Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), The Butcher Boy (1917), Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Laughter (1930)

Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)       Butcher Boy (1917)
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)  and The Butcher Boy (1917)
Un Chien Andalou (1929)         Laughter (1930)
Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Laughter (1930)

April 28, 2012

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, 1916.  25 minutes.  Director:  Christy Cabanne and John Emerson, with Douglas Fairbanks (Coke Ennyday), Bessie Love (The Little Fish Blower), Allan Sears (Gent Rolling in Wealth), Tom Wilson (Police Chief I.M. Keene), George Hall and Charles Stevens (Japanese Accomplices), William Lowery (Gang Leader), Joe Murphy (Footman on Vehicle), Alma Rubens (Gang Leader’s Female Accoplice), B.F. Zeidman (Scenario Editor).  Writing Titles:  Anita Loos.  Writing Credit:  Tod Browning.  Supervisor:  D.W. Griffith

The first and only time I ever saw this short film was when I used to stay at film Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)historian, William K. Everson’s apartment in Manhattan.  He had canisters of movies piled up in every room, taking up most of the floor space.  It was his son, Griffith who showed me this film sometime in the mid 80s when cocaine was a particularly popular drug.  It was an unusual, funny but a decidedly surprising film because I had never seen a film made that early that had drugs as its prominent subject.  And not only that, but both the hero and the villains partook by either using or selling.  So was the moral that it was good to use, but bad to sell?  Or was it okay to use and sell, but not to kidnap American females to sell into white slavery (who might really be able to take care of themselves—at least in this comic version)?  Or was it just a parody of Sherlock Holmes?  See what you think.  By the way, I did not like the music accompanying this 25 minute film.  It is jazzy, but there is singing and I found that the voice distracted me from concentrating on the story.  So I substituted instrumental pieces.  Enjoy.  Caren

In between making successful, formulaic early comedies, Fairbanks indulged in a couple of curiosities.  The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), undoubtedly the most bizarre film Fairbanks made, is a burlesque on Sherlock Holmes.  Subsequent generations elevated it to cult status for its comic treatment of drug abuse.  Tod Browning, a director who later achieved lasting fame for his forays into the macabre in collaborations with Lon Chaney and who also directed Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), is credited with the scenario in which Fairbanks plays the cocaine-addicted detective Coke Ennyday.  The stage actor William Gilette had recently adapted his hugely popular stage success into a film (Sherlock Holmes, 1916); and taking a page from that famous detective’s exploits, Browning fashioned a character so dependent upon cocaine (the “seven percent solution” used by Sherlock Holmes) that he requires constant injections to maintain consciousness.  The entire scenario is a hallucinogenic odyssey into the absurd, with Fairbanks, attired in a checkerboard suit (with matching automobile) attempting to thwart drug smugglers from carrying their contraband powder into port concealed inside inflatable rubber fish.  However interesting the premise, the film’s irony is never addressed:  “Ennyday (an addict) prevents illegal importation of the very thing which he is addicted to,” the film historian Arthur Lennig observes.  “If this inconsistency is supposed to be ironic or humorous, the effect does not succeed.”

This muddled two-reel (25-minute) comedy was filmed twice.  It was first directed by William Christy Cabanne and then again, after Cabanne was fired, by John Emerson, who remade the entire film with the assistance of Browning.  Fairbanks disliked The Mystery of the Leaping Fish so intensely that he wanted it withdrawn from distribution.

The film’s most interesting aspect is unquestionably its unbridled attitude toward drug abuse and addiction.  Cocaine was a controlled substance in the United States after the passage of the Harrison Act of 1914, and heroin was not made illegal until the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920.  Drug abuse was still widely considered a social indiscretion in 1916; reformers targeted alcohol as the greatest cause of American’s ills.  Charles Chaplin trod similar ground the following year in his early masterpiece Easy Street (1917), in which Charlie accidentally sits on an addict’s needle, the effects of which give him superhuman powers to defeat the villains.  (For me, not one of his most interesting short films.  You can view it for yourself on You Tube at

Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance

The Butcher Boy, 1917.  30 minutes.  Director:  Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (Fatty/Saccharine), Buster Keaton (Buster), Al St. John (Alum), Josephine Stevens (Almondine), Arthur Earle (The Manager), Joe Bordeauxl (Accomplice), Luke the Dog, Charles Dudley, Alice Lake, Agnes Neilson (Miss Teachem).  Writing Credits:  Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Joseph Anthony Roach.

