Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
Directors: Christy Cabanne and John Emerson
USA 1916
35 min
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens and Allan Sears, among others.

It is available on YouTube, but some idiot put modern techno music over it. I fixed another version and upped it on here: link

Oh mighty Demons, can this film be for real...?

Yes, I guess this film in fact is for real. According to the clock on the wall it's time for drinks right after our hero Coke Ennyday's heroin injection. Ennyday's assistent quickly mixes a cocktail consisting of equal parts Gordon Gin, Laudanum and Prussic acid. That ought to get them going!

Now I will try to start from the beginning. According to the first title card the story "concerns a professional incident in the life of the world's greatest scientific detective Coke Ennyday", played by Douglas Fairbanks. The scientific part of his detective work seems to consist of weird inventions (like a "scientific periscope" that looks like a television) and frequent use of all different kinds of drugs: heroin, cocaine, opium and God knows what he has in his Sherlock Holmes pipe.

His case in this short is to investigate a "man rolling in wealth" (literally) without any apparent means of support. This fellow, by the name of A. D. Sears (played by Allan Sears), is shown to make a living smuggling opium with his female accomplice (Alma Rubens). A lot of the dirty work takes place at a bathing resort who rents out "Leaping Fishes", (with Bessie Love as "the little fish blower"), and the rest of the business is done at a Chinese laundrette. Does it sound crazy? That's just because it is.

This bizarre story is a writing co-operation consisting of three big names: D. W. Griffith (as "Granville Warwick), Tod Browning and Anita Loos. Believe that! Douglas Fairbanks jumps around high on whatever drug it may be at the moment, injecting others with (I presume) heroin and still manages to get the girl in the end. All the time wearing very weird costumes. See screenshots.
The best thing is the ending, which reveals that this story was Douglas Fairbanks' attempt at writing a detective story for his studio, who kindly advises him to stick to acting. He looks like the impersonation of a sad smiley.

This little silent short is very interesting from a historical point of view: one can't help but be shocked by this film! Cocaine? In those days? Oh yes. It was obviously very popular in the first part of the 20th century.
As early as 1859 an Italian doctor by the name of Paolo Mantegazza returned to Milan from a visit in Peru, bringing with him some cocaine from the natives. He used himself as a guinea pig and documented the effects of the drug. He stated that it could be used in medicine, for example for a "furred tongue in the morning, flatulence and whitening of teeth". What a miracle medicine!
I guess we all know that "a pinch of coca leaf" was included in the original 1886 Coca-Cola recipe, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional character Sherlock Holmes used cocaine to increase his crime solving abilities, and that cocaine later was used to treat morphine addiction (!). The following quote was found on Wikipedia:

In 1885 the U.S. manufacturer Parke-Davis sold cocaine in various forms, including cigarettes, powder, and even a cocaine mixture that could be injected directly into the user’s veins with the included needle. The company promised that its cocaine products would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and ... render the sufferer insensitive to pain.”

By the turn of the century the addictive sides of the product was beginning to get clear. According to some information collected in 1902, 98% of the cocaine used in the United states was as an ingredient in tonics and potions that you could get at the local pharmacist.
On that subject I found an interesting quote from a 1903 edition of the American Journal of Pharmacy, that stated that most cocaine addicts were

 “bohemians, gamblers, high- and low-class prostitutes, night porters, bell boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps, and casual laborers.”

In 1911 new laws restricted the cocaine use, and its popularity waned in the 1920's. Then amphetamines took its place. But it doesn't take too much reading-between-the-lines to figure out that Hollywood was full of cocaine addicts all through the 1920's, for example the sad early death of Barbara La Marr in 1926.

Below is a 1925 poster on the musical "Cocaine", and the cover of a book that studies the use of cocaine in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.


Bill Stankus said...

I mean, laborers are casual for a reason, right? But it's those devious bell boys that cause all the real problems.

And, your movie de jur sounds like a really good party movie.

Christopher said...

"Leaping Fish" is pretty crazy alright..I think its on You Tube
Cocaine Toothache Drops for kiddies??....I'll take a case!..Wonder if druggist every gave you any crap when you went into the store to buy those things?
"You've been coming in here every week to buy those now!..When are you gonna have that tooth pulled??"

DKoren said...

Holy smoke, that is absolutely wild! The screenshots are so wacky I have to see it just to see how that all fits together! Thanks for sharing the wackiness!

Tom said...

How very interesting. It's a wonder this film doesn't get much attention these days. I would think it would be more popular. Thanks for sharing this.

MANDRA said...

Brilliant Blog! Greetings from Draculand.

Lolita said...

Bill Stankus:
I bet it would make more sense after a little Jägermeister! Haha!
Oh, those darn bellboys...

It's on YouTube, but some moron put techno music over the film! I added a link to my own upload of the film, with more fitting music.
Haha! Life was easier in those times...

Your welcome! I added a link so you can watch it on ;)

I think people like to re-write history to make it seem more harmless, and The Leaping Fish doesn't fit into that picture ;)

Oh, welcome! Thanks a lot!

Mykal said...

Lolita: Thanks sooo much for improving the sound track! -- Mykal