The Mystery of the Leaping Fish

Tired of tinsel?

Ready to recognise Tinseltown as tawdry?

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is a 1916 American short silent comedy film starring Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, and Alma Rubens. Directed by John Emerson, the story was written by Tod Browning with intertitles by Anita Loos.

In this unusually broad comedy for Fairbanks, the acrobatic leading man plays “Coke Ennyday“, a cocaine-shooting detective who is a parody of Sherlock Holmes.

Ennyday is given to injecting himself from a bandolier of syringes worn across his chest, and liberally helps himself to the contents of a hatbox-sized round container of white powder labeled “COCAINEon his desk.

Fairbanks’ character otherwise lampoons Sherlock Holmes with checkered detective hat, clothes and even car, along with the aforementioned propensity for injecting cocaine whenever he feels momentarily down, then laughing with delight.

A device used for observing visitors, which is referred to in the title cards as his “scientific periscope”, bears a close resemblance to a modern closed-circuit television.

What is apparently a clock face has “EATS, DRINKS, SLEEPS, and DOPE” instead of numbers.

The film displays a lighthearted and comic attitude toward Coke Ennyday’s use of cocaine and laudanum.

While he catches a gang of drug smugglers, he does so after consuming most of their opium.

Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance describes The Mystery of the Leaping Fish as “undoubtedly the most bizarre film Fairbanks made” and that the entire scenario is “a hallucinogenic odyssey into the absurd….”

Ready to describe Hollywood as Hollyweird?

The Purple Dawn

Hollywood, the movie colony, had been forged into existence by a small group of East Coast Jewish tradesmen who thought they saw a good thing in the nickelodeon, lured West by that fabled Southern California promise of 355 days of sunshine a year, and low-priced land.

The somnolent L.A. outpost in the orange groves they settled on soon sprouted ramshackle open-air stages, sun traps for their slow ortho film.

In a few years of churning out primitive and profitable two-reelers with their pirated cameras — always on the lookout for Edison’s vengeful process servers — the former junk dealers and glove salesmen juggled a chancy operation into a celluloid bonanza.

When word reached them that nickelodeon crowds all over the country seemed to be flocking to see favorite movie performers known only as “Little Mary,” “The Biograph Boy” or “The Vitagraph Girl,” the disdained actors, until then thought of as little more than hired help, suddenly acquired ticket-selling importance.

The already-famous faces took on names and rapidly-rising salaries: the Star System — a decidedly mixed blessing — was born.

For better or for worse, Hollywood would henceforth have to contend with that fatal chimera — the STAR.

Overnight the obscure and somewhat disreputable movie performers found themselves propelled to adulation, fame and fortune.

They were the new royalty, the Golden People.

Some managed to cope and took it in their stride; some did not.

The Teens were Hollywood’s halcyon days.

A new art form was being forged from day to day; the Seventh Muse made herself up as she went along, making money and having fun.

And if the nouveau riche film folk got tired from the furious pace, there was always “joy powder,” as cocaine was called in those free-and-easy days, for a sure-thing pick-you-up.

In fact, a “joy powder” manic movie comedy style rapidly evolved — the prime example being the Triangle-Keystone “cokey comedy,” The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, with Doug Fairbanks as a bombed-out-of-his-skull detective, “Coke Ennyday.”

In 1916 “dope” could be the subject of comedy.

The year of that film, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, English drug expert Aleister Crowley passed through Hollywood, taking note of the natives as “the cinema crowd of cocaine-crazed, sexual lunatics.”

Those were the days.

Hollywood Babylon I – Kenneth Anger – 1975

Amazon US:
Amazon UK:

Hollywood Babylon II – Kenneth Anger – 1985

Amazon US:
Amazon UK:

Hollywood Babylon is a book by avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger which details the sordid scandals of many famous and infamous Hollywood denizens from the 1900s to the 1950s.

First published in the U.S. in 1965, it was banned ten days later and was not republished until 1975.

Upon its second release, The New York Times said of it, “If a book such as this can be said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without one single redeeming merit.”

Kenneth Anger (born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer, February 3, 1927) is an American underground experimental filmmaker, actor and author.

Working exclusively in short films, he has produced almost forty works since 1937, nine of which have been grouped together as the “Magick Lantern Cycle”.

His films variously merge surrealism with homoeroticism and the occult, and have been described as containing “elements of erotica, documentary, psychodrama, and spectacle”.

Anger himself has been described as “one of America’s first openly gay filmmakers, and certainly the first whose work addressed homosexuality in an undisguised, self-implicating manner”, and his “role in rendering gay culture visible within American cinema, commercial or otherwise, is impossible to overestimate”, with several being released prior to the legalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults in the United States.

He has also focused upon occult themes in many of his films, being fascinated by the English gnostic mage and poet Aleister Crowley, and is an adherent of Thelema, the religion Crowley founded.

Then perhaps you’re ready for 2020.