I thought this short film was great fun.  There are two scenarios in this film, one takes Butcher Boy (1917)place in a general store and the other in a girl’s school.  It felt like I was watching two separate stories.  It is always a plus to see Keaton in any film and this film is important historically because it is the one where he made his very first film appearance.  It is always impressive to see Arbuckle and Keaton’s great timing when working together.  And Fatty is quite believable in general as a female, in my humble opinion.  Caren

The Butcher Boy, 21-year-old Keaton’s introduction to films, followed a simple plot line, where one gag logically followed another.  Innocent Buster wants to purchase a tin of molasses.  After Roscoe has filled the tin and asked for payment, Buster, who, during the pouring, has been tossing a coin into the air, indicates that the coin is at the bottom of the tin.  When Roscoe, Al St. John, and Buster are unable to retrieve the coin from the bottom of the tin, and at the same time smearing themselves with molasses, Roscoe pours molasses into Buster’s hat while his back is turned.  Buster unknowingly reaches for his hat and puts it on his head, allowing the molasses to roll freely down the sides of his face, neck, and body.  He is also unable to move, because the molasses has caused him to be virtually riveted to the floor.

The film was released on April 23, 1917, and Arbuckle’s performance in The Butcher Boy was favourably reviewed by the New York Dramatic Mirror:

Fatty appears as a conscientious but clumsy butcher boy whose frantic attempts to lease his customers lead him into deeper and deeper disaster.  The second reel is staged in a young ladies’ boarding school, where the butcher boy arrives to meet his beloved, disguised as a coy, but mammoth girl “cousin.”  The spectacle of Fatty as a kittenish young thing in his ruffled pinafore and short socks and his efforts to behave as a young lady boarder should, will undoubtedly delight the Arbuckle fans.  As for Arbuckle himself, he is the best known proof that everybody loves a fat comedian.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933 by Stuart Odeman

The Butcher Boy marked Keaton’s debut on the screen; and the Arbuckle series show a very marked sophistication in form, in content and in style during the two years in which Keaton worked at the Comicque Studios.  Characteristic of this sophistication is the increasing introduction of gags in a recognisable Keaton taste.

The Butcher Boy is set in a village store, with all the predictable vaudeville-slapstick-comic-strip gags about the pretty cashier, the irascible old proprietor, the overhead cash railway, the difficult customers.  There is a coffee-mill powered by a treadmill worked by a dog, and comic notices on the wall such as ‘Fresh sausages made every month.’  Fatty is the butcher boy; he emerges from the refrigerator in a huge fur coat and launches into a series of dexterous gags with meat, sausages, knives and a pair of scales.

Keaton’s entry on this scene is momentous, for this, before our very eyes, is the record of his first day in a film studio, his first appearance before the motion-picture camera.  The scene was shot in one take.  What we see is the perfect vaudevillian at work, his uncanny instinct already scaling and directing his performance to the viewpoint of the camera.  He introduces a style in direct contrast to his fellow performers—the style which he was to develop and refine.  While their movements are extravagant and over-emphatic, excessive, he is quiet, controlled, unhurried, economical, accurate.  His solitary calm already rivets attention.

He enters by a door on the right of the screen, and at first we see only his back.  He is a rube, wearing baggy overalls and big slapshoes and, already, the familiar flat hat.  Over his arm he carries a tin can with a wire handle.  As he turns we perceive that though the figure is small and stumpy, the face—unsmiling and totally dignified—is handsome: the taut, smooth skin, the large, lidded eyes, the straight nose which continues in a direct line from the forehead, the neat firm mouth are all simplified to a classical beauty like a Cocteau drawing.  He was twenty-one.

