D.W. GriffithsTod BrowningDouglas FairbanksBessie Love
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
Medium: short film
Year: 1916
Director: Christy Cabanne, John Emerson
Writer: D.W. Griffiths, Tod Browning, Anita Loos
Actor: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Allan Sears, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson
Country: USA
Keywords: comedy, silent, favourite
Format: 26 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0007108/
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 30 September 2010
It's an episode of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers! It's got exactly the same kinds of jokes and the same basic outlook on the world. More precisely, it's giving us anarchic, vaguely satirical comedy in which the protagonist gets hopped up to the eyeballs on drugs at every opportunity. The police are incompetent and possibly retarded, while cocaine can solve all your problems.
What's weird about this is that it's also a silent film from 1916 written by D.W. Griffiths, Tod Browning and Anita Loos, in the same year they made Intolerance.
It could be described as a Sherlock Holmes parody, except that it's not. It's certainly using Holmes as a springboard, but it's too far removed from Conan Doyle to remind you of him. Our hero ("Coke Ennyday, scientific detective") wears a deerstalker, but it's part of a trousers + truss combination in violent black-and-white check that makes him look like a cartoon character. He later drives a car entirely decorated in the same checkered pattern and, for good luck, has a quick game of checkers with his manservant when he's supposed to be embarking on a case.
The hero playing Coke Ennyday is the one and only Douglas Fairbanks, colossal action star of the silent era and co-founder of United Artists with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. He's brilliant. He'll eat handfuls of illicit substances and then jig around in happy idiocy like a wind-up toy. He's got a hat box on his desk marked COCAINE and a clock on the wall marked EAT SLEEP DRINK DOPE. He'll take drugs and giggle a lot even when supposedly interviewing the Chief of Police. However what's even better is that his cocaine syringe is practically giving him superpowers. Attacked by a villain? Inject him with drugs! Your inflatable fish isn't carrying you along fast enough? Inject it with drugs! This works, too. Coke Ennyday defeats about a dozen gangsters with the power of narcotics! They'll start jiggling around just like him and then suddenly hurl themselves through the ceiling or the window.
Mind you, he's also an irresponsible loon. Note the scene where he dives into the sea to save Bessie Love and immediately becomes a pair of legs sticking idiotically out of the water. In the end it's Bessie who saves him from drowning. Then there's the scene where the villains have kidnapped the girl and left behind a pot of opium! What will Coke Ennyday do? Will he... um, wait. Better make sure that's really opium. Yes, it is. Let's check another handful. And another. Wheeee, I can fly.
Authority figures are comedically rubbish. A lifeguard will take forty winks on his lifebelts and ignore Coke Ennyday drowning, while the police's attempts to speed to the crime scene involve endlessly driving around the same roundabout. "The police lost their way," say the intertitles. They're even more incompetent than Coke Ennyday himself, which in itself is pretty damn incompetent. However the flipside of this is that helpless maidens are far more useful than all-conquering heroes. You've got to love the scene where the villain gets Bessie Love alone and gloats, "Girl, you are in my power!" only for her to throw him around the room and batter the living daylights out of him.
What's interesting about all this is that it's a silent comedy that's not slapstick. It's relying instead on anarchy and surrealism, with sight gags like Coke Ennyday's Checkermobile, the skeleton in the closet and the man who's "rolling in wealth". The latter is being taken literally, by the way.
You might have gathered that political correctness isn't really on the agenda. Aside from the issue of illegal narcotics, there's also some mild racism with "Japs on the leaping fish" being opium smugglers from Chinatown who hide out in Sun Hop Laundry. Hmmm. I see "Japanese = Chinese" in 1916 Hollywood. Great way there to get yourself murdered by people of both nationalities, even aside from the opium-peddling stereotypes. There's also the (probably accidental) innuendo with the "leaping fish" of the title being something you pay money to ride, while Bessie Love's job is "fish-blower". Don't worry, there's an innocent explanation. They're inflatable fish at the seaside.
Then at the very end, we switch to a Hollywood office in which a movie executive is talking to Douglas Fairbanks (as himself, not in character). "No, no. Douglas, you had better give up scenario writing and stick to acting." Cue an outrageous mug from Fairbanks.
I've already touched on some of the talent that's surprisingly involved in this production. If you haven't heard of D.W. Griffiths, then you don't know the history of cinema. It's as simple as that. As for Fairbanks's co-stars, Bessie Love ended up moving to England and after a while gave up movies, only to make a comeback in several films in the 1980s. Alma Rubens though famously killed her career with cocaine addiction and died in 1931, aged 33. She's playing "His Female Accomplice", who's so irrelevant to the story that you might not realise she was there even if you'd been looking for her.
This film is both funny and surprising. If you've got any preconceptions about silent movies or indeed creaky old black-and-white in general, prepare to have them nuked. It's insane and a must-watch, especially since it's both public domain (i.e. legally downloadable for free) and only 25 minutes long. The public domain version's of horrible quality, mind you. Furthermore someone's given it a wonderful soundtrack (songs!), which then cuts out halfway through and the rest of the film plays out in silence. I believe there's also a digitally restored DVD. Great film. Mad film. I wasn't kidding about the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers thing, by the way.