Friday, December 11, 2009


This notorious silent short (25 minutes) about a cocaine-addled detective is much discussed among film buffs but hard to see, so it was a joy to discover it on a boxed DVD set of Douglas Fairbanks movies, and even better to find that the film is not a disappointment, as so many long-lost cult items are. Fairbanks (Senior, father of the sound-era actor), with weird hair and a shaggy false mustache, is Coke Enneyday, a Sherlock Holmes figure. There is a giant dial on his wall divided into four parts: Eat, Drink, Sleep, Dope. He sits nodding at a desk until he takes out a syringe and shoots cocaine into his hand, then he gets a goofy smile on his face and starts bouncing happily in his chair. Occasionally, he dips his hand into a huge canister (helpfully labeled "Cocaine") and takes gigantic outrageous snorts, tossing white powder everywhere. When he gets up and turns the dial to Drink, his assistant makes him strong cocktails. But mostly, he Dopes, constantly stabbing his hand with a needle and looking slaphappy. He is asked to investigate the case of a stranger in town who seems to have money to burn but no visible means of support. It turns out the guy is the head of a smuggling ring, bringing opium into the country using a beachside flotation-device rental store as a front (the Leaping Fish of the title are the floats). When Fairbanks discovers the opium, he is positively giddy with delight as he samples some. The detective also has to rescue a young woman, identified in an intertitle as "Inane, the little fish-blower of Short Beach"--she inflates the Leaping Fish. Things come to a climax at the Hop Sum laundry in Chinatown where Fairbanks gets the gang members high on opium; they proceed to prance around with Fairbanks before falling to the floor in a stupor. At the end, there's one last very amusing and self-referential surprise.

Some folks have identified this as a pro-drug movie, which is just as ridiculous as saying that W.C. Fields movies in which the main character is frequently drunk are pro-alcoholism. Like a Fields movie, it's a farce, pure and simple, with no socially redeeming message*, and that's the problem for some viewers--we're so used to condemnation of drug use being an automatic part of any story that involves drugs that we don't know how to respond when rampant drug use is used strictly for laughs. I think even nine years into the 21st century, this would be taboo in a mainstream movie. Here, there is something liberating about seeing this likable character so wiped out on every drug he can his hands on, who still gets the girl and takes down the bad guy (and even steals some of the bad guy's dope). Fairbanks is hysterically funny; imagine Chaplin's Tramp totally zoned out and you'll get some picture of the figure he cuts here. With each stab of the syringe, Fairbanks bobbles his head blissfully, plays with his hair, and twirls his mustache. He spends most of the movie in a checkered outfit, riding around in a checkerboard jalopy, and more or less accidentally getting the best of the villains. I quite enjoyed this short film and highly recommend it. Available on the 5-disc Modern Musketeer set from Flicker Alley, and also on a single disc from Kino of a later Fairbanks movie called The Gaucho. [DVD]

* I'm not naive enough to imply that farces or shorts or W.C. Fields movies can't be read as having "messages," or that they don't have social or political worldviews inherent in their narratives (Fields might be seen as Huck Finn, escaping the tyranny of women, work, and laws by lighting out for the territory; i.e., getting good and drunk and staying that way as long as possible). No movie can be completely divorced from worldviews, but that doesn't mean that a coherent social message is always present.

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