“And more vicious, more deadly even than these soul-destroying drugs is the menace of—marijuana!”
Director: Louis J. Gasnier
Starring: Kenneth Craig, Dorothy Short, Lillian Miles, Dave O’Brien, Carleton Young, Thelma White, Warren McCollum, Pat Royale, Joseph Forte, Mary MacLaren
Screenplay: Arthur Hoerl and Paul Franklin, based upon a story by Lawrence Meade
Synopsis: Dr Alfred Carroll (Joseph Forte) addresses a meeting in which he exhorts the parents of school students to campaign for compulsory education on narcotics—particularly marijuana. He goes on to illustrate the dangers of marijuana by speaking of a recent tragedy… Mae (Thelma White) and Jack (Carleton Young) own an apartment near a high school, where they deal marijuana. While Mae concentrates on supplying to artists and musicians, Jack works to hook the local school students on the drug, much to Mae’s disgust. Jack makes contact with Ralph (Dave O’Brien), who knows many of the students and acts as a go-between. Ralph points out to Jack three young people he’s got his eye on: Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig), Mary Lane (Dorothy Short) and Mary’s brother, Jimmy (Warren McCollum). The three are invited to accompany Ralph and Jack to a local hangout, Joe’s Place. Bill and Mary decline because of a previous engagement, but Jimmy eagerly accepts. There he meets a girl he knows, Agnes (Pat Royale); the two of them go on with Ralph, Jack and Blanche (Lillian Miles), Ralph’s girlfriend, to Mae’s apartment… A few days later, Ralph and Blanche convince Bill to accompany Jimmy to a party at Mae’s. Bill is taken aback by the rambunctious nature of the gathering. Nervous, he is about to light a cigarette when Blanche offers him one of her own… Mae discovers that her supplies are running low and sends Jack to get some more. Without a car, he asks Jimmy to take him. While he waits for Jack, Jimmy, too, smokes an unusual kind of cigarette… When Jack comes back from seeing “the boss”, he finds Jimmy in a reckless mood. The two speed off down the street and, despite Jack’s urging to slow down, Jimmy runs a red light—and hits a pedestrian… A few days later, Mrs Lane (Mary MacLaren) finds herself worried about both her children: Jimmy is unusually subdued, while Mary frets over seeing so little of Bill lately. Dr Carroll, the principal of the high school, has also noticed the strange behaviour of some of the students. He is particularly worried about Bill, whose steady high grades have begun to slip. Suspecting the truth, Dr Carroll questions the boy about a certain habit he may have acquired, but Bill doggedly denies it. Nevertheless, the boy goes on spending his spare time at Mae’s apartment where, after dancing wildly with Blanche, he allows her to lead him to the bedroom… When the police come to the Lane house investigating a hit and run, a frightened Mary covers for Jimmy, then goes to Mae’s apartment in search of him. He is not there, but Ralph encourages her to wait. He also offers her something to smoke…
Comments: In light of the celebrity- and politician-heavy “Just Say No” campaigns and a plethora of Very Special Episodes, it may seem that the 1980s were the supreme decade of the anti-drug movement, but the fact is that the eighties had nothing on the 1930s. So many drug panic films spilled across America at that time that they began to fall into distinct and separate categories. Some of them were documentaries, of greater or lesser degrees of accuracy; some were pitched at church groups, and voiced accordingly; some were aimed at parents and/or high-school students, and were (so to speak) inclined to SHOUT; and some were sheer, cynical exploitation.
And then there’s the ones of which it is hard to be sure—like Reefer Madness. And perhaps it is this very air of uncertainty, the bizarre wavering of tone and approach, that has made this the one out of all the drug-panic films to persist in the public consciousness.
The fact is, no-one is quite sure where Reefer Madness came from. Some accounts have it produced by a government agency—yet such agencies tended to prefer the documentary approach. Some say it was backed by church groups—but while it is not (to say the least) a star-laden production, almost everyone involved in the making of Reefer Madness had a Hollywood career of some dimension. Indeed, the director, Louis Gasnier, had a resume stretching back to the earliest days of film production; Arthur Hoerl, the main screenwriter, has credits that extend over five decades; Carleton Young, who plays Jack, was still working well into the 1970s; while as for Dave O’Brien, this didn’t finish his career and neither did The Devil Bat. It is hard to imagine any church group being able to afford such an ensemble. After all, even the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills provided only some of the funding for Plan 9 From Outer Space…which, by the way, had a budget of just over half that of Reefer Madness.
