Douglas Fairbanks stars as a dope-addled detective named Coke Ennyday (Get it? Get it?) who must uncover who is smuggling opium into the country. Seems like a conflict of interest but there you have it. Bessie Love co-stars as the young woman in charge of inflating those famous leaping fish. No, none of this makes any more sense in the film itself.
He promises not to shoot up anymore. Or any less.
You know how sometimes when you are hanging out with friends, you start discussing the absurdities of pop culture? (Or is this just me?) And then you start giggling about what would happen if things were taken to their logical conclusion. “Like, what if Sherlock Holmes was shooting up all the time? Wouldn’t that be hilarious?”
And that, dear readers, is almost certainly how The Mystery of the Leaping Fish came to be. William Gillette’s screen adaptation of his famous stage Holmes was in production and this would have been common knowledge in the movie industry. Gillette’s play omitted Sherlock’s predilection for a 7% solution and most subsequent screen adaptations followed suit. “Hey guys, what if we put the cocaine back in but, like, have tons of it? Wouldn’t that be a scream?”
Douglas Fairbanks (who really regretted it in the morning) plays Coke Ennyday, a private detective and check aficionado who spends his days doping, drinking or sleeping. He keeps a belt of syringes around his waist and injects himself whenever he feels a bit down. If he really needs a kick, he powders his face with cocaine, using a giant powderpuff for the purpose.
Coke is hired by the government to investigate the smuggling of opium into the local docks by person or persons unknown. High as a kite and rarin’ to go, Coke injects his car with the good stuff and hurries to the beach.
His investigation soon leads him to a small business that rents leaping fish, large inflatable toys. Bessie Love (Colleen Moore’s bestie) is employed as the fish blower (the title is painted on the collar of her middy blouse) who must inflate the fish and fight off creepy marriage proposals.
The leaping fish concession is a front for the smugglers (Coke uncovers their cargo and eats it like jam) but Bessie gets kidnapped by the baddies and taken to their other hideout, the Sum Hop Laundry. (Hardy-har-har) However, Coke took the “hop” thing literally and bounces in, attacking the baddies and saving the day.
It goes without saying that this is a weird film. It was an oddball in 1916 and its reputation for weirdness has only grown over the years. I dare say that this is one of the earliest cult classics of American cinema.
Fairbanks and Love both seem confused by the material (understandable), though both play their parts with enthusiasm. Fairbanks trades in his stunts for general hyperactivity and Love rather thoroughly pummels the villains when they get too fresh. To be honest, most of the jokes fall flat but the film is buoyed by its sheer audacity.
There seems to be some confusion as to why the drug-addicted Coke would be hired to stop the importation of drugs. Honey, this is like asking why a cigar-smoking policeman would help to enforce Prohibition. Different slots, different slots.
In her book Hooked: Drug War Films in Britain, Canada, and the United States, Susan C. Boyd brings out that there is a racial element to the assorted drugs in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. While the big boss of the smuggling ring is white, most of the gang is ostensibly Asian and opium was seen as a public menace that would ensnare innocent white women. This film was made just nine years after President Roosevelt himself had to step in to smooth American-Japanese relations after San Francisco attempted to segregate its schools. Anti-Chinese racism had an even longer history, with immigrant workers abused, mocked and even denied a decent burial.
The word “context” is often used to excuse racist content and smother any attempts to discuss racism and sexism in classic film. However, this is a case when context is needed to understand the very premise of the picture. Coke uses “American” drugs and so it would make perfect sense that he would be called in to save his country from foreign products. (And if you want to argue about Coke using the opium himself, all I can say is that looking for logic in this plot is a fruitless exercise. Chill.)
On a tragic side note, a member of the opium gang is played by a nineteen-year-old Alma Rubens, who developed her own drug habit and died at the age of thirty-three. Her final screen appearance was in She Goes to War, made a little over a year before her death, and it’s hard to watch. Rubens is gaunt, hollow, her fragile health on full display.
Much is made about director D.W. Griffith’s possible involvement as the author of the original story under a pseudonym. While the film does indeed have racist stereotypes and an attempted rape in close quarters, two of Griffith’s favorite touches, I do not buy that Griffith was the brains of the outfit. (And, keep in mind, some Griffith fans would claim he invented the moon if they thought they could get away with it.) While Griffith may have been involved somewhat, the picture has screenwriter Tod Browning’s slimy fingerprints all over it. Browning would later specialize in directing seedy, sleazy films that somehow made it past the censors and it is easy to see that he is testing the waters here. (Compare Griffith’s dippy anti-drug afterschool special For His Son.)
The main problem with modern reviews of this film is that they overthink the thing. Why this and why that? How was it made? Why was it made?
I have some advice: don’t ask all these questions. Just sit back, relax and enjoy this bizarre cult classic for what it is. It’s not a good movie and it’s not a good comedy but I guarantee that you will be unable to look away for even a minute. Even good silent comedies are ruined by overanalysis and kitsch classics are even more susceptible to being discussed to death. Just sit back, relax and watch your jaw drop to the floor.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released as an extra on the Kino version of The Gaucho and was also included in Flicker Alley’s wondrous box set of early Fairbanks films. (The box is an investment but a worthy one. Before he was the king of costumed swashbucklers, Fairbanks made delightful modern action-comedies and eleven of his best titles are included.)