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  • Benjamin May

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) Review

It's interesting how risqué and bawdy some Hollywood, silent-era comedies made before the invention and adoption of the Hays Code were. Topics like sex and drug use were free for parody on the silver screen, which the strict so-called morality guidelines imposed by the Code made impossible to explore. What was filmed in 1920 could get one fined or fired for shooting in 1930. 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' is one such film, a Rabelaisian comedy from 1916 that would have never made it past the censors only fourteen years after its' release.

Directed by John Emerson and written by Tod Browning, 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' follows narcotic enthusiast Coke Ennyday, a scientific investigator à la Sherlock Holmes. Drugs are Ennyday's wheelhouse and driving passion; he does so much cocaine he makes Scarface look like Little Orphan Annie. The stuff makes him the astute criminal catcher he is, and the police chief asks Ennyday to investigate a suspicious wealthy gentleman recently arrived in town. This takes the detective to the seaside, where he engages in madcap, stimulant fuelled antics as he tries to solve the mystery, get the girl and save the day- as well as the dope.

The film is raucous, wild and a little rough around the edges. Browning's meandering, absurd tale features bizarre scenarios and crazy moments that often border on the facile or immature; though generally provide laughter nevertheless. The film parodies the Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin style of detective softly- this is not biting satire by any means, merely some good-natured ribbing. The capers Ennyday gets involved with are of a predictable variety, though feel somewhat fresh due to the cocaine angle.

Though running at less than half an hour, the film loses steam at the midway point, with the result being that the latter half drags somewhat, feeling underwhelming in comparison to what came before it. However, on the whole, it is enjoyable; even if the narrative is slightly inconsequential and anticlimactic. Full of sight gags, drug jokes and physical humour, 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' plays like a Jacques Tati farce by way of a hop head's fever dream. It is not particularly inventive or impressive comedy, but will surely still entertain.

Shot by John W. Leezer, the film has a clarity of composition that is most striking. There are many intriguing optical effects at play throughout 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' - such as the reversal of footage- which are still impactful even today. Additionally, the set decoration is of a particularly high quality. The film's locations are packed to the gills with detail, with Ennyday's office being especially intricate and filled with amusing features and props. The costume design is also of note, with Ennyday's bandolier of needles being most memorable.

Douglas Fairbanks heads up the cast as Coke Ennyday, and the role is an unusual and welcome change of pace for the star. Though he appeared in a variety of comedies, Fairbanks never played a character quite as broad or as over-the-top as Ennyday. His performance is a charmingly excessive, expressive one, making the detective a drug-addled delight of ostentatious proportions. Fairbanks would later disown the film and his contribution to it; but he performs strongly and will surely make you laugh.

'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' is a bizarre silent movie that is easy to enjoy. It is not a particularly well-written or daring comedy, no; but it is an amusing one featuring a wacky central character that is certainly enjoyable, if not unforgettable. Boasting a wild and crazy performance from Douglas Fairbanks, an assured visual style and detailed set design, the film has plenty of impressive aspects. It may not be the finest film ever made, but it is worth seeing; as 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' is a curious, crazy cocaine-comedy the likes of which they could never make today.


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