In fact, the most likely explanation for the appearance of this film in 1936 is that some savvy producers saw a chance to earn a buck by exploiting an outbreak of panic on the subject of marijuana that had been largely created by two influential men with separate yet complementary agendas.
The first of those men was Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. During the early years of the Bureau, Anslinger seems to have been unconcerned about marijuana: plenty of states had already passed laws to deal with it, and he had bigger fish to fry, trying to fight the cocaine and heroin trades with only three hundred men under his command.
I am not taking advice from people who don’t know how to use an apostrophe…
However, by 1934 things had changed: the Bureau of Narcotics, along with numerous other government departments, had had its funding slashed and was struggling to justify its existence. Anslinger responded by turning marijuana into – as Reefer Madness calls it in its opening crawl – “The real Public Enemy #1!”, whipping up hysteria through a campaign of deliberate exaggeration and misinformation, and generally making himself look like America’s only hope in the face of “this new menace”.
Of course, there was nothing in the least new about marijuana. All that had changed was the political climate. As he mounted his fear campaign, Harry Anslinger found a willing and powerful collaborator in William Randolph Hearst, whose papers sang Anslinger’s praises, repeated his lurid claims of marijuana-related insanity and slaughter to a much wider audience, and generally did their best to terrify the nation.
However, an examination of the Hearst articles reveals that marijuana itself was never his target: from the beginning, stories about “the new menace” were invariably tied to screes about either Mexican immigrants (particularly in his California-based papers) or the growing black populations in various urban areas. Still pursuing his own ends, Harry Anslinger threw himself with enthusiasm into this idea of a marijuana-based attack on white America. Along with all its other evil attributes, he claimed, the drug tore down the “natural” barriers between black and white—by which he meant, of course, black men and white women: “Marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes!” was one of his pronouncements on the subject.
But while these scare tactics worked wonders in areas where race relations were, or were becoming, an issue, there was a whole white-bread section of America that had not yet been frightened into a proper horror of marijuana, or proper reverence for Harry Anslinger and his Bureau—and there, they went instead with a classic: Won’t somebody please think of the children!?
Do I detect a note of sarcasm in that caption?
This particular campaign would culminate in an article in American Magazine titled “Assassin Of Youth”, which in 1937 became the basis of a drug-scare film of the same name.
Before that, however, there was Reefer Madness; although it wasn’t called Reefer Madness back then: when it first saw the light of day in 1936 it bore the title Tell Your Children. It failed under that title and soon dropped out of sight, only to get a second lease of life in 1938 when the rights to the film were purchased by independent exploitation maven, Dwain Esper. Conflicting accounts abound here, too: some assert that Esper re-cut the film and “spiced it up” to make it more appropriate for a round on the exploitation circuit. Whatever the truth, it is a fact that the prints of the film that are still in circulation are a great deal less spicy than either Esper’s own Marihuana: Weed With Roots In Hell or the aforementioned Assassin Of Youth, both which include some nudity. In any event, what we do know for certain is that Esper changed the title of his purchase from Tell Your Children to that by which it is known today, Reefer Madness.
The fact that Reefer Madness is known today is due to Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), who in the early 1970s found a print of the film in the Library of Congress and realised he had struck gold. He began using it as a piece of anti-propaganda, screening it to raise funds for his campaign against the prevailing drug laws. From there the film found its natural home on the “midnight movie” circuit, before becoming one of the standard Classic Bad Movies of the post-Medved era. Then 2001 saw the launch of Reefer Madness: The Musical, which in 2005 was turned into a film.
However, there’s no competing with the original.
Such confusion of mind could surely only be the result of—!?