The Keatons’ stage act always involved a selection of brooms (‘thirteen or fourteen,’ Keaton invariably recalled, with quaintly precise uncertainty) which served a variety of comic purposes. By chance a barrel just inside the door of the general store of The Butcher Boy contains thirteen or fourteen brooms.  Buster selects one, tries the bristles for strength and plucks it like a chicken.  He pickes out a better one and then tosses the rejects back into the barrel with satisfying accuracy of aim.

He suddenly notices a pool of molasses which has dripped on to the floor from the tap of a barrel.  Furtively he sticks his shoe into it and then wipes the molasses off his sole with his finger, which he licks.  A little bolder, he wipes the tap itself with his finger.

Arriving at Fatty’s counter, he pulls a quarter piece out of his pocket.  There is a brief Butcher Boy (1917)but telling demonstration of his stagecraft in the way that he tosses the coin in the air and kisses it before dropping it into his tin.  This bit of business unemphatically but completely focuses our attention upon the coin which is central to the gag that is to follow.  He slaps the can down on the counter, startling Fatty.  While Fatty is filling the can with molasses, Buster shyly ‘helps’ some irritated old men with their game of checkers.  Fatty hands over the filled tin and holds out his hand for payment.  Buster points innocently to the tin.  Unable to retrieve the coin from the bottom of the molasses with his yardstick, Fatty pours the molasses into Buster’s hat while Buster is looking the other way.  Buster puts on his hat.  Very gradually he realises that something is amiss.  With mounting anxiety he tries to pull off the hat in the process dropping the tin and spilling the molasses in a pool on the floor.  Fatty tries to pull off the hat and Buster steps into the molasses.  The initial slow recognition of his predicament has now grown into panic.  Fatty’s efforts to help him become more violent, and end, first with a kettle of boiling water poured over Buster’s feet, both of which are now glued fast; and finally with a mighty kick which lands Buster through the door and somersaulting down the store steps into the road outside.  The indignant Buster re-enters the shop just in time to receive a flour sack in the face.  (He never forgot this particular gag: his varying descriptions and admiration of the force and accuracy of Arbuckle’s aim appear in all his biographies and interviews.)  He lunges at Al St John with a broom, but succeeds only in landing himself in a fine pratfall.  The first half of the picture ends with a great melee of flour-flinging.

In the second half of the film Keaton is subordinated to the travesty antics of Arbuckle and St John, though he ha a memorable moment when, threatened by an angry schoolmistress armed with a shot-gun, he does a beautiful back fall to land in a reclining hands-up pose.

The first film appearance of Keaton’s is worth detailing at length for it gives us some idea of the equipment he brought from vaudeville to the cinema.  It shows him already, in his first day’s work in pictures, imposing his own rhythm, his own sense of timing and construction of a gag upon a team given to much less disciplined modes of comedy creation.

The Butcher Boy was made at the Colony Studios on 48th Street.

Buster Keaton by David Robinson

Un Chien Andalou, 1929.  16 minutes.  Director:  Luis Buñuel, with Simone Mareuil (Young girl), Pierre Batcheff (Man), Luis Buñuel (Man in Prolog), Salvador Dali (Seminarist), Robert Hommet (Young Man), Marval (Seminarist), Fano Messan (Hermaphrodite), Jaume Miravitlles (Fat Seminarist).  Writing Credits:  Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel.

