The Mystery of the Leaping Fish Film Review

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish Film Review
Fictional detective extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes provided material for a number of silent films, but none more outlandish than "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish". Holmes occasionally injected a small amount of cocaine to sharpen his intellect; an idea taken to absurd extremes in this 1916 farce. Douglas Fairbanks's biographer Tracey Goessel infers the film is in bad taste while critic Jeffrey Vance calls it muddled.

What is ignored in their discussions of this quirky little movie is the way it is framed. "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" opens with a brief shot of Fairbanks in normal dress. He is holding a notepad and obviously regaling an offscreen listener with this crazy story. At the end, Fairbanks (playing himself) reappears. The view widens, showing Fairbanks in an office pitching this film to a skeptical script editor. His response is, "No, no Douglas. You had better give up scenario writing and stick to acting." A disappointed Fairbanks exits the office and the editor slams the door behind him.

The ridiculous plot and its inconsistencies function, then, to mock the idea of an overly ambitious actor who thinks he is also qualified to be a writer. "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" is an early example of the way movies comment on the process of filmmaking within a fictional framework. It also presages the professionalization and compartmentalization of specific functions in the studio era.

None of these observations take away from the unmitigated pleasure of watching Fairbanks act like a goof. Although he reportedly tried to prevent the film from being distributed, Fairbanks looks to be having a fantastic time letting loose onscreen. His drugged detective performs a constant, kinetic dance that is perfectly augmented by the contemporary rhythms of Jerry Marotta's score. "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" also demonstrates the live performance dimension of silent film. There is a sequence filmed on location in which there are bystanders on the street visibly enjoying the mayhem being recorded.

"The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" was written by Tod Browning, a writer-director famous for his disturbing visions of humanity in such films as "Freaks" (1932). Keeping this in mind, and the fact that "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" was made before drug addiction became an epidemic in this country, it is possible to enjoy the film for the guilty pleasure that it is.

"The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" was released in a remastered version with Jerry Marotta's score in 2001. It is included as an extra feature on Kino Video's DVD of Fairbanks's 1928 film "The Gaucho". I watched at my own expense. Review posted on 4/6/2020.

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