The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

May 5th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: John Emerson | Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Allan Sears | US short film 25’

Douglas Fairbanks stars in this slapstick comedy whose curious title refers to the inflatable fish employed by early California surfers.

James Monaco once stated that the shock of discovering PreCode Hollywood cinema was a basic part of the education of every serious student of the film; The Mystery of the Leaping Fish preceding that fault line by a full fourteen years.

When ‘Easy Street’ was televised back in the sixties the heroine briefly found herself menaced in a cellar by a wild-eyed weirdo brandishing a hypodermic whose identity the narrator explained was that of a mad scientist eager to try out his new formula. Seen today it’s pretty obvious what was really happening.

Every generation thinks it discovered sin, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish shows that more than a century ago the state of California already possessed that quality in abundance, to the extent that when Aleister Crowley passed through Hollywood in 1916 with uncharacteristic primness he dismissed the natives as “the cinema crowd of cocaine-crazed sexual lunatics”.

Described by Kevin Brownlow as “one of most the bizarre films ever produced”, an unrecognisable young Douglas Fairbanks plays a detective with the incredible name ‘Coke Ennyday’ upon whose desk sits an enormous box with ‘Cocaine’ in big letters on the side and like Sherlock Holmes in the opening scene of ‘The Sign of Four’ is shown shooting up.

Venturing out disguised in a Kaiser Bill moustache (later revealed to be fake), walking with a Groucho Marx lope in a variety of loud checks in pursuit of a gang of criminals, he comes across a box of opium, his face lighting when he samples the contents into which he then enthusiastically tucks in, it promptly putting a spring in his step. @RichardChatten


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