Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Allen Sears

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks seems to be channeling his inner Ford Sterling in this unusually broad comedy of drug abuse and seaside hijinks. He plays the detective Coke Ennyday, an obvious parody of Sherlock Holmes, who must investigate an opium-smuggling ring – rather like calling in a cat to investigate a tuna fish theft!

Mystery_of_the_Leaping_FishThe movie begins with Coke Ennyday at home, in his dressing-gown. His clock says “Dope, Drinks, Sleep, Eats” on it. Coke goes ahead and shoots up, and his servant prepares an elaborate drink in the chemical laboratory. Before he can continue with this elaborate schedule, however, a man from the secret service arrives with a job. They’ve discovered a man “rolling in wealth, without any visible means of support” living in “Short Beach” and they want Ennyday to investigate. He needs to take another injection and blow cocaine all over the place before agreeing to the job. After the police constable leaves, he gets up to prepare for going out, removing his dressing gown and revealing the bandolier of syringes beneath. He dressed in matching checkered pants, deerstalker cap, and overcoat and goes out to a checkered car to drive to Short Beach.

Mystery of the Leaping FishThe man “rolling in wealth” meanwhile gets out of bed with some difficulty – he’s buried in dollar notes, and his house is cluttered with the stuff. He tells his servant to “press out a bundle of money” and also gets ready for his day of work. He runs a seaside bath house that rents swimsuits and “leaping fish” (actually inflatable fish that can be used as flotation devices). One of his employees is Bessie Love, known for some reason (ahem!) as the fish-blower. His other employees are swarthy men in yellowface, one of whom demands the fish-blower as payment for his ongoing silence about the real source of the wealthy man’s income. Shortly after he arrives, Ennyday sees the fish-blower in peril in the water, and dives in to save her, winding up face down in the muck. She manages to rescue him with an injection and he finds out about the leaping fish. He rents one to pursue some men (called “Japs” in the intertitles) he saw bringing something in from a boat out at sea. Smugglers!

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1Ennyday’s fish isn’t fast enough, so he injects it with coke and catches up to the smugglers. When they bring in their leaping fish to the bath house, he watches from the rafters (after a typically acrobatic leap) as they pull opium out of the fish. Now he’s onto them! They wrap up the opium and the fish-blower in blankets and head out to a laundry, but Ennyday manages to secure one of their cans of opium and takes it orally, which has the effect of hopping him up even more than all his cocaine. Now he runs out after them and finds the gang in a Chinese laundromat. He fights the gang, bouncing around in his drugged-out state and injecting them one at a time so that they are unable to resist. The fish-blower has managed to beat up her assailant and just needs Ennyday to open the door and let her out the room they locked her in. The police arrive with a Black Maria and take the gang in. Ennyday has saved the day! The movie ends with a brief epilogue showing the script being rejected by the scenario editor.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish2This is easily the wackiest comedy I’ve seen from Douglas Fairbanks. It’s almost a Keystone in its anarchic wildness and satire, and it uses Fairbanks’s acrobatics and physique only slightly. It also has some pretty unfortunate portrayals of Asians, pretty clearly played by white men. The part that will really stand out to modern viewers is its comedic use of drugs, something we associate with much later comedy (think of Cheech and Chong, Richard Pryor, etc.). Drug prohibition was still a fairly new concept and of course there was no Hays Code prohibiting the depiction of drug use at the time, but this is still a very unusual approach to a 1916 comedy. Even Griffith’s depiction of “Dopacoke” wasn’t used for “vulgar” comedic purposes! Apparently Fairbanks himself later regretted making  the movie, and it later became a kind of cult hit. Personally, I didn’t think Fairbanks was all that good in the movie, which really needed someone of the caliber of Sterling or Chaplin to pull off the bizarre material. Fairbanks is a bit too much the all-American nice guy for this kind of satire.

The other reason this movie is notable is that it was apparently written or re-written by Tod Browning, who later went on to direct some of Lon Chaney’s best-known movies, as well as the sound pictures “Dracula” and “Freaks.” Christy Cabanne (who would also work with Bela Lugosi during the sound period) was the original director, but was apparently fired during production and replaced with John Emerson, who brought Browning aboard.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: John W. Leezer

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Allan Sears, Tom Wilson, William Lowery

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music), or you can rent it online from Flicker Alley at Vimeo: here.

Reggie Mixes In (1916)

This early feature starring Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his continuing development of his screen persona after “The Lamb” and his ability as both an actor and an acrobat. Produced by D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Film Company and directed by longtime Griffith associate and repeat Fairbanks director W. Christy Cabanne, it also shows the adaptation of the “gangster movie” to Fairbanks’s particular mix of action and comedy.