The first time I saw this film was when I was a teenager and my parents, who were Un Chien Andalou (1929)having a movie night at their place, showed this film in 16mm.  I was told that it was a surreal film and that some of the images would be graphic.  I remember not wanting to watch the opening scene.  A few year’s later, at a David Bowie concert at MapleLeafGardens, Bowie opened up his show with the projection of this film onto a large screen.  I don’t remember if he showed the whole 16 minute film, but I remember that I heard the audience gasp collectively at the opening scene and I knew I could then open my eyes.  So tonight will be my debut of watching the opening scene along with all of you.  Some of you may already know what’s coming, but if you don’t, I’m just warning you like my parents did many years ago, that it’s a surreal and graphic film.  Enjoy! Caren

Historically, this film represents a violent reaction against what was at that time called “avant-garde cine,” which was directed exclusively to the artistic sensibility and to the reason of the spectator, with its play of light and shadow, its photographic effects, its preoccupation with rhythmic montage and technical research, and at times in the direction of the display of a perfectly conventional and reasonable mood.  To this avant-garde cinema group belong Ruttmann, Cavalcanti Man Ray, Dziga Vertoff, Rene Clair, Dulac, Ivens, etc.

In Un Chien Andalou, the cinema maker takes his place for the first time on a purely POETICA-MORAL plane.  (Take MORAL in the sense of what governs dreams or parasympathetic compulsions.)  In the working out of the plot every idea of a rational, aesthetic or other preoccupation with technical matters was rejected as irrelevant.  The result is a film deliberately anti-plastic, anti-artistic, considered by traditional canons.  The plot is the result of a CONSCIOUS psychic automatism, and, to that extent, it does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams.

The sources from which the film draws inspiration are those of poetry, freed from the ballast of reason and tradition.  Its aim is to provoke in the spectator instinctive reactions of attraction and of repulsion.  (Experience ha demonstrated that this objective was fully attained.)

Un Chien Andalou would not have existed if the movement called surrealist had not existed.  For its “ideology,” its psychic motivation and the systematic use of the poetic image as an arm to overthrow accepted notions corresponds to the characteristics of all authentically surrealist work.  This film has no intention of attracting nor pleasing the spectator; indeed, on the contrary, it attacks him, to the degree that he belongs to a society with which surrealism is at war.

The title of the film is not arbitrary, or the product of a joke.  It possesses a close subconscious relation with the theme.  Among hundreds of others this title was chosen because it was the most adequate.  As a curious note, it can be added here that it actually produced obsessions in certain spectators, a thing which would not have occurred had the title been arbitrary.

The producer-director of the film, Buñuel, wrote the scenario in collaboration with the Un Chien Andalou (1929)painter Dali.  For it, both took their point of view from a dream image, which, in its turn, probed others bny the same process until the whole took form as a continuity.  It should be noted that when an image or idea appeared the collaborators discarded it immediately if it was derived from remembrance, or from their cultural pattern or if, simply, it had a conscious association with another earlier idea.  They accepted only those representations a valid which, though they moved them profoundly, had no possible explanation.  Naturally, they dispensed with the restraints of customary morality and of reason.  The motivation of the images was, or meant to be, purely irrational!  They are as mysterious and inexplicable to the two collaborators as to the spectator.  NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING.  The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.

The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism edited by Joan Mellen
This article is from Art in Cinema by Luis Buñuel
Edited by Frank Stauffacher, 1947; reprinted 1968; translated by Grace L. McCann Morley

Laughter, 1930.  85 minutes.  Director:  Harry d’Abbadie D’Arrast, with Nancy Carroll (Peggy Gibson), Fredric March (Paul Lockridge), Frank Morgan (C. Mortimer Gibson), Glenn Anders (Ralph Le Sainte), Diane Ellis (Marjorie Gibson), Leonard Carey (Benham, Gibson’s Butler), Ollie Burgoyne (Pearl, Peggy’s Maid), Eric Blore (Party Guest in Angel Costume), Charles Halton (Winslow, Gibson’s Secretary), Duncan Penwarden (Mr. Miller).  Writing and screenplay credits:  Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, Douglas Z. Doty, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Donald Ogden Stewart.