Reefer Madness is a weird mix of the boring and the hysterical. When it hits its hyperbolic straps, however, it is simply delicious. Films like this love nothing better than a solemn opening crawl, of course, but here we have not only the one of the longest, but perhaps the most misinformed ever inflicted upon a quaking PTA meeting, as we hear of:
…the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug—a violent narcotic—an unspeakable scourge—
And that’s not all: Dr Alfred Carroll will presently assert that marijuana is, “More vicious, more deadly” than opium, morphine and heroin (!!).
After the usual stock footage and spinning newspapers, we hear of a shocking tragedy that occurred in this very city – on Dr Carroll’s watch!? Surely not! But yes: near the high school, there is a certain apartment where drug pushers Mae and Jack are not only plying their evil trade, but (it is inferred) living in sin…although we note they still have separate beds.
The horrors of the drug trade are graphically conveyed to us not only in the fact that Jack finds Mae asleep, fully dressed, in the middle of the day, but that she went to sleep without tidying up the apartment after last night’s wild party. “It looks like the Marines have landed!” complains the unexpectedly house-proud Jack, hauling Mae out of bed: equal opportunity pushers they might be, but it’s still Mae’s job to do the housework.
“Thanks a bunch!” muttered Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis, his feelings hurt…
At this point we learn that while Mae has no qualms about supplying adults who “are old enough to know what they’re doing”, she has serious objections to Jack’s way of doing business, which involves luring in and hooking high-school students.
However, it’s two of Mae’s customers who show up first, staring around in disbelief at the lingering signs of the previous evening’s debauchery. “What sort of a joint is this, Eddie?” gasps the female customer, as well she might: there’s a cushion on the floor.
I know, I know! Yet believe it or not, that’s not the end of the marijuana-associated depravity.
And in that spirit, we cut back to the bedroom for a gratuitous shot of Mae putting her stockings on.
Jack goes out to get a new supply and runs into Ralph, a “college man” who acts as his go-between with the high-schoolers. Ralph has just parted company with two such students, and we learn of the tragedy in Ralph’s background, which undoubtedly led him to drug abuse:
Student: “His father and mother just got a divorce – in Paris!”
Ralph points out three potential pigeons to Jack: Bill Harper, Mary Lane, and Mary’s brother, Jimmy; although it is obvious from the outset that Ralph’s interest in Mary extends beyond teaching her to spark up.
“It looks like the Marines have landed!”
The two men make overtures, but although Bill and Mary put them off, Jimmy eagerly accepts an invitation to tag along to “Joe’s Place”, a local hang-out, where teens dance wildly to the crazed piano stylings of a gentlemen rejoicing in the sobriquet of Hot Fingers Perrone, whose hair must be seen to be believed. After driving the kids into a frenzy, Hot Fingers sneaks off into a closet and gives us the first of Reefer Madness’s many lighting up scenes, as he puffs and grins and puffs and grins and puffs…
While there’s a tendency today to see a resemblance between Perrone and Cosmo Kramer, all I can think of here is Naked Terry Jones.
At Joe’s, Jimmy meets Agnes, whose unembarrassed dancing and idiotic grin suggest that she’s already been sampling Jack’s wares. Jack, Ralph, and the latter’s girlfriend, Blanche, invite Agnes and Jimmy up to Mae’s, where they will take the first step on the slippery slope to degradation and oblivion…
Not that it’s a patch on how the viewer is about to suffer.
One of the unintentional charms of Reefer Madness is that it’s so very 1930s: which is to say, even the drug pushers are neatly dressed in suits and ties, lift their hats to ladies, shake hands and say how-do-you-do?, and in short, never under any circumstances forget their manners. How, then, to make a contrast between the criminals and their innocent victims? By serving up, in the two-dimensional forms of Bill Harper and Mary Lane, the squarest teenagers that every graced even the most conservative fantasy about how things used to be in The Good Old Days. “Gee!” and “Gosh!” and “Swell!” punctuate every conversation, while the young couple’s idea of a riotous time is sipping hot chocolate (“Gosh!”) while getting coy over Romeo And Juliet (“It’s swell!”).
Showing my age, I know.
