Saturday, April 20, 2013

Stubs – Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness aka Tell Your Children (1936) Starring: Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, Lillian Miles, Dave O’Brien, Thelma White, Warren McCollum, Carleton Young. Screenplay by Arthur Hoerl. Directed by Louis Gasnier. Produced by Dwain Esper. Run Time: 68 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Propoganda

420, 4:20 or 4/20 refers to, of course, the smoking of pot. 4:20 was the time of day to meet to indulge and, April 20th has evolved into a counterculture holiday of sorts. And while Trophy Unlocked does not condone the use of psychoactive drugs nor identify ourselves with the cannabis culture, we do want to keep in the spirit of the day. In celebration of 4/20, we have decided to review what is probably the best known film about marijuana, Reefer Madness. Intended as a morality story, Reefer Madness is not effective as the deterrent it was supposed to be.

Originally made by a church group to teach parents about the evils of cannabis use, it was almost immediately turned into an exploitation film by Dwain Esper who recut the film. Esper was credited as a director of such gone and forgotten films as Narcotic (1933), Maniac aka Sex Maniac (1934), Marihuana (1936), How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937) and Sex Madness (1938). Films that were supposedly educational films were common place about this time as a way to get around the strict Production Code adopted by Hollywood in 1934.

The film opens with a series of newspaper headlines reporting about the police war on drugs and how the drug has infiltrated the schools. There is even an ad for a talk by high school Principal Dr. Alfred Carroll (Josef Forte), which the movie uses as a way of introducing our morality play as a warning to parents.

Dr. Alfred Carroll (Josef Forte)
Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young) are a couple living in sin (back in the day this meant they were living together and not married). They sell marijuana, Mae to customers her age, but Jack sells to young teenagers, which seems to bother Mae, who protests to Jack that at least her clients are old enough to know what they’re doing. In town, Jack runs into Ralph Wiley (Dave O’Brien), an older student whom he knows. Ralph introduces Jack to Mary Lane (Dorothy Short), a girl he fancies, who is with her boyfriend, Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig) and Mary’s younger brother Jimmy (Warren McCollum). Ralph invites them to go to Joe’s soda shop, but Mary and Bill are on their way to play tennis, and Jimmy wants to come along. They meet Mae at the soda shop and reconvene at Mae and Jack’s apartment.

The piano player at Joe's takes a reefer break.
There they meet Blanche (Lillian Miles), who takes an interest in Bill and goads him into smoking one of her cigarettes. During the party, Jack runs out of reefer and Jimmy, who has borrowed Mary’s car, offers to drive him to get more at his boss’ headquarters. When Jimmy asks Jack for a cigarette, he gets a joint instead. After Jack comes back to the car, Jimmy drives erratically under the influence of the marijuana. On the way back to Jack’s apartment, Jimmy runs over a pedestrian and keeps going. The next morning at breakfast, Mary notices that Jimmy has changed, but he won’t tell her what’s happened. She also tells her mother that she hasn’t seen much of Bill lately.

Where there's  pot smoke there's madness.
Meanwhile, Dr. Carroll is talking with an FBI agent about the explosion in Marijuana use since 1930. The agent gives Dr. Carroll case histories, which Carroll thinks will help him educate his students about the evils of the drug. Back at school, the principal sits down with Jimmy about the decline in his grades. Jimmy denies allegations that he has developed an undesirable habit.

Mary is upset that Bill is blowing off his tennis lessons, but is even more shocked when police come to inquire about the hit and run. She lies and tells that she had her car with her on the day of the accident and the police seem to buy the alibi. (Even though the pedestrian dies from his injuries, Bill is never brought to trial or punished for this crime.) Mary goes looking for Jimmy at Joe’s, where the soda jerk gives Mary the address for Mae’s apartment. Bill, who begins an affair with Blanche, is in the bedroom with her when Mary comes to the apartment looking for Jimmy. Ralph is, of course, there and tells her that Jimmy will be back soon and invites her to wait. He offers Mary a joint, which she accepts thinking it’s a normal cigarette. Ralph comes on to Mary, who refuses his advances. But Ralph won’t take no for an answer and tries to rape her, pawing at her clothes. 

High on reefer, Ralph attempts to rape Mary.
Bill, who has been having sex with Blanche in the next room comes and hallucinates that Mary is stripping for Ralph. Bill attacks Ralph. Jack (who seems he’s always about to eat something in the movie) rushes from the kitchen and tries to break up the fight by hitting Bill on the head with the butt of a gun. But there is a fight for the gun and it goes off and Mary is killed. Jack puts the gun into unconscious Bill’s hand, wakes him and convinces Bill that he killed Mary. Jack tells Mae to call the cops after he leaves and Bill is arrested. During Bill’s trial, Ralph and Blanche lay low in Jack’s apartment. But Ralph becomes harder to control and threatens to tell the authorities who really killed Mary. Afraid that Ralph might go through with his threat, Jack’s boss tells him to kill Ralph.

Jack (l) and Mae (r) convince Bill that he's killed Mary.
Back at Jack’s apartment, Mae offers to play piano for Ralph to keep his mind off things. They are both high and Ralph tells her to play faster and faster. It is one of the film’s most famous and over-the-top scenes. Jack shows up to kill Ralph, but Ralph is ready and instead beats Jack to death with a rod. A tenant in the building calls the police and they arrest Ralph, Mae and Blanche. Mae turns state’s evidence and the criminal gang is arrested. In the judge’s chamber Blanche confesses that she got Bill involved with Mae and the judge orders that Bill’s verdict be set aside and orders that Blanche be charges with fostering moral delinquency. As she is being slowly led to prison, Blanche has the time to recall all the events that have led to her current predicament. It is too much for her to face, so she breaks away from the matron and throws herself out a window, falling to her death.

Even though the Judge frees Bill, he makes him stay for Ralph’s trial so he’ll know from what he’s been saved. Since both the prosecution and defense have agreed to it, the judge consents to Ralph being placed in an asylum for the criminally insane.

Dave O'Brien as Ralph Wiley made insane by the reefer,
Following the conclusion of the story, we are once again treated to Dr. Carroll, who warns that the story he’s told is likely to be repeated. He tells the “parents” in the audience that the next tragedy could be “your daughter’s or your son’s or yours or yours” On the final “yours” he points to the camera and the words “TELL YOUR CHILDREN” appear on the screen. The film’s final warning.

Subtlety is not Reefer Madness' strong suit.
Since there was no after-market for films, especially those made outside of the studio system, neither Esper or the original filmmakers bothered to copyright the film, which by the 1970’s had lapsed into public domain. This lead to a rebirth for the film, which was distributed by NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) founder Keith Stroup, who found a print in the archives at the Library of Congress and bought a copy for $297. The film made the college circuit and became a popular midnight movie, where some viewers were no doubt already mad about reefer.

Odd and over-the-top rather than laugh out loud funny, Reefer Madness is no doubt funnier if you are celebrating 4/20. The moralistic approach to marijuana comes off as nearly forced as the acting, which comes off as wooden at best. Marijuana is not the hallucinogen the movie makes it out to be, nor the stimulant that drives people crazy. There are dangers associated with the drug as the hit-and-run traffic accident illustrates. But marijuana is more likely to mellow out its user, rather than hop them up into a frenzy to rape and murder.

Even though the film is only a little over an hour long, it is transparently preachy and, worse of all, boringly slow. There is not enough action in the film to make up for the lousy acting, absurd premise and stupid story. While Reefer Madness wouldn’t keep anyone from smoking pot, it would be good as a cure for insomnia.

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