MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH, THE (John Emerson, 1916, USA, 20m, BW)
Written by Anita Loos (intertitles)
Story by Tod Browning
Cinematography John W. Leezer
Distributed by Triangle Film Corporation
June 11, 1916
Country United States
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is a 1916 American short silent comedy film starring Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, and Alma Rubens. Directed by John Emerson, the story was written by Tod Browning with intertitles by Anita Loos. A 35 mm print of the film still exists in its entirety and is currently in the public domain.
Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday
Bessie Love as the little fish blower
Alma Rubens as his female accomplice
Allan Sears as Gent Rolling in Wealth (Credited as A.D. Sears)
Charles Stevens as Japanese Accomplice
Tom Wilson as Police Chief I.M. Keene
In this unusually broad comedy for Fairbanks, the acrobatic leading man plays "Coke Ennyday", a cocaine-shooting detective who is a parody of Sherlock Holmes. Ennyday is given to injecting himself from a bandolier of syringes worn across his chest, and liberally helps himself to the contents of a hatbox-sized round container of white powder labeled "COCAINE" on his desk.
Fairbanks's character otherwise lampoons Sherlock Holmes with checkered detective hat, clothes and even car, along with the aforementioned propensity for injecting cocaine whenever he feels momentarily down, then laughing with delight. A device used for observing visitors, which is referred to in the title cards as his "scientific periscope", bears a close resemblance to a modern closed-circuit television. What is apparently a clock face has "EATS, DRINKS, SLEEPS, and DOPE" instead of numbers.
The film displays a lighthearted and comic attitude toward Coke Ennyday's use of cocaine and laudanum. While he catches a gang of drug smugglers, he does so after consuming most of their opium.
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released in 1916, one year before the Harrison Act was enacted. Narcotic prohibition was still a new concept in the United States, and the use of opiates and cocaine was much more socially acceptable than today. Furthermore, the censorious Hays Code would not be instituted for another fourteen years after the film's release. With the introduction of the code, depictions of intravenous drug use were not shown in major motion pictures. During the era of the Hays Code, films that dealt with controversial topics such as drug use were morality plays that illustrate the degradation that surrounds the use of such drugs.
This legendary comedy short is crude and ramshackle but lives up to its reputation for unorthodox content. Fairbanks, with his air of commotion and excitability, often seemed to be under the influence of something or other - a thought which was presumably the genesis of this picture. He plays private eye Coke Ennyday, who is festooned with hypodermics, keeps a bowl of cocaine on his desk as big as Pacino's in Scarface, and whose preferred tipple is a compound of laudanum and prussic acid. Humour, 1916. It's Coke vs a gang of opium smugglers who bring the stuff ashore in rubber fish inflated by a teenage Bessie Love. Billed as 'Inane, the little fish blower', she parodies the cliché of the helpless waif with great exuberance.
The movie begins with Coke Ennyday at home, in his dressing-gown. His clock says “Dope, Drinks, Sleep, Eats” on it. Coke goes ahead and shoots up, and his servant prepares an elaborate drink in the chemical laboratory. Before he can continue with this elaborate schedule, however, a man from the secret service arrives with a job. They’ve discovered a man “rolling in wealth, without any visible means of support” living in “Short Beach” and they want Ennyday to investigate. He needs to take another injection and blow cocaine all over the place before agreeing to the job. After the police constable leaves, he gets up to prepare for going out, removing his dressing gown and revealing the bandolier of syringes beneath. He dressed in matching checkered pants, deerstalker cap, and overcoat and goes out to a checkered car to drive to Short Beach.
The man “rolling in wealth” meanwhile gets out of bed with some difficulty – he’s buried in dollar notes, and his house is cluttered with the stuff. He tells his servant to “press out a bundle of money” and also gets ready for his day of work. He runs a seaside bath house that rents swimsuits and “leaping fish” (actually inflatable fish that can be used as flotation devices). One of his employees is Bessie Love, known for some reason (ahem!) as the fish-blower. His other employees are swarthy men in yellowface, one of whom demands the fish-blower as payment for his ongoing silence about the real source of the wealthy man’s income. Shortly after he arrives, Ennyday sees the fish-blower in peril in the water, and dives in to save her, winding up face down in the muck. She manages to rescue him with an injection and he finds out about the leaping fish.