While it is true that most of the cast and crew of Reefer Madness had Hollywood credentials, Kenneth Craig, who plays Bill, was an amateur—and I mean that in both senses of the word: he’s just terrible. Of course, it doesn’t help that with his bowtie, his slightly receding hairline and his geeky grin, he comes across like the love-child of Stan Laurel and Fred Astaire. Nor that the script requires him to react to being served hot chocolate as normal people might to winning the lottery. Or to take filmdom’s worst pratfall into a pond.
And then, because we haven’t suffered nearly enough already, we have to have a dose of Bill’s Norman Rockwell-esque home life.
I can’t speak for Bill, but by this stage I would have killed for some drugs…
A few days later, Mary can’t meet Bill, and sends Jimmy to tell him so. At a loose end, Bill agrees to accompany Jimmy first to Joe’s Place, and then to a party at Mae’s…
Though Jimmy immediately throws himself into the festivities – and Agnes’ arms – Bill stands back from the revelers, clearly shocked by their uninhibited dancing and hysterical laughter, and the occasional outbreak of snogging. In his embarrassment—he reaches for a cigarette…
Hot chocolate: not even once.
And here we have the one really interesting thing about Reefer Madness: everybody smokes – everybody – even Bill! Even Mary! And no-one bats an eyelid.
(In fact—keep a sharp lookout while watching the following scene in which Jimmy tokes up: as he bends forward to set his reefer to a match, the movement exposes an ad behind him for Philip Morris!)
Bill offers Blanche a cigarette and is clearly much surprised when she declines – what kind of person doesn’t smoke!? – but she’s only waiting for Mae to bring out some, ahem, really good smokes, of which she persuades Bill to partake…
Meanwhile, the supply running low, Jack gets Jimmy to drive him to pick up more from “the boss”. It is at this point that the oddest feature of this shocking drug culture is borne upon us: at no point in this film does any money change hands. Not between the kids and Jack, and not between Jack and “the boss”. As far as we know, the whole operation is being conducted out of the goodness of various hearts.
Which would at least explain why “the boss” occupies such a tiny, threadbare office.
Jack gets back to the car to find Jimmy feeling rather…exhilarated. It expresses itself in speeding, running a red light, and bouncing a pedestrian off his bonnet. Despite the fact that this happens in broad daylight, in a main road, in front of gawking spectators, and that a police officer is on the scene almost immediately, the perpetrator proves strangely difficult to locate…
Remember, kids: stick with healthy NICOTINE!
This sequence highlights perhaps the oddest thing about this film’s presentation of the dread marijuana, as it repeatedly calls it: its insistence that the drug makes everything speed up rather than slow down. In fact, between the users’ cries of “Faster! Faster!”, Jimmy’s need for speed, the various ominous warnings about hallucinations, and several characters having serious freak-outs, you’d swear they’d confused marijuana with LSD…except LSD wasn’t manufactured until 1938. Hmm.
It’s hard to know whether all this misinformation stems from genuine confusion on the part of the film-makers, or whether, having looked into it, they discovered that stoners make really boring subjects, compared with insane piano-players.
Anyway, at this time the Lane household is not a cheerful place. Jimmy is withdrawn and irritable, and Mary is trying to pretend that there’s nothing wrong between her and Bill, just because she hasn’t seen him for days. Mrs Lane encourages Mary to speak frankly to Bill about whatever the matter is, since he will certainly tell the truth: “Bill’s mother says he never lies!”
Meanwhile, an increasingly worried Dr Carroll – remember him? – has called at the offices of the “Bureau of Investigation”, seeking help with his school’s burgeoning drug problem, but the federal official, clearly no Harry Anslinger, basically blows him off, explaining that since marijuana grows wild it needn’t be trafficked, and since there’s no trafficking there’s not much the feds can do.
(“Oh, for some sort of Federal Act, of the kind that Harry Anslinger is advocating!” they surprisingly don’t cry.)
“In this country, you gotta make the money first. When you get the money, then you get the adding-machine. When you get the adding-machine, then you get the clipboard…”
Still, Wyatt agrees that the situation is out of control: he shows Carroll a whole filing cabinet full of records of cases involving violent acts committed by marijuana users—including one boy who axed his entire family to death (*). But even this – so it is implied – pales beside the case of a seventeen-year-old girl, who was found – ulp! –“In the company of five young men!”
