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The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916).

May 14, 2010

The Scoop:
Movies have been around long enough now that the artifacts from their early days now seem like postcards from some strange, alien land. It’s not just the clothes and language that are so different, but also a lot of the assumptions and creative decisions which seem so odd in light of everything that has happened in the past century.

For example, there’s “The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.” This comedy short stars early action hero Douglas Fairbanks as an eccentric “scientific detective” named Coke Ennyday. And, yes, he’s named that for a reason — he shoots smack on a regular basis to give him the “pep” to solve his cases. He’s sort of an extreme parody of Sherlock Holmes.

In this case, he has to track down an opium smuggler (A.D. Sears) at a seaside resort, where he also falls for a beautiful employee (Bessie Love) whose job is to blow up the resort’s inflatable water toys (the “leaping fish” of the title) which are being used to hide the drugs. The story — courtesy of two other soon-to-be legends, Tod Browning and Anita Loos — is pretty slight and the sight gags are tepid at best. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Fairbanks film without his trademark swashbuckling and derring-do, but even that is pretty mild compared to his better, later films. Instead, the movie gets by mostly on its bizarre premise, which affords us a glimpse of the strange, strange world of yesteryear.

Best Bit:
The completely ridiculous twist ending.

Side Note:
This is a product of the short-lived Triangle Film Corporation, a studio founded by three of the industry’s top directors — D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett — as a creative utopia away from commercial, product-driven mentality of the other studios of the time. (Imagine a slightly more naive version of Dreamworks.) Despite producing some classics of the silent era — such as Griffith’s epic “Intolerance” and Sennett’s Keystone Kops shorts, plus memorable films from Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish and Fatty Arbukle — the studio was financial mess and went under in less than four years. It was eventually bought by Samuel Goldwyn and became one of the building blocks of his MGM empire.

Companion Viewing:
“The Ghost of Slumber Mountain” (1918) and “Zero Effect” (1998).

Only the Cinema.

Take a Look:
The entire film is available at the Internet Archive.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 28, 2010 12:17 am

    You have done it once more. Incredible read.

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