Thoughts On: “The Mystery Of The Leaping Fish” (1916)

Hello all, hope you’re doing well! I took a little break earlier this month because…well…I figured folks might be a bit distracted. *wink* What to do while we’re getting back to somewhat normal? Cover one of the least normal films of all time, of course!!

None of this is photoshop.

So if you haven’t seen The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, I…really don’t know how to prepare you for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Gently, with a rose? With a joke-filled monologue? With a solemn discussion of its historical background? With a parental advisory label? This, after all, is a short that manages to be adult-themed, in bad taste, shocking and weirdly innocent all at the same time. I may need to ponder this on a remote mountaintop for a few weeks.

“…I still got nuthin’.”

Or I could just hurl you right into the plot and hope for the best. Problem solved!

Our “hero” of sorts is the detective Coke Ennyday, a Sherlock Holmes-type character, and yes that name means exactly what it says, doesn’t it? Coke dopes himself up with a syringe every other minute and also uses enough cocaine to make Tony Montana say “Slow it down, man.” He also a number of goofy “scientific” devices and an assistant dressed like a cross between a bellboy and the aliens from Plan 9 From Outer Space. Said assistant also helps get Ennyday properly doped up in the morning (the clock on the wall helpfully says “SLEEP…EATS…DOPE…DRINKS.”).

Warning: we get to behold this a LOT.

Yes, you just read a real description of a 1916 film. In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, there’s some mentions of Holmes being hooked on a “seven percent solution” of cocaine to focus his mind. Scenario writer Tod Browning (that Tod Browning) apparently remembered that bit of trivia and an uproarious two-reel comedy took shimmering shape. Nothing says “chuckleworthy” like spoofing drug addiction!

Containers of opium = hijinks!

Anyways, the Secret Service hires Ennyday to investigate an opium smuggling ring, because that sort of thing is clearly right up his alley. Most inexplicably, he discovers that they’re smuggling the drug in large inflatable beach toys called “Leaping Fish” being rented out to happy beachgoers. Can’t fault them for not being creative, amiright? Along the way he meets a pretty girl referred to as “The Little Fish Blower of Short Beach” (stop laughing so hard, you’ll hurt a rib) who works at the bath house. The dastardly leader of the opium ring decides to blackmail her into marrying him–unless he can be stopped by our hero Coke Ennyday!

I would totally rent a Leaping Fish.

Speaking of adult themes that are also weirdly innocent, there’s exaggeration, and then there’s Leaping Fish. The “bookend” scenes somewhat explain the surreal plot–but are they enough? Are they really? All the drug use is so bizarrely blatant and over-the-top that you wonder if the folks involved knew much about what they were lampooning. If you told a bunch of nine-year-olds to make a “funny” Edwardian film about drugs, this is probably what they’d come up with. That would also explain why opium apparently gives Ennyday a buzz comparable to a quart of expresso (I barely take aspirin, but even I knew that was way off.)

And now let’s examine our unfortunate actors. Poor Doug. Poor dear, sweet Doug. Notice how this normally confident, beaming actor can never quite make eye contact with the camera.

“I wish I was dead.”

Pity also the poor Bessie Love, having to use her wholesome, naturalistic talents for scenes like the one where she revives Ennyday by helpfully injecting him with one of his needles (did I mention he wears a bandolier of drug needles? Well, now that fact is taking up some of your valuable brain cells! You’re welcome). I did laugh at the scene toward the end, though, where she reveals she can really take care of herself.

Btw, these fish toys were supposedly invented just for the film (probably to Bessie’s eternal ire).

How did this unnatural concoction come into being? Back in the days when theaters frequently offered a whole evenings’ worth of entertainment–comedy short, cartoon, newsreel, short documentary, feature–Triangle theaters were merely packaging their features with Keystone comedies and calling it a day. Exhibitors reported that audiences were looking for more variety, so Triangle decided to create more two-reel comedies, starting with Leaping Fish and enlisting one of their feature film stars, Fairbanks. And yes, the scenario was by Tod Browning, who at the time had been recovering from a tragic 1915 auto accident. One can’t help wondering what sort of painkillers he had been prescribed.

It’s hard to stop wondering.

This wasn’t be the first silent film to incorporate drug use, although it’s one of the earliest to do it in a “ha ha cocaine dependency lol” sort of way. Drug use was frowned upon and warned against, of course, but the stigma it has today hadn’t quite made it into the public subconscious. One example is the Biograph short For His Son (1912), about a doctor who creates a popular soda laced with…of course…cocaine, and Charlie Chaplin’s Easy Street (1917) included a scene with a dangerous “dope fiend.” But admittedly, Leaping Fish has a tendency to totally steamroll over the memory of everything else.

Case in point.

It’ll surprise no one to know that for the rest of his life, Doug would pretend The Mystery of the Leaping Fish didn’t exist. We’re talking a hardcore mental block. He once took a distributor to court for stealthily cutting his Triangle features down to two-reelers and releasing them as comedy shorts. Doug’s entire argument against this copyright infringement was that he never starred in shorts, only feature films, so help him God your honor. Not even in the sacred courts of law was Doug willing to admit that Leaping Fish existed. (Not being the owner of those Triangle films in the first place, he lost his case.)

If you haven’t seen this baffling hodgepodge of slapstick and bad taste, never fear, for it is here. I hope you…enjoy? Is that the right word? In any case–I WISH YOU LUCK.

…Poor Doug and Bessie.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “The Mystery Of The Leaping Fish” (1916)

  1. Screamingly funny film (a real shot in the arm!) – I’ve seen this in theaters with the viewers falling out of their seats. That image of the clock is something that never QUITE leaves your mind…

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