Reggie_Mixes_In1Fairbanks begins the movie, as he does in “The Lamb” (and the later “Wild and Woolly”) as a young, athletic, and handsome heir to a fortune with no particular ambitions in life. We see him sleeping in till noon and being harassed by his butler (who he calls “Old Pickleface”) to get up for breakfast. Once out of bed, he leaps over a table and does headstands, just to make sure we know he can. He takes a call from his girlfriend, a very posh-looking Alma Rubens, under his blanket in bed. She’s coming over for a party later, which motivates him to get dressed for company. At the party, she flirts with another man, but doesn’t accept his proposal for marriage, to Doug’s relief. Doug then proposes, and she accepts – Intertitles tell us that she was always more interested in his money – and he seems to have second thoughts.

Later, Doug and Old Pickleface are out for a drive and find a waif in the gutter who says she’s “losted.” Charmed, Doug pulls her aboard the car and drives her to her tenement home. We see him play with the child and try to break up a domestic squabble before he sees the girl of his dreams come down the stairs. It’s Bessie Love (still a teenager at the time), who is dancing at a place called “Gallagher’s” for pay. Of course, Doug decides he’s going to need to pay a visit, and he’s smart enough to dress down a bit to make the right impression. Despite this, he drags Old Pickleface along, maybe for moral support. They manage to get served, after Doug stops being polite and pounds his fist on the bar, and they meet the bouncer, who decides they’re OK. Tony, the head of the gas house gang (William Lowry), comes in and demonstrates his ability to push patrons around, and the bouncer talks tough but takes no action. When Tony tries to make a move on Bessie, she shows more interest in getting to know Doug at first. But when Tony roughs up the bouncer and another gangster fires his gun, Doug leaps up to hide in chandelier, and Bessie concludes that he’s chicken. He proves her wrong later by chasing the gangsters away when they try to strongarm Bessie into a car. After this display, the owner of the dance hall hires Doug to be his new bouncer, now he has an excuse to come by every night and get to know Bessie.

Reggie_Mixes_In_(1916)_1He gets a good reputation at the bar for keeping order, and is able to fend off several efforts by the gang to put him out of the way. In one case, Doug climbs the front of a building to leap down on his assailant in an alley. Meanwhile, his Aunt is of course worried about the company he’s keeping and his neglect of his regular social calendar. He comes to a costume ball with his old crowd, dressed up as a bouncer from a dance hall, and gets complimented on his originality when he shows off the dance moves he’s learned on the job. He again sees Alma with her boyfriend, and now he gets the picture and shuns her company. She sends him a note remonstrating against his neglect, which Doug foolishly leaves on a table for Bessie to find. The gangsters make another play for her and when he intervenes, Tony challenges him to a one-on-one fight in a locked room, instructing his sidekick to scrag Doug with a “gat” should he fail, The fight involves several chairs thrown out windows and broken tables, and Doug gets his clothes torn up, but emerges a victor. Before the other gangster can shoot him, the owner shuts off the lights and Doug escapes with Bessie out a broken window. The police raid the joint and presumably take several gangsters into custody.

Finally, Doug has to figure out how to marry the girl he loves. He arranges to send a false note telling her she has inherited $100,000 so that she’ll come to a party at his Aunt’s house. He meets her outside in his bouncer clothes and asks if she would marry him and leave all this wealth behind. She says yes. Then, he sneaks into the house and puts on his tuxedo. While Bessie is trying to get out to meet her sweetheart the Aunt says “You must meet my nephew, Reggie.” Now she sees him in his real clothes and true element, and he knows that she’d marry him whether he had money or not. They live, as we assume, happily ever after, once Doug explains that she isn’t really an heiress.

Reggie_Mixes_InThis movie has somewhat more of Fairbanks’s signature stuntwork and fighting than “The Lamb” did – presumably audiences were coming to expect it by now. I particularly enjoy his penchant for going up (chandeliers, buildings) when people expect him to run or fight. He obviously enjoys his acrobatics, he always has a gleeful smile on his face when he gets to do one of these moves. The story here is pretty contrived, and even for 1916, the characters and situations are cliché. The fact that it’s at least half comedic makes up for this to some degree. I was surprised by the sparseness of the sets, particularly in the “rich” setting of Reggie’s Aunt’s mansion, and there are very few camera movements or other creative uses of the space. It didn’t help that the print I saw was old and washed out. There are a lot of close-ups, however, and we see good use of inter-cutting at moments of emotional impact, as when Bessie finds Alma’s love note. Perhaps not a major contribution to the cinematic art, this is a good piece of light entertainment with a talented performer at its center.

