the kind Coke Ennyday uses, to remind you when it's time to laugh.

Meta postscript: Alma Rubens, who plays the smuggler's girlfriend, died in 1931 as a result of heroin addiction.  

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