Waiting to inhale

Reflections on the Golden Age of drugsploitation

| September 05, 2002

Marijuana is truly the wonder drug. Not just for its legitimate applications, like relieving the intraocular pressure of glaucoma sufferers and encouraging the appetites of chemo patients, but also for the miraculous range of effects it has elicited in young people over the long history of motion pictures. For at least 70 years, on-screen tokes of the laughing cabbage have compelled young innocents to do everything from flinging themselves on each other in lustful frenzies to flinging themselves out of windows in spasms of acute terror.

Many of the amazingly varied effects of marijuana in the movies can be traced to the lurid excesses of just one decade of filmmaking. In honor of both the drug summit and the annual Hempfest, which convene serendipitously in Missoula this week, let us hold hands and gaze upon this Golden Age of Drug Exploitation and its most celebrated relic: Reefer Madness.

“The Motion Picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll 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—the Real Public Enemy Number One!” So begins the opening crawl of the most famous drug-scare movies ever, known variously as Reefer Madness, Tell Your Children, The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth, and—humorously enough—Love Madness. Though not the first or necessarily even the best film of its kind, Reefer Madness (1936) deserves its fame as something of a template for the drug-scare picture, reinforcing the pattern of earlier attempts like Assassin of Youth (1935) and Marihuana, the Weed With Roots in Hell! (1935) with a simple morality play of a plot and fervently overheated dialogue.

From the first scenes of youthful hero Billy Harper beginning his trip down the road to ruin with an unwitting social call on what turns out to be the neighborhood marijuana speakeasy, Reefer Madness hits a high note of camp that scarcely quavers for the duration of the movie. Watch the peculiar expression on Billy’s face after a dope-crazed young hussy waltzes him into a spare bedroom at Jack and Mae’s dope emporium and throws herself come-hitheringly onto the bed. Within minutes, a tussle over a handgun will leave Billy’s girlfriend, Mary, dead with a slug through the shoulder blades and Billy himself framed for murder. For the time being, though, his countenance runs through several shades of befuddlement and regret as he ponders the imminent and simultaneous loss of his innocence, his soon-to-be-dead girlfriend’s irreplaceable trust in him, his valedictorian status and a possible tennis career—all for a few hits of the devil’s weed. It would be downright tragic if it weren’t downright hilarious.

And, of course, shamelessly transparent. Like its predecessor Marihuana, Reefer Madness is hardly an early example of what would later be termed the “concerned cinema,” that is, a picture generally concerned with a particular social ill and made with an admonishing eye towards drawing public attention to it. Nor, contrary to popular belief, is Reefer Madness a piece of government propaganda. Both films, and many others like them, were the intellectual property of Dwain Esper, a former carnival barker with a gift for turning a buck by exploiting the movie-going public’s irrepressible appetite for sleaze under the pretense of educating them about a particular social problem.

It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in the Dwain Esper story. Some sources claim he picked up Reefer Madness when it was still called Tell Your Children, by some accounts an existing picture financed by a church group as a bona fide cautionary tale about the dangers of drug use, and padded it out with sensationalistic inserts he shot himself. Other sources claim that the notoriously lawsuit-happy former carny—according to fellow exploitation king David F. Friedman, his standard telephone greeting was “I’ll sue!”—came into possession of a film lab as part of a legal settlement and quickly found he had a knack for knocking up filth with his wife, Hildagarde Stadie. Either way, in the early ’30s, Esper was a founding member of the so-called “40 Thieves,” a group of small-time movie moguls working outside the Hollywood system. Dwain Esper, Dan Sonney, Kroger Babb and other producer/directors put their pictures on the road, often touring along themselves, avoiding the mainstream theaters and drumming up publicity for screenings booked in small-town lodges and independent theaters.

The traveling roadshow picture is an intriguing chapter in American movie history, and for the most talented self-promoters it was an excellent racket. Advance agents would roll into a town and plaster its lampposts and hoardings with advertisements for one or two showings of a movie purporting to address a hush-hush topic like venereal disease, teenage prostitution, race-mixing or, of course, the drug menace. The exploiteers would generally split the take with the venue, or, in some cases, the house would keep the money from concessions while the exploiteers would pocket all the proceeds from accompanying literature. There would also be a commission for the lecturer—sometimes the exploiteer himself—from the sale of the literature. Generally, that literature consisted of a booklet that could be printed for less than a dime and sold to “alarmed” citizens for as much as two dollars. Having thus alerted the citizenry to this or that peril—and made a bundle doing so—roadshow men like the unscrupulous Esper, dubbed “the King of the Celluloid Gypsies,” and their gang would slip away to the next town, often just a step or two ahead of the authorities.