Director: W. Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, William Lowry, Joseph Singleton, Tom Wilson, Allan Sears

Run Time: 45 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)

Martyrs_of_the_Alamo

In my recent discussion of “The Birth of a Nation,” I mentioned that Americans in 1915 were highly responsive to nationalist epics that portrayed their history as being as significant and heroic as the more established nations of Europe. This movie, also produced by D.W. Griffith in 1915, was another attempt to exploit that desire cinematically, and it presents some of the same problems for modern viewers. The story of Texas’s independence from Mexico may have had a special resonance for audiences at the time, since the Mexican Revolution had been raging for years, and would continue to rage for several more. American moviegoers also saw varied depictions of that war as it proceeded, but doubtless they also looked to the past for answers as to where the United States stood in relation to its Southern neighbor.

Mexicans, it seems, were given to standing in the street, waiting for opportunities to insult white women.

Mexicans, it seems, were given to standing in the street, waiting for opportunities to insult white women.

What they saw here no doubt confirmed their strongest prejudices. The “Americans” are a minority of fur-capped white folks (with one blackface servant), who are stoic in the face of constant harassment by sombrero-clad “Mexicans” and soldiers dressed like wooden-toy-soldier equivalents of Napoleon’s troops. Santa Ana (played by Walter Long, who was the infamous “Gus” in “The Birth of a Nation” and was a policeman in “Traffic in Souls”), an “inveterate drug user” given to “orgies” is a memorable villain – apparently the troops’ insults to white womanhood originate at his level. The “good” guys include Jim Bowie (Alfred Paget, who had been in “The Unchanging Sea” and “In the Border States”), who appears here to be a fop with a habit of constantly fondling his knife, a very tall Captain Dickinson (Fred Burns, who would later star in Westerns like “The Dude Bandit” and “Wild West”), and Silent Smith (Sam de Grasse, who went on to be in “The Man Who Laughs” and “The Black Pirate”). The flower of white womanhood is represented by Juanita Hansen (who ironically had problems with drugs and was also in “The Secret of the Submarine”) and Ora Carew (who had been “Dolores” in “In Old Mexico” and “The Gypsy Girl” in “Tangled Paths”). The revolt breaks out, apparently, because Dickinson’s wife is insulted, so he shoots down the officer who spoke to her in cold blood, and the Mexicans have the audacity to arrest him. Under the short-lived new regime, whiteness is spared from insults because all the Mexicans remove their sombreros and stand respectfully out of the way when Americans walk past. Never mind that this was the “cruel yoke of oppression” when applied to whites in the Reconstruction South in “Birth of a Nation.”

Jim Bowie, dressed at the height of fashion, eagerly shows Davie Crockett his knife.

Jim Bowie, dressed at the height of fashion, eagerly shows Davie Crockett his knife.

The movie was not directed by Griffith, but by Christie Cabanne, who is one of those directors whose sound work in B-movies I am familiar with (it includes the Bela Lugosi color vehicle “Scared to Death” and “The Mummy’s Hand”), but whose silent work I had only heard about, never seen. This may not be a fair movie by which to judge the rest of his oeuvre, we’ll have to see as this project continues. The direction appears to be adequate here, but I really missed Billy Bitzer’s camerawork. We do get some close-ups, particularly of the women’s and children’s faces during the attack, and some good stunts are caught on camera (particularly Mexican soldiers falling off their horses), but much of the movie lacks visual style. At some point, endless scenes of toy soldiers advancing on a fort and falling just aren’t that exciting. I was surprised by the relatively “gory” scenes of the dead after the battle had finished, with bloody wounds in heads and bayonets sticking out of chests. Overall, though, by the standards of late 1915, this seemed somewhat subdued in terms of visuals and action. I suspect it had a significantly lower budget than “Birth” had. There was also a somewhat annoying synthesizer soundtrack on the version I watched, which would have had nothing to do with whatever scores were played when it was screened in 1915.

Silent Smith isn't sure if this movie passes the Bechdel test.

Silent Smith isn’t sure if this movie passes the Bechdel test.

Director: Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Starring: Sam de Grasse, Allen Sears, Walter Long, Alfred Paget, Fred Burns, Juanita Hansen, Ora Carew, John T. Dillon, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hour, 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here (synthesizer score and all!)