The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (John Emerson and Christy Cabanne, 1916)

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An amusing, if not terribly funny, “cocaine comedy” with several big names (Douglas Fairbanks, Tod Browning and – allegedly – D.W. Griffith) tied to the production, the least surprising being Browning’s. The reasoning behind this two-reeler remains somewhat obscure, other than showcasing Fairbanks’ comedic abilities in the role of Sherlock spoof “Coke Ennyday” (such as they are) and perhaps as a parodical piggybacking onto the serious 1916 adaptation of The Valley of Fear, as does the plot, so The Mystery of the Leaping Fish‘s main selling point is as a piece of campy cult enjoyment to see narcotic abundance as yet unchallenged by Scarface, Party Monster or The Wolf of Wall Street, and for that abundance’s role as a signifier for the legal and social reflections on intoxication in 1916.

Certainly, Leaping Fish is useful therefore also as a retrospective barometer for the racism embroiled in such moral relativity – cocaine appearing an “American” drug, worthy of a hero, in contrast to the malignantly orientalist opium (implicated, as it ever was in this era, in the abduction of innocent white women), but it is not that we should thank Leaping Fish for an entryway into such analysis. There are plenty of other, better films which illustrate this.

Although it certainly gains points for its production design and its meta-textual twist, Leaping Fish would be entirely forgettable and entirely forgotten, were it not for its drugged absurdism theme, and I cannot help but watch this para-postmodernist Sherlock Holmes parody without thinking again and again of how much better in every way Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. was, a mere four years down the line.

 

**1/2