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Entries in Reefer Madness [1936] (1)

Thursday
Mar102011

Reefer Madness (1936)

Fun with Dick and Mary Jane

I can barely wrap my head around Reefer Madness.  The 75-year-old camp classic about the dangers of "marihuana" is a baffling piece of propaganda.  While easily dismissed as an out-of-touch morality tale made for and by scared white parents of rebellious teenagers, there's something deeper going on with this film--something darker.

But let's start with those parents.  The film opens with a hilarious crawl decrying the evils of wacky tobacky, highlighted by claims that it causes teens to lose their minds and that the drug is far deadlier than heroin or any other known narcotic.  We soon meet Dr. Carroll (Joseph Forte), a stern and proper wet blanket who addresses a gathering of concerned moms and dads.  He recounts the tragic story of three teenagers, which serves as the movie's central narrative.

Mary (Dorothy Short) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) are a couple of love-struck, All-American high schoolers.  Mary's younger brother, Jimmy (Warren McCollum) falls in with a shady crowd of older boys led by Ralph (Dave O'Brien).  Ralph invites Jimmy to an upscale apartment in the city that's owned by a couple of drug dealers named Jack (Carleton Young) and Mae (Thelma White).  Before long, the normally reserved Jimmy is dancing crazily with strange girls and losing his mind to the devilish allure of weed.

By the time Bill and Mary find out Jimmy's in trouble, the young boy has already run over a pedestrian with is car and allowed his perfectly coifed hair to go all shaggy-like.  Bill tries to drag Jimmy out of the drug den, but is himself seduced by pot and a woman of easy virtue.  This leaves Mary to clean up the mess; too bad for her, she becomes the victim of a surprisingly graphic and prolonged sexual assault before being accidentlally shot dead by Jack.  Thinking quickly, Jack plants the gun in the hand of a completely gone Bill, who then goes on trial for murder.

Going into this movie, I wasn't expecting a psycho-soap-opera.  Nor did I think I'd see such outrageous behavior be attributed to simply smoking marijuana.  As I've said before, I'm not into drugs, but I've spent enough time around potheads to know that, unless their stuff's been laced, they don't feel the urge to jump out plate-glass, multi-story windows; nor does the smoke compel them to partake in orgies or rob liquor stores.  Granted, the dope may have been stronger back in the 30s, but marijuana doesn't have an eighth of the effect that writers Lawrence Meade and Arther Hoerl claim it does.

Even if it did, though, I'm not sure the filmmakers' message was coherent enough to be effective.  Since I wasn't around for the release of Reefer Madness, I can only speculate on what the reaction might have been; but looking at it today, the film makes teen drug use look spectacularly fun.  Who wouldn't want to spend every day after school dancing, having sex, and hanging out with a suave, powerful guy and his mouthy, hot girlfriend?  Director Louis J. Gasnier makes a big deal out of emphasizing weed's ability to make one compulsively pull out one's hair and hyperventilate with manic, grinning spasms.  But a bad day at work has the same effect on me, so what's the point?  Reefer Madness is like a Depression-era New Jack City, where the drug kingpin rides high until the last possible second, when they kind of get their comeuppance.

(The best part of this whole setup is that not once do we see anyone give Jack and Mae any money for all the weed they smoke.  I guess the hosts have a "the first hundred times are free" policy.)

My inability to relate to the 30s also bit me in the ass when I began to seriously question the hypocrisy of the people behind the film.  Nearly all of the teens in this movie smoke regular cigarettes, and no one bats an eye.  Jack's alibi for shooting Mary involves telling the cops that he'd just invited one of his friends over for a beer after school, after which all hell broke loose; as if that wouldn't be considered a red flag by the police department and the PTA.  With everything we've learned about the harmful effects of alcohol and cigarette smoke in the ensuing decades, marijuana comes off looking pretty good by the end of Reefer Madness.

The movie itself holds up pretty well; despite its reputation, it's not a laugh-a-minute cheese-fest.  Sure, there's some great, unintentionally funny stuff here, but if you're very forgiving when it comes to old films, you may find a lot to love in the story and performances.  O'Brian and Young, in particular, play marvelous heavies.  Jack straddles the line between cold-blooded gangster and put-upon father figure to a bunch of stupid, reckless kids who pay for his sweet digs (again, via money that we never see).  Ralph, on the other hand, is a wild-eyed dope addict and amateur rapist who imbues his later scenes with a sense of genuine danger.  I think that if Reefer Madness had been about hallucinogens, heroin, or, hell, huffing gasoline, the audience would've been in a better position to accept this weird behavior.

And that's where the movie gets sinister.  Someone involved in the production had to have known that what they were selling was false; that all of the fake statistics and bogus "real world examples" of the narcotic hold on America's young was an utter sham and a smokescreen--which is really fucked up, considering Dr. Carroll claims to be leveling with his audience about drugs for the very first time.  We, of course, are in that audience, too, being looked down upon from the podium, with the words "Tell Your Children" (the movie's original title), flashing across the screen.

I wonder what kind of a country this would have been if movies like Reefer Madness really had leveled with people, instead of either making them afraid of drugs or inspiring them to experiment with them in secret.  Would pot-smoking have become a recreational reality like liquor and cigarettes?  Maybe, maybe not.  But this is a movie column and not C-SPAN, so let's work on wrapping this up.  I'm tired.

If you haven't seen Reefer Madness, give it a chance.  Do yourself a favor and watch it once, alone, before attending or hosting any Bad Movie Nights where it might be on the bill.  This goofy little piece of film history may surprise you with the twisted darkness rolled into its after-Sunday-school-special facade.