This film was shown last month at Cinefest in Syracuse.  I was able to obtain a copy Laughter (1930)there and thought it was worthwhile showing it to you and seeing it again myself.  It is a continuation of the theme in a lot of pre-code movies—marriage versus career for women.  Careers give satisfaction but they also wanted love and romance; they were worried about the restraints of marriage.  This film stars one of the early film actresses that I love, Nancy Carroll.  Her character’s dilemma seems to be that she can’t find what makes her happy; is it married to a very wealthy man who may well love her but is still considered a trophy wife or to a self-centred, insecure artist.  No matter what situation she finds herself in, I think to her the grass always looks greener on the other side.  Understandably, she wants it all!         Caren

Although it has surfaced on tv occasionally, “Laughter” has been strangely unavailable in print form for some time, leading one to the suspicion that it is one of the many Paramount films that have been transferred to videotape to service tv bookings, but that is going to be condemned to theatrical obscurity from here on.

Made at Paramount’s Long Island Studios not too long after Mamoulian’s “Applause”, it Laughter (1930)doesn’t wear quite as well as that classic.  Like Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris” it is a film that is remarkable for its time, and was of considerable influence on other films.  But in many ways the films that learned from it or copied from it, and that were done much later, are in the long run superior.  No discredit to “Laughter”, but it’s a milestone film rather than a permanent classic.  Its wit and its casual sophistication were new and fresh then—perhaps too new for it to be really appreciated.  It didn’t make it to the NY Times’ Best 10 list of 1930 for example, but it was one of the runners-up.  (But so was El Brendel’s “Just Imagine”!)  It needs no apology, merely the ability to egard it as a kind of “Philadelphia Story” film made ten years earlier—and without the production gloss and meticulous pacing and editing that such a story needs.  Nancy Carroll is a delight as always, Frank Morgan is once again a consummate (and very moving ) straight actor before he was turned into a boisterous comic, and Glen Anders—the slimy heavy from Welles’ “The Lady From Shanghai”—also appears in much younger form, though with the same if less obvious slime in tow.

The New School Film Series, July 18, 1984 by William K. Everson

Laughter (1930)Critically applauded in 1930 and an Oscar nominee for its screenplay, Laughter may be a little more significant for its influence than for its own elegant and appreciable self.  It has also had an odd history—forgotten for nearly 40 years, then recognized as a predecessor of screwball and romantic comedies and even, in some plot threads, a precursor to Mankiewicz’s work on Citizen Kane.  Then it fell into neglect once again, save by hordes of Nancy Carroll devotees (and you Cinefesters know who you are!).  The conflict of “love v. money” been a perennial one in film and is still a staple in the genre now known as rom-com, yet it has seldom been laid out with the warmth and class bestowed on it by writer-director D’Arrast, and his collaborators.  It must be said that Laugher is frequently ore serious than any screwball comedy, for its characters are dealing less with situations than with genuine and pertinent emotional issues.  Plus, between its changes of tone and occasional moments of Astoria-studio confinement, it is less breezy than would likely have been the case a few years alter.  In any case, D’Arrast was quite a stylist, even an auteur ahead of his time, and in effecting his mood swings he is greatly aided by co-scripters Mankiewicz and Stewart, and of course by the cast.  Carroll is, no surprise, captivating: between this film, The Devil’s Holiday, and Follow Thru, she was at the height of her career and her appeal in mid-1930.  Nor is it any wonder that Fredric March cited Laughter as one of his own personal favourites, for he gives what may be the most charming and dashing performance of his long career.  Frank Morgan shows how good he could be before he became the movies’ most beloved bumbler, and Diane Ellis (who died while the film was in theatres) makes a charming ingénue.  At its best, Laugher achieves a kind of poignant sparkle rare in a film of any age—let alone one that’s well into in its 9th decade of existence.

Cinefest 32 Notes by Richard Barrios

Joining me for the evening was Allen, Calvin, Chris, Anne, Brandy, Rob, Lee, Peggy, Betsy, Jan-Eric and David.

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