If you have ever wondered about the origins of drug use in Hollywood, when it started and how widespread its use may have been, then this article should provide at least a partial answer to those questions. These days, the practice of snorting coke at parties, even on some sets, is probably presumed by most fans to be a product of the wild seventies and eighties. Far from it. Try, instead, the silent era, the very beginnings of the movie business.
The clock in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
A prime example of the acceptance of drugs in the pre- Roaring Twenties can be found in a rather odd little comedy out of 1916 called The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Never heard of it? Well, neither had I, but let me assure you it was anything but obscure at the time, for the hero was played by none other than the legendary Douglas Fairbanks. And what a hero! His name, wait for it, was Coke Ennyday, would you believe? Mr. Ennyday is a parody of Sherlock Holmes, a ‘scientific detective’, so hopelessly drug-addicted that he walks about with a row of syringes strapped to his chest, presumably so that he can ‘shoot-up’ whenever the urge grabs him. And if that is not bad enough, he also possesses a tub of cocaine, the contents of which he likes to rub all over his face! His clock only has four settings on it – eats, drinks, sleep, dope. How’s that for subtlety?
Fairbanks with syranges strapped to his chest
The list of those involved with this weird little two-reeler reads like a ‘Who’s Who?’ of the silent movie days. The story was penned by Todd Browning, (the writer of Freaks and Dracula), with the aid of an uncredited D. W. Griffith, the same man who directed the record-shattering Birth of a Nation a year earlier. The intertitles were penned by the prominent novelist Anita Loos and the whole thing was directed by her husband John Emerson. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was pretty much an exercise in sheer vanity for Fairbanks. He always fancied himself as a comedian and this slapstick drug-fest gave him a vehicle to illustrate this hidden side of his acting prowess. Unfortunately for Dougie, the public preferred him swashing his buckle, so his foray into the realm of pie-slinging was short-lived.
The mere fact that a comedy could be made that openly demonstrated drug-taking in all its forms, yet could simultaneously make fun of the practice and actually play it for laughs, says much for how the industry and the cinema-going public viewed the subject. It is bad enough to portray drug-taking as a tragic part of life, but to make it a laughing matter, the focal point of a comedy, well, that is something else entirely. Cheech & Chong would make fun of joint-smoking decades later; Trainspotting would treat drug abuse as a one-way trip to oblivion, yet neither movie would contain anywhere near the non-stop drug use exhibited in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.
Even Charlie Chaplin made a comedy that relied on drugs for one of its primary plot points. In Easy Street, a ‘Little Tramp’ short churned out in 1917, Charlie has to rescue his girlfriend from the clutches of a dastardly junkie. Things are going badly for our hero until he accidentally sits down on one of the bad guy’s upturned syringes. Instantly, he is transformed into a tower of strength, beats his foe to a pulp, and rescues the damsel in distress. This was released over a decade before censorship forbade anything to do with narcotics, but if drug dealers could have produced commercials for their wares, Charlie’s Easy Street would have been the stuff advertisers dreamt of.
As famous as the likes of Fairbanks and Chaplin undoubtedly were, the name Mabel Normand was not far behind them when she was at her peak. She was a comedienne, a co-star of Chaplin’s, but was said to be plagued by a massive cocaine addiction that would ultimately hasten her early demise. It is even possible that this alleged addiction brought about the death of one of her many lovers as well, the director William Desmond Taylor. On February 1, 1922, someone shot him in the back with a small caliber pistol at his home in the Westlake Park area of Los Angeles. His murder has never been solved, but one of the theories entertained by police investigators was that 49 year-old Taylor may well have fallen victim to drug dealers. It was no secret that Mabel seemed to becoming more and more addicted to cocaine every day. It was also known that Taylor had publicly threatened her dealers with exposure unless they ceased supplying her. He knew all their names. Paramount did not want any mention of drug abuse contaminating the studio, so executive Charles Eyton is alleged to have issued instructions to the dead man’s staff to cleanse the premises of any narcotics paraphernalia that might prove embarrassing or difficult to explain. Little wonder the crime remains unsolved.
William Desmond Taylor
As for Mabel, well, she more or less started behind the eight-ball from day one. At ten she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. When her movie career took off like a rocket she partied and hit the bottle hard. Just about everyone (except her family, I should stress) thought she was a cocaine addict and that the drug abuse and heavy drinking hastened her end. Maybe they did, maybe not. Her death certificate clearly lists tuberculosis as the cause of death and her family stands steadfastly by that. She was 37.
One silent star who definitely fell victim to drugs was Jeanne Eagels. Like a number of Hollywood stars, she began her climb to stardom as a chorus girl and then as one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s ‘follies’. Not content to make it on looks alone, she went off to Paris for six years and studied acting under top coach Beverley Sitgreaves. Back in the USA, her decision to make movies in the daytime and perform on-stage at night, caused her to suffer from fatigue and insomnia as she burned the candle at both ends. Something had to give. Overwork introduced her to physician-prescribed dope, to which she soon became addicted. An increasing fondness for booze led to poor choices, medically, and sent her down a slippery slope to destruction. Heroin temporarily eased the burden as her behavior became more and more erratic. Feeling ill one evening in 1929, she collapsed and was taken to hospital. She was given a sedative by one doctor, but it appears a second doctor administered an additional one, unaware of the first. She died in the waiting room. Dead at 39, she was officially listed as the victim of a heroin overdose.