There was seldom anything responsible or concerned on either side of these exchanges. Roadshow movies were just an excuse for producers like Esper to exhibit sleaze under the guise of public education, and for audiences to revel in it under the pretense of educating themselves about this or that menace to health or public safety. The information disseminated at roadshows was also dodgy at best, in most cases little better than trying to learn the facts of life by talking to second-graders. Movies about pregnancy and prostitution were often accompanied by shoddy information about fertility that probably did more to get young women pregnant than anything else.

From a cinematic standpoint, what’s remarkable about these roadshow pictures is the extent to which Esper and his fellow producers were able to sidestep the rigorous demands of the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code for its architect, former Postmaster General William Hays. The Hays Code, reluctantly adopted by the industry in 1930, held as its first general principle the lofty goal that “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” The Code forbade everything from white slavery and “the use of liquor in American life” to criminals with foreign names and accents and “suggestive postures or gestures.” Nudity was out, as was any depiction of illegal drug traffic.

Once again under the umbrella of public concern, however, Esper and his roadshow cronies crammed their pictures with as much lurid, sensational and otherwise forbidden content as they could. Reefer Madness and Marihuana, taken together, are like a point-by-point refutation of every guideline in the Code. Savvier roadshow exhibitors even had “hot” and “cold” reels for all of their films, substituting the tamer versions if they suspected the local constabulary was going to intervene, and lacing up the red-hot real deal if it looked like they could get away with it.

That Reefer Madness is still so entertaining to watch almost 70 years later, therefore, is somewhat less an indication of subversive possibilities in its campy, poorly-aged melodrama —although there’s certainly plenty of that—than a testament to the staying power of sleazy intentions. And, of course, to the enduring popularity of sleaze itself. If there were ever a group or organization genuinely concerned with eradicating marijuana use and using Reefer Madness to reach that goal, they’re sure as hell not stepping forward to claim the movie now! In an era before video and TV rights, Reefer Madness might have been lost to the AV stacks of a few benighted high schools after its roadhouse heyday if National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) founder Keith Stroup hadn’t found a print in the Library of Congress film archives and bought it for $297. First revived as a pot-rally fundraiser, the film eventually took on a life of its own as a midnight movie favorite—and, it should be noted, became the first big success for fledgling distributor New Line Cinema.

Reefer Madness and its dope-scare cousins certainly are entertaining, even—or maybe especially—after all these years. Perhaps the funniest thing about these movies is the insatiable appetite of the filmmakers for the seamy and lurid, an appetite which probably far outstripped the craziest urges of the average 1930s teenager. And never mind the highly suspect, nominally socially responsible song and dance about drugs being a menace to society—most of the enabler-types in the cast of Reefer Madness and Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell slosh booze and smoke cigarettes like there’s no tomorrow! In fact, at least half of the teens in these movies turn into dangerous addicts after getting hooked on the first reefer proffered to them with a come-on along the lines of “It’s a new kind of cigarette!” Still, this isn’t as hypocritical as it might seem; cigarettes weren’t bad for you yet and alcohol was the gateway substance, not marijuana. And movies like Reefer Madness play marijuana up to be worse than cocaine and heroin combined.

The opening crawl of Reefer Madness also tells viewers what to expect of the drug—or, for today’s viewer, what to expect from the hammy performances in the movie. “Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then come dangerous hallucinations—space expands—time slows down, almost stands still… fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions… leading finally to acts of shocking violence...ending in often incurable insanity.” Space expands and time slows down, eh? Somebody better write Stephen Hawking—they might really be onto something. (Hawking’s esteemed colleague, incidentally, the late Carl Sagan, was a part-time puffer who wrote about his cannabis experiences under a pseudonym. Was Sagan, in Breakfast Club parlance, a “wasteoid” like John Bender?) Lurid titles (“Inflamed Passions Beating in the Breasts of Young Moderns!” “One Night of Bliss for a 1000 Nights in Hell!”) further fan the flames of perdition, and the effects of the hambone acting are amplified by plenty of cheapo dissolves, matte shots and double exposures to emphasize the characters’ dislocation in the space-time continuum and, obviously, their slide into insanity.

Given the cultural remove between the time the film was made and the present day, it can be difficult to guess at what was baseline permissible for high school students back then. It says something, though, that almost all vintage reefer-scare movies seem to include at least one scene of young people in beer joints and other places without adequate adult supervision. And lindy-hopping to hot jazz—the ’30s equivalent of Slayer or Slipknot, apparently, if one wishes to establish a musical index of just how far the youth have strayed. Keeping the roadshow intentions firmly in mind, however, more likely it’s just another case of giving the people what they want.

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