Monday, December 8, 2008
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is an absurd, utterly bizarre farce, an unlikely silent film whose hero is the drug-addicted and wildly incompetent detective Coke Ennyday (Douglas Fairbanks). This weird little short has an impressive pedigree, featuring the writing talents of none other than Tod Browning (!), an uncredited D.W. Griffith (!!), and prolific intertitle scribe Anita Loos, whose soon-to-be husband John Emerson directs. It's hard to know why all this talent needed to be concentrated in one place, though, since the film is basically a really silly, hilarious one-man show with a succession of physical gags designed to suit its star's strengths. Fairbanks drives the action singlehandedly; his exuberant physicality and goofy facial expressions are continually at center stage, and when there's something he can't do outright, a bit of subtle backwards-running film is sufficient to pull off some of the wilder gags, where he seems to go leaping impossibly into the air.
The film is an unabashedly pro-drug comedy, presumably made in an era before widespread anti-drug regulation. The hero is a "scientific detective" who propels himself through his cases by ingesting prodigious quantities of drugs, which give him the pep and vigor he needs to defeat any adversaries. He has a bandolier of syringes strapped to his chest and a huge tub on his desk labeled "cocaine" in big block letters, from which he grabs handfuls of white powder to rub all over his face. The clock on his wall has only four labels, to indicate the four states of Coke Ennyday's life: sleep, eats, drinks, and of course dope. When Coke is enlisted to find the source of the wealth of a mysteriously rich stranger (Allan Sears), he doesn't so much conduct an investigation as simply hurl himself, bopping and jiving, into the vicinity of his target, letting the chaos that inevitably breaks loose lead him through the mystery. Fairbanks is a fount of energy, literally bouncing and shaking with every step whenever he's just taken some drugs. And after a certain point, when Coke gobbles down a few heaping handfuls of opium (stolen from the smuggling ring he's supposed to be busting), he just never stops bouncing. It's like he can't walk a step without adding some extraneous movement into the simple motion. He hops around like a bunny, crashing obliviously into walls, turning in circles, a goofy grin on his face and his eyes popping out of his head. It's so much mad fun that everyone else in the film especially token love interest cutie Bessie Love looks like they're going to bust out laughing every time they're onscreen with Fairbanks.
Beyond its over-the-top slapstick humor, the film doesn't really have much else to offer. Its construction is as fast-paced as Fairbanks himself, and at times it seems like the editing is trying desperately to keep up with the antics of the super-charged star. The intertitles fly by so briskly that some of them are gone before anyone save an unblinking speed-reader could catch more than a word. The whole thing seems to have been filmed, acted, and edited while under the influence of some serious uppers, and one wonders if some of those tubs of white powder were filled with the real thing. The film is ostensibly a parody of Sherlock Holmes who in the original Arthur Conan Doyle novels was a prolific opium user but the only real nod to Holmes is the outrageous checkered coat and hat that Ennyday wears, pulling it from a big valise conspicuously lettered "disguises." Really, the film's only real reason for existence is to give Fairbanks an excuse to act his nuttiest, and the scenario supplies plenty of gags tailored to the actor's boundless enthusiasm. But even if Fairbanks is the indisputable center of the action, there's also a great deal happening around him, and the frame is often littered with sight gags, especially in his cluttered laboratory, where clearly marked signs point out the objects of interest. This is a fun, shamelessly silly farce, a drug-fueled burst of slapstick energy.