(*This is a reference to the Licata murders of 1933. In typical tabloid style, the Hearst papers chose to blame the killings on Victor Licata using marijuana – of which there was no evidence – rather than his diagnosed psychosis.)
Back at school, Dr Carroll calls Bill into his office for a man-to-man talk, on the grounds that his grades have slipped. (What, in the last week?) Carroll tries to persuade him to confide in him, but Bill continues to deny that anything is wrong. Finally Carroll takes the bull by the horns:
Principal: “Bill, I’m going to ask you a straightforward question, and I’d like to have a straightforward answer: isn’t it true that you have, perhaps unwillingly, acquired a certain harmful habit, through association with certain undesirable people?”
Frankly, the fact that Bill can even unravel that “straightforward question” seems like a good sobriety test to me. He squirms in his chair, wrestles with himself, and then—lies.
Oh, Bill! Bill! What will your mother say?
We next see Bill at yet another wild pot party, and we can tell he’s stoned out of his gourd because he is no longer embarrassed by the terrible dancing going on all around him.
No matter how hard he tried, Bill could no longer hide the fact that his body was being ravaged and his life destroyed by drugs…
Blanche, in particular, is cutting loose. She takes off her top, exposing – gasp! – her slip, and then dances Bill into the bedroom, where certain things take place that never, ever happen except under the influence of drugs…
Meanwhile, the world’s most incompetent police force has finally come knocking on the Lanes’ door. Here we learn to our bemusement that while apparently no-one noticed the make and model of the car involved in the hit-and-run, someone more or less caught the license plate. Mary is unconcerned until the time of the accident is mentioned, and she realises that Jimmy had the car. Without hesitation—she lies.
Oh, Mary! Mary! What would your mother say? What would Bill’s mother say!?
Apparently she lies very convincingly, too, because the police don’t even ask to see her car! They are leaving when Mary asks if the person hit was killed:
Cop: “Fortunately, he wasn’t—but that’s still no excuse for hit-and-run driving!”
Mary then goes hunting for Jimmy, tracking him from Joe’s Place to Mae’s apartment. He’s not there, but Ralph is dee-lighted to see Mary, and encourages her to wait for him. He offers her a smoke—and sits back to see what happens. Sure enough, she starts to giggle uncontrollably. Ralph makes his move too soon, though, and Mary begins to struggle and scream…
In the bedroom, Bill appears to be suffering from, uh, buyer’s remorse. He staggers out into the living-room—and in his dazed state, sees not a rape in the making, but Mary willingly unzipping her dress before throwing herself into Ralph’s arms. It’s not absolutely clear why this is more provocative than the alternative, but it leads to Bill and Ralph punching each other around the apartment while Mary has hysterics on the couch.
Fun fact: shortly after making Reefer Madness together, these two got married.
Jack and Mae come running in from the kitchen. Jack pulls his gun, meaning to knock one or other of the combatants over the head with the butt, but Bill is too quick for him (marijuana speeding everything up, as we know). The two struggle desperately together, the gun goes off—and even though the barrel is clearly pointing towards the floor at the time, the bullet manages somehow to bounce up into the air, do a loop-the-loop, and come down between Mary’s shoulder blades. Hmm.
Having knocked Bill out, Jack tells Ralph and Blanche to beat it and sets about framing Bill for Mary’s death, pressing the wiped-clean gun into his hand and telling him that he did it. And Bill, mentally addled by his several afternoons of torrid marijuana use, and even more so by just having had sex with Blanche, believes him…
And things just get worse for the Lane family as Jack, after a busy afternoon of drug pushing, manslaughter and framing, gets to break it to Jimmy that the hit-and-run victim has died. He promises to keep silent himself, in exchange for Jimmy never revealing that he was ever at Mae’s.
Cut to a courtroom, where Bill is on trial for his life. (A white teenager from a good home? Really?) Dr Carroll is the star witness, explaining that he knew Bill had become a marijuana addict because one day while playing tennis he missed the ball badly, and another time, in class, he laughed at Romeo And Juliet. Neither of which any American teenager has done before or since, unless under the influence of drugs.
(Dr Carroll testifies that these things happened a few weeks ago. Crimeny, talk about a rush to judgement!)
