September 03, 2009

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

In 1915, an athletic 32 years old Broadway actor moved to California and signed the contract that would start a legendary career. His name was Douglas Fairbanks, and his meeting with director D.W. Griffith at Triangle Pictures would be the first step in the road that would take him to be known as The King of Hollywood. At Triangle, Fairbanks met directors Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, as well as Griffith's favorite writer, Anita Loos; under their wing, Fairbanks would make many of his early films, most of them romantic comedies, in which Fairbanks' natural charm and athletic abilities would make him a favorite of the public. Amongst those early comedies, there's a strange little film that even now, almost 100 years after its production, remains a curiosity as fun and bizarre as when it was first released: the short film "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish", a surreal comedy about a cocaine-shooting detective named "Coke Ennyday". Behind this twisted Sherlock Holmes parody was Tod Browning (later a legendary filmmaker by his own right), who joined Griffith and Loos as writer.

Douglas Fairbanks is Coke Ennyday, "the world's greatest scientific detective", a man gifted with not only a brilliant mind for science and great deductive talents, but also with the ability of consuming huge doses of drug without any problem. In fact, it could be said that Ennyday's life wouldn't be the same without his constant injections of cocaine, as whenever he feels down or needs energy, his loyal syringes will get him high and laughing again. One day Coke is visited by Police Chief I.M. Keene (Tom Wilson), who asks him to investigate a suspicious gentleman (Allan Sears) so rich that literally rolls in wealth. Apropriately dressed in checkered detective hat and coat (and car!), Coke begins his investigation, which conveniently takes him to discover a gang of opium smugglers who operate in the beach and transport the drug in fish-shaped lifesavers known as "Leaping Fishes". But this adventure has something else for Coke besides his beloved opium, as he also will have to save the young girl in charge of the "Leaping Fishes" (Bessie Love) from the gang of smugglers.

The story, written by Tod Browning and D.W. Griffith (under the pseudonym Granville Warwick), is mainly a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous character, detective Sherlock Holmes. Playing with Holmes' addiction to cocaine and taking the idea to the extreme, Browning and Griffith create a wacky story filled with absurd situations in which Coke's joyful consume of drugs serves nicely for comedy effect. It's very interesting how the short film keeps an irreverent and subversive tone, handling drug addiction in a very lighthearted way (an attitude that perhaps would not be seen in cinema again until the 1960s). The surreal world of Coke Ennyday, with his weird car and his "scientific periscope" (a prediction of closed-circuit television?), displays the bizarre originality of Browning's particular style of fantasy. The inter-titles, while not some of Anita Loos' best work, do have the witty style she was known for, and suit perfectly the joyfully irreverent tone of the short film. Perhaps at its core it's still a typical story, but one with a style of its own.

Directed by Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" shines because of three main assets: its unusual and outrageous screenplay, the effective work of Art Direction, and of course, the talent and charm of Douglas Fairbanks. The directors seem to realize this and in turn, decide to keep things simple and let the story flow freely by focusing on Fairbanks and his character's antics, as well as letting him show some of his athletic skill in certain scenes. Cinematgrapher John W. Leezer has the chance of a couple of interesting camera effects (although nothing that had not been seen before), but in general, the movie is quite simple in style and execution, following strictly the pattern set by the legendary D.W. Griffith (after all, Cabanne began as Griffith's assistant). An efficient albeit perhaps unimaginative craftsman, Cabanne takes no risks and keeps the basic line set by previous comedies of the same kind. Nevertheless, it's worth to point out that the pace given to the film is appropriately dynamic, considering its curious set of characters.

Being gifted with great screen presence and a natural talent, it's not a surprise that Douglas Fairbanks reached Hollywood's heights as fast as he did. While still not the kind of character that would make him famous, Fairbanks seems to enjoy himself in the role of Coke Ennyday. With a character as silly and unpredictable as Coke, Fairbanks allows himself to exaggerate, overact and play the fool; but still, he never feels wrong or out of place as the story is precisely about nothing else but playing the fool. Under the effects of his drugs, Coke lives untied by the norms and owns an unnatural luck; Fairbanks takes those traits of his character as a chance to engage in physical comedy. As his romantic interest, Bessie Love doesn't have much to do, as her role is quite stereotypical and could be considered as one of the few "normal" characters in the short film. Nevertheless, her sweet quietness provides an effective counterpart to Coke's wild antics. The rest of the cast is pretty much OK, delivering pretty much the standard quality from Triangle Productions.

As written above, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a great early example of the wild imagination of Tod Browning. Like "Sunshine Dad" (from the same year), it displays his fascination with irreverent characters who live outside the norm, as well as his taste for surreal, bizarre comedy. It's a shame that the directing, by Cabanne and Emerson is so uninspired, because a screenplay like Browning's could had been exploited in more imaginative ways. It's true that Emerson had already directed Fairbanks's hit "His Picture in the Papers", but a great deal of Emerson's success had to do with Anita Loos' (teammate and later wife) witty screenplays so, it wouldn't be fair to blame Cabanne entirely for the unoriginal, dull style of "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish". Certainly, given his amount of work and reputation, Cabanne would be the most logical suspect, but I don't think that Emerson is without guilt. Anyways, the fact is that the work of directing is a tad mediocre, and definitely unworthy of such an imaginative script and such an explosive lead actor.

Weird, bizarre, and truly unique, "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is a very interesting film that, despite its age and short runtime, still can get laughs because of its handling of the absurd, and it's complete irreverence. Given the generally innocent concept we have of the "good old days", it's at first hard to imagine a movie dealing with drugs in such a liberal, carefree way as this; specially a movie starring Douglas Fairbanks, written by Tod Browning, Anita Loos and produced by D.W. Griffith. Such legendary names carry so much weight that the shock is of a certainly big proportion. But in the end, those icons also knew how to laugh, and "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is simply a group of very talented friends who one day got together and decided to make a wild, crazy movie about a detective named Coke Ennyday. Who would use coke any day.