Gallery | This entry was posted in Books, History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Mystery of the Leaping Fish

  1. Boris Tabaksplatt says:

    The c!ue as to why this film was made lies in the name of the production company, Triangle, which was owned by the US Secret Service (part of the privately owned Federal Treasury) and used to make propaganda films like this Fairbanks epic. I think the three messages from the film were to promote drug use, to black-wash the police and the Chinese nation. comman memes in many old films.

  2. malagabay says:

    Triangle Film Corporation (also known as Triangle Motion Picture Company) was a major American motion-picture studio, founded in July 1915 in Culver City, California and terminated 7 years later in 1922.

    Triangle was envisioned as a prestige studio based on the producing abilities of filmmakers D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett.

    With the exception of Oh, Mabel Behave (1922), all of Triangle’s films were released between 1915 and 1919.

    Most films were made on the West Coast, but some of Triangle’s production took place in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

    [A modern version of Browning’s “Pippa Passes”]

    Child of M’sieu – February 16, 1919 – Harrish Ingraham

    Moving Picture World (Jan – Feb 1919) – Chalmers Publishing Company

    Marie Osborne Yeats (1911-2010) credited as Baby Marie from 1914 and 1919, was the first major child star of American silent films, as an adult from 1934 until 1950, and now billed as Marie Osbourne she continued in film production’s, although appeared only in un-credited roles. She after retiring from the acting profession; in the 1950s carved out a second career s a costume designer for Hollywood film.

    Born as Helen Alice Myres in Denver, Colorado, the daughter of Roy and Mary Myres. She soon became — under mysterious circumstances — the child of Leon and Edith Osborn, who called her Marie and added the “e” to the surname, apparently to obscure the adoption.

    Her foster parents, the Osbornes, introduced their daughter to silent films when they left Colorado to work at Balboa Studios in Long Beach, California. Osborne made her debut credited as Baby Osbourne in 1914’s short drama film Kidnapped in New York.

    Signed to a lucrative contract with Balboa Films (and working with director Henry King and writer Clara Beranger), by the age of five she was starring in silent films, including her best remembered movie, Little Mary Sunshine, from 1916, one of her few films which still survive on celluloid.

    Some of her other films are Maid of the Wild (1915), Sunshine and Gold (1917), What Baby Forgot (1917), Daddy’s Girl (1918), The Locked Heart (1918), Winning Grandma (1918), The Sawdust Doll (1919), and Daddy Number Two (1919).

    At the age of eight, she completed her final film as a child star, Miss Gingersnap in 1919.

    In all, she was featured or starred in 29 films in a six-year period.

    Pippa Passes is a verse drama by Robert Browning.

    It was published in 1841 as the first volume of his Bells and Pomegranates series, in a low-priced two-column edition for sixpence and next republished in Poems[clarification needed] in 1848, which received much more critical attention.

    A young, blameless silk-winding girl is wandering innocently through the environs of Asolo, in her mind attributing kindness and virtue to the people she passes.

    She sings as she goes, her song influencing others to act for the good—or, at the least, reminding them of the existence of a moral order.

    The work caused some controversy when it was first published, due to the matter-of-fact portrayals of many of the area’s more disreputable characters—notably the adulterous Ottima—and for its frankness on sexual matters.

    Despite this, the most famous passage in the poem is charming in its innocence:[citation needed]

    The year’s at the spring,
    And day’s at the morn;
    Morning’s at seven;
    The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
    The lark’s on the wing;
    The snail’s on the thorn;
    God’s in his heaven—
    All’s right with the world!

    A distressing blunder
    Besides the oft-quoted line “God’s in his Heaven/All’s right with the world!” above, the poem contains an error rooted in Robert Browning’s unfamiliarity with vulgar slang. Right at the end of the poem, in her closing song, Pippa calls out the following:

    But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
    Toll the world to thy chantry;
    Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
    Full complines with gallantry:
    Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
    Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,

    Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

    “Twat” both then and now is vulgar slang for a woman’s external genitals, but at the earlier time of the poem, many middle-class readers were not familiar with it, or if they were, did not mention it.

    It has become a relatively mild epithet in parts of the UK, but vulgar elsewhere.

    When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary enquired decades later where Browning had picked up the word, he directed them to a rhyme from 1660 that went thus: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.”

    Browning apparently missed the vulgar joke and took “twat” to mean part of a nun’s habit, pairing it in his poem with a priest’s cowl.

    The mistake was pointed out by H. W. Fay in 1888.

    It inspired a silent film adaptation starring Gertrude Robinson (and including Mary Pickford in a minor role) which was made in 1909. The film omitted the scenes involving Luigi and the Monsignor, and included a new episode involving a repentant drunkard. It was directed by D. W. Griffith (with cinematography by Arthur Marvin), whose experiments with naturalistic lighting were deemed a great success; he later named it as his greatest film.

    An adaptation of A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon was to follow in 1912, and another Griffith film, The Wanderer (1913) reproduces the theme of Pippa Passes with a flutist instead of a singer.

    Pippa Passes was revived at the Neighborhood Playhouse by Alice Lewisohn on 17 November 1918, and was a great success.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.