Dick Tracy’s a fair G-Man, I guess, but he’s no Harry Anslinger…
Meanwhile, Ralph, who has been in hiding with Blanche since Mary’s death, under the watchful eye of Jack and Mae, is toking himself into frank psychosis. Mae worries that Ralph will crack and spill his guts if given a chance, but Jack is quite certain that he won’t get such a chance… He consults “the boss” and gets the go-ahead to shut Ralph’s mouth.
Back in the courtroom, the prosecuting attorney is having the time of his life in his summing up. Alas that the producers were too cowardly to let us hear “from the defendant’s own lips”, as did the jury, all about his “tawdry love affair” with Blanche, and “what went on” in the bedroom! The prosecution’s theory is that either Mary was “in the way”, or that she had “found him out” – the D.A. offers both options in rapid succession. Either way: “In a moment of anger, he deliberately and willfully killed her!”
The jury then retires, and demolishes a carton or so of cigarettes while considering their verdict—which is, not to put too fine a point upon the matter, that Bill should be strung up without loss of time. Curiously, all but one of the jurors rejects the idea that Bill was insane, temporarily or otherwise, even though this is one of the side-effects of marijuana use that Reefer Madness waves at the viewer from the outset, and which it will graphically illustrate via Ralph’s eventual fate.
Speaking of Ralph – or at least Dave O’Brien – he’s about to win himself a slice of cinematic immortality. Ralph is in meltdown mode, in the wake of Bill’s condemnation, and it’s all that Mae and Blanche can do to keep him under control—not least because his constant outbursts of maniacal laughter are shredding their nerves. Blanche is playing the piano, presumably in the hope of soothing his savage breast, and she encourages Ralph to sit beside her. He lights up, and she lights up; he puffs, and she puffs; and—
The Minute Waltz…in 15.26 seconds…
“Play faster!” demands Ralph. “Faster! Faster!! FASTER!!!!”
But sadly, Blanche’s frantic ivory-pounding can only do so much, and Ralph is soon on a down-swing again. At which inauspicious moment, Jack walks in. So unconvincing is his “soothing” manner that not even the mentally fried Ralph is fooled by it; and instead of Jack putting Ralph out of the way, Ralph ends up beating Jack’s head in with a handy poker.
This lands Mae, Blanche and Ralph in the hands of the police. Mae, the only one of the three still relatively “together”, is grilled unmercifully until she cracks and spills her guts about “the boss”. Thus, the drug operation is smashed, the bad guys rounded up, and the Bard safe from future mockery.
Blanche’s attorney offers her testimony about Mary’s death in exchange for leniency, but fails to secure her a plea bargain. “We are not prepared to bargain with justice!” says the judge. My, haven’t things changed? – or is it just that he’s running for re-election on the strength of his conviction of Bill? But Blanche has had enough, and tells what she knows anyway before having a meltdown of her own over the whole luring-the-kids-in thing.
The judge looks distinctly annoyed, but is left with no choice but to set aside Bill’s conviction.
Blanche is led away to be held as a material witness against Ralph, but events have finally caught up with her. She goes into a mental spin, reliving her part in Bill’s downfall and Mary’s death. It’s all too much for her…but fortunately at the end of the corridor there’s a convenient unbarred window…
At least her arm didn’t snap off.
So much for Blanche’s testimony. Bill’s verdict is set aside anyway, though he is on the receiving end of a stern lecture from the judge, and forced to stay in the courtroom through the next hearing—or attempted hearing: Ralph is by now, “Hopelessly, incurably insane: a condition caused by the drug marijuana, to which he was addicted.”
Ralph is last seen getting carted off to, “An institution for the criminally insane, for the rest of his natural life.” We never do find out what happened to Mae.
Bill, however, is free to go. He is surrounded by his family – and Mary’s family! – and kissed and patted and hugged. Jimmy is particularly enthusiastic in his congratulations. You know, Jimmy—who got away scot-free with vehicular manslaughter…
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We take another look at Reefer Madness over in both sections of Spinning Newspaper Injures Printer.
“Make The Devil Bat? Sure I’ll make The Devil Bat! Why wouldn’t I make The Devil Bat!?”