The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is one of those rare, quirky films that upon discovery of its existence, and when it was made (1916), and that Douglas Fairbanks of all people stars as Detective Coke Ennyday, an American coke and opium-addled spoof of Sherlock Holmes, most new initiates’ reactions range from “Really??!” to “Wow!!” Douglas was so well known as playing the (young) man who faces adversity, makes good out of tough circumstances, and emerges the hero with the girl of his dreams, that it’s hard for most people to imagine Douglas Fairbanks engaging in raw vaudevillian, slap-stick physical comedy about hard-core drugs, but The Mystery of the Leaping Fish proves it was done once.
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was classified as a “short” – two reels long, running at only 25 minutes — and was released on June 11, 1916. According to Tracey Goessel, in her meticulously-researched and well-written 2015 bio, The First King of Hollywood: The life of Douglas Fairbanks, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released on the same day and shown in tandem with Reggie Mixes In, a full-length (5 reels) feature. The producer, Triangle Films, run by the ever-resourceful Harry Aitken, needed a 2-reel Keystone-Komedy so they plugged in the first available actor – Fairbanks.
Looking back at The Mystery of the Leaping Fish 100 years later, the film can be viewed as an attempt to have Douglas portray a type of bumbling anti-hero encumbered by addiction to drugs, in a parallel manner to Chaplin playing a drunk, down-on-his-luck tramp. Chaplin’s Little Tramp and other actors’ physical comedy character roles (Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, among many) had great mass appeal. Coupled with the afore-mentioned need of Aitkens and Triangle Arts for a 2-reel comedy PDQ, the pressure was clearly on Fairbanks to perform whatever role Aitkens desired. It was to be the first of only two times Douglas stepped away from the character role he held the rest of his career: man-faced-with-adversity-makes-good-and-wins-girl. The other film would be released just a few months later in 1916, The Half-Breed.
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is truly over-the-top with ridiculous visual jokes and lampoons many of staid society’s cherished self-images, especially those held dear in the 1910s. There’s a clock that marks Coke Ennyday’s schedule with the four directions marked as “Eats, Dope, Drinks, Sleep.” There’s the lampooning of all things “scientific,” in recognition that perhaps too many things were being labeled ‘scientific’ as a means of stating its efficacy, while avoiding scrutiny that true science would demand.
There’s the villain, a man “rolling in money, with no visible means of support,” who calls out to his servant to “Press me out a bundle of money,” in this film where metaphors are visually, literally interpreted, with hilarious results.
There’s the send-up of all things “checkered,” as Detective Coke Ennyday drives to the scene of the crime in an outfit completely “checked-out,” including the car, the costumes, and the chauffeur, who participates in, what else? A game of checkers.
In a scene that was to proceed Woody Allen by 6 decades, Coke Ennyday reaches into his bread-tin-sized container, marked “COCAINE” and blows a cloud, dusting his face in white powder which he brushes to a sheen.
Then there’s the movie’s lampooning of silent films, their tropes and clichés. “Without a moment to lose Coke Ennyday arrived at the scene of action,” reads the intertitle, while Coke stops to play a game of checkers with his chauffeur as the “damsel in distress” ultimately rescues him. The “Life Saver” is anything but, in this brief clip that manages to slaughter many of the sacred cows that up till then had been created in film, mirroring those of society.
Being shown on the same bill as Reggie Mixes In, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish even parodies Fairbanks himself, as he wears the same checkered overcoat in both films, and both films have a duel “to the finish” between Fairbanks’ character and the villain.
Ultimately, I don’t think audiences were prepared for these inside jokes, nor were they perhaps ready to laugh at themselves, and found the self-parody tedious, not entertaining. And if the audience didn’t laugh, Douglas certainly wasn’t laughing either.
Douglas’ niece Letitia Fairbanks and co-author Ralph Hancock write obliquely of Mystery of the Leaping Fish:
In something they called, in those days, a “water picture,” and titled The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Doug was cast as a comedy detective and compelled to make a human submarine of himself. There were also, for good measure, a few duels in the dark with Japanese thugs and opium smugglers.
~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 134.
Having tried slap-stick once in Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Douglas promptly decided it was not a method of screen acting with which he could be comfortable, and didn’t ever again try vaudevillian slap-stick again.
In the 2008 Academy of Motion Picture Sciences biography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jeffrey Vance wrote “Fairbanks disliked The Mystery of the Leaping Fish so intensely that he wanted it withdrawn from distribution.”
But why was that? What about this role made Douglas feel it wasn’t his cup of tea?
The answer lies in Douglas’ niece, Letitia Fairbanks and her co-biographer Ralph Hancock’s, description of Douglas’ moral upbringing by his single mother, Ella:
In addition to a set of strong teeth and a flashing smile, Douglas inherited from his mother a full set of mid-Victorian attitudes. Ella succeeded in molding the manners of her sons after her native Southern traditions of gentlemanly behavior. Thus, as a result of her rigid training, Douglas was never known to have told a risque story in mixed company and rarely even in a stag group.
~ Ralph Hancock & Letitia Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks: the Fourth Musketeer, 1953, US Edition, page 46.
In today’s world (2016) a “full set of mid-Victorian attitudes” might not mean much, and would seem to be sooooo old-fashioned by today’s, no-holds-barred, 24/7 vulgarity that has entered much public discourse, especially in the US, but for Douglas Fairbanks, 100 years ago in 1916, there were certain boundaries that simply were not crossed, and that was the boundary from the decent into unrefined actions and words that were the hallmark of an ill-bred man. Douglas never used profanity – in front of anyone, and he never drank liquor, until the last three years of his life, after his divorce from Mary Pickford.
Many modern viewers have a hard time believing that Douglas was a teetotaler, especially after the 2011 silent film The Artist, swept that year’s Oscars. Jean Dujardin won Best Actor for his portrayal of a down & out alcoholic silent film actor, reputedly based on Douglas Fairbanks. The Artist ultimately won 5 academy awards, making it the first silent film since 1927’s Wings to win Best Picture of the Year, and marked a great revival in the public’s interest in silent films.
But the image of Douglas Fairbanks as a man who ended up a washed up alcoholic couldn’t be further than the truth. While Douglas did die in December 1939 a largely forgotten man – just 10 scant years after he and his then-wife Mary Pickford had ruled the world through their motion pictures — Douglas’ descent from fame was not the self-indulgent affair it has become for so many who achieve fame based on little talent and not much other than notoriety.
Ultimately Douglas Fairbanks’ fame, and fortune, rested upon the character he made his own: the self-made man who’s capable of overcoming any odds to win the day. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was a rare step outside of what was to become a safe bet, then a box, and finally a prison that trapped Douglas in roles he was no longer suited for, and by the end of his life, for which audiences had long ceased clamoring. Douglas learned to please his audiences, and gave them what they wanted, until they no longer wanted the daring-do that Fairbanks had so brilliantly offered up, time and time again.