Reefer Madness (1936)

"The next tragedy may be that of your daughter...or your son...or yours...or yours...or YOURS!"

Climb inside the DeLorean and fasten your seat belts, kids. We're going WAAAAAAAAY back for this one.

The year is 1936. It has been two years since the adoption of the Hays Code, a moral guideline to what could and could not be shown in movies. You couldn't swear, you couldn't drink, you couldn't make fun of religion, you couldn't kill anybody (at least not realistically), you couldn't even TALK about marital infidelities...unless you were a bad guy, in which case the Code dictated that you would be killed off every time. You couldn't even root for the bad guy. It would be another two decades before the Code's iron-clad reign came to an end and standards would start to loosen, and another three before the MPAA would start playing around with a ratings system.

You're a 1930s filmmaker. You think the Hays Code sucks and you want to put things in your movie which the powers that be would frown upon, but most studios would censor it for fear that the government or other authorities would censor it for them. How do you get past this hurdle?

The answer is simple: MAKE IT EDUCATIONAL.

Reefer Madness is one of many films of the 30s and 40s released in the exploitation circuit, which got around the Hays Code by claiming to be cautionary tales about the dangers of drugs and premarital sex, because as you've probably already figured out, you couldn't talk about drugs, much less show them, in movies of the time. Its origins to this day are disputed - some say that it was a church-funded project meant to educate parents about the dangers of cannabis; a rumor spread during the 70s that the FBI financed the movie; while suing a distribution company over the film rights, its producer Dwain Esper made claims that he produced it for the Army, which were disproved. But whatever the intention, it fails as an educational film because when you base it on what we know now of its effects on the human body, it doesn't quite get its facts straight.

"You should read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet! It's swell!"...dork.

The film centers on Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig), an average 1930s American high school student who enjoys typical 1930s American high school student things like tennis, Shakespeare and using the word "swell" as an adjective. We also see two dope dealers Mae and Jack (Thelma White and Carleton Young) whose target clientele is teenagers like Bill, although Mae has a guilty conscience about it. Helping them are college dropout Ralph (Dave O'Brien) and Blanche (Lillian Miles). One day Ralph and Blanche invite Bill and his friend Jimmy (Warren McCollum) to a party where the demon drug is passed around freely. When Jack runs out of reefer, Jimmy offers to drive him to his supplier to pick up some more, and by then is so stoned out of his gourd that he runs down a pedestrian at a crosswalk on the trip back.

"I wish my brother George were here..."

The newly addicted Bill starts having an affair with Blanche, and his disappearances at school as well as Jimmy's behavior has Mary (Bill's girlfriend and Jimmy's sister, played by Dorothy Short) worried. She goes to Ralph and Blanche's place to try and find Bill, and while there Ralph slips her a joint which she mistakes for a normal cigarette and then attempts to ravish her. Bill enters the room after a quick one with Blanche, imagines in a drug-induced haze that Mary is stripping for Ralph and attacks him. Jack attempts to break them up by hitting Bill with a gun, but Bill fights back and in the struggle the gun is accidentally fired. Despite the fact that the gun was CLEARLY POINTED AT THE FLOOR when it went off, Mary is killed.

The next thing Bill knows, he's on trial for first-degree murder, where his high school principal Dr. Carroll (Joseph Forte, whose character also appears as the speaker at a PTA meeting which serves as a framing device for the film) testifies. After several minutes of deliberation and light switches visualized as hangman's nooses, the jury eventually finds him guilty. Ralph, Mae and Blanche are holed up in an apartment during the trial, during which Ralph starts going insane and grows desperate to confess that Jack was the one who killed Mary. Jack is ordered to kill Ralph before he hears the verdict, but Ralph gets the drop on him and beats him to death with a stick. A neighbor hears the noise and calls the police, and everyone is almost immediately arrested.

We then get a montage of Mae's police interrogation and scenes of cops raiding the entire drug ring which ends on Blanche tearfully admitting Bill's innocence. She is to be held as a material witness for Ralph's impending trial, but as she is led out by a matron, the guilt is so heavy for her to bear that she throws a fully-dressed mannequin out of a nearby window to her death. Bill is brought back before the judge, who overturns the verdict, declares him a free man and orders him to remain for Ralph's trial...which doesn't last very long, as Ralph's defense counsel drags him in the courtroom and requests that he be institutionalized for the rest of his natural life.

These shots alone would scare you off drugs for life.

Rather than dive straight into the film's camp value, I will choose instead to go over the many things which it claims to be telltale signs that you or someone you love is addicted to marijuana. Naturally, people who use it shouldn't drive automobiles, so I'll give them that one, but there are plenty of other so-called symptoms:

  • Uncontrollable laughter. We see Ralph sitting in his chair with a joint in his hand, occasionally letting out a laugh for no real reason.
  • An appreciation of jazz music. What type of records do you think they played at these drug parties? I mean, if the normal kids were into Shakespeare...
  • Shameless acts of romance. We see drug addicts embracing passionately on couches, in bedrooms, even while playing the piano.
  • Holes in the fabric of time and space. While Dr. Carroll is on the witness stand, he states that during an "interscholastic tennis match" (did people really talk like him back then?) he witnessed Bill miss the ball by at least three or four feet, which he attributes as a symptom of marijuana addiction.
  • Violent acts of murder. No, not Mary's--Dr. Carroll in an FBI office reads a case file on a reefer smoker who killed his entire family with an axe while under the influence.
  • And last but not least, the final stage: incurable insanity. Ralph, by the end of the film.
Poor guy. Just one more laugh towards permanent dementia.

The only thing which the movie implies that marijuana DOESN'T do is hinder one's ability to play the piano. As a matter of fact, it appears that doing dope can actually IMPROVE it. In the film's most famous scene, Blanche attempts to calm Ralph down by playing some soothing piano music. Ralph by this time is higher than the Space Shuttle and just as anxious, so he tells Blanche to play faster...and faster...and faster...and faster. By this time we see Blanche, sitting at the piano, puffing out marijuana smoke, her hands unable to keep up with the overdubbed melody she is playing, looking like she is about to overheat. I cannot see how this scene helps the film's message, because it's so ridiculously over the top it's downright comical.

This Blanche has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down.

How ironic it is that this film became a cult classic with stoners, college kids and midnight movie goers in the 1970s, and was even satirized in a musical adaptation in 1998. It isn't uncommon that a movie with such camp value as this is cherished for all the wrong reasons--although its attempt at an anti-drug message is admirable, the bad acting, the poor production values, and a delivery so overt it would put an after-school special to shame make it impossible to take it seriously, and that's without taking into account the many things about marijuana that it ends up getting wrong.

I mean, when your film starts out with an account of federal agents disposing of an entire shipment of dope by THROWING IT IN A FURNACE, you pretty much fail on the educational front.

Don't let your kids learn about drugs from a movie more than seventy years out of date.

1 comment:

Gatomon41 said...

I heard about this movie before. But I never thought it would be so hilariously bad :p

Alright, I can understand the need to warn kids about drugs. But presenting misinformation is not how you educate people.

And trying to scare people, this film sounds like it fails horribly. If you want to scare kids, show them what's its like inside a prison.

well, at least I know where that one music video from Mindless Self Indulgence got that footage from.

Anyways, great job with the review!