The Mystery of the Leaping Fish: Douglas Fairbanks’ Craziest Comedy by Half a League


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the uncharacteristically crazy Douglas Fairbanks comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916).

While Fairbanks was primarily a light comedian until the founding of United Artists, his comedies were usually of the straight, romantic sort.  This highly surreal jaunt was written by none other than Todd Browning, (Freaks, Dracula) with titles scripted by Anita Loos and direction by her husband John Emerson in collaboration with Christy Cabanne.

In this Sherlock Holmes parody, Fairbanks plays Coke Ennyday, a drug addict and detective who spends every second of the film snorting coke (which he keeps in a big can marked “cocaine”), shooting up, bouncing up and down, and giggling insanely. (Holmes, too, had been a cokehead, but perhaps with a little more subtlety). His house is full of whimsical spy devices. A man from the secret service comes and summons him to a case about a “suspicious man”. Ennyday dons his disguise — an entirely checkered outfit (with a checkered car to match) which couldn’t be more conspicuous. He arrives at the scene of our mystery, the beach. The titular “leaping fish” turn out to be inflatable water toys. He goes to rescue “the Little Fish Blower” (Bessie Love) and soon requires rescuing himself. We soon beome buried under an intrigue that involves drug smuggling and the Sum Hop Chinese laundry. It all seems inexplicable — until the twist that explains it all, and folds this highly idiosyncratic comedy nicely back into the Fairbanks canon.

This movie (much like the early comedies of the Marx Brothers) was later rediscovered by college students in the late 1960s and early 70s, and screened and screened before audiences who were,well, shall we say, in the right frame of mind.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including the films of Douglas Fairbanks, don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

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