Ennyday’s fish isn’t fast enough, so he injects it with coke and catches up to the smugglers. When they bring in their leaping fish to the bath house, he watches from the rafters (after a typically acrobatic leap) as they pull opium out of the fish. Now he’s onto them! They wrap up the opium and the fish-blower in blankets and head out to a laundry, but Ennyday manages to secure one of their cans of opium and takes it orally, which has the effect of hopping him up even more than all his cocaine. Now he runs out after them and finds the gang in a Chinese laundromat. He fights the gang, bouncing around in his drugged-out state and injecting them one at a time so that they are unable to resist. The fish-blower has managed to beat up her assailant and just needs Ennyday to open the door and let her out the room they locked her in. The police arrive with a Black Maria and take the gang in. Ennyday has saved the day! The movie ends with a brief epilogue showing the script being rejected by the scenario editor.
The part that will really stand out to modern viewers is its comedic use of drugs, something we associate with much later comedy (think of Cheech and Chong, Richard Pryor, etc.). Drug prohibition was still a fairly new concept and of course there was no Hays Code prohibiting the depiction of drug use at the time, but this is still a very unusual approach to a 1916 comedy. Even Griffith’s depiction of “Dopacoke” wasn’t used for “vulgar” comedic purposes! Apparently Fairbanks himself later regretted making the movie, and it later became a kind of cult hit.
Douglas Fairbanks became one of the world's most popular movie stars very shortly after his cinematic debut. He had an impressive physicality and vitality that pleased audiences; his exuberance and energy rubbed off. Moreover, he was a canny businessman and a consummate screen artist. In the 1920s, he created a string of spectacular hits that still elicit "oohs" and "aahs" today -- from those that bother to see them. For some reason, Fairbanks has fallen out of favor, and currently resides on the list of artists waiting to be rediscovered.
Motion Picture Production Code (aka. Hays Code)
The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It is also popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. Under Hays' leadership, the MPPDA, later known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the Production Code in 1930 and began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The Production Code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States.
From 1934 to 1954, the code was closely identified with Joseph Breen, the administrator appointed by Hays to enforce the code in Hollywood. The film industry followed the guidelines set by the code well into the late 1950s, but during this time the code began to weaken due to the combined impact of television, influence from foreign films, bold directors (such as Otto Preminger) pushing boundaries, and intervention from the courts, including the Supreme Court. In 1968, after several years of minimal enforcement, the Production Code was replaced by the MPAA film rating system.
original name Douglas Elton Ulman
born May 23, 1883, Denver, Colo., U.S.
died Dec. 12, 1939, Santa Monica, Calif.
American motion picture actor and producer who was one of the first and greatest of the swashbuckling screen heroes. His athletic prowess, gallant romanticism, and natural sincerity made him “King of Hollywood” during the 1920s.
After college study Fairbanks began playing stage bit parts and by 1914 had become a popular Broadway actor. He made his first film, The Lamb (1915), under the direction of D.W. Griffith and in 1917 became head of his own producing company. Among his many popular pictures were The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926), The Iron Mask (1929), and The Taming of the Shrew (1929), in which he costarred with Mary Pickford, the popular leading lady to whom he was married from 1920 to 1935.
With Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Griffith, Fairbanks founded the United Artists Corporation in 1919 as a distribution outlet for independently produced films. In 1936 he publicly announced his retirement from acting but continued as a producer until his death three years later. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (b. Dec. 9, 1909, New York, N.Y., U.S.—d. May 7, 2000, New York), his son by his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, was a debonair leading man in the late 1930s and '40s who played roles similar to his father's. He later became an independent television producer in Great Britain and a company director internationally.
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