Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Don't Fear the Reefer

This is my first entry in the So Bad It's Good Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room

Drugs are bad for you.  You don't need me to tell you that.  But some of those 30's movies that supposedly exposed the dangers of illicit narcotics are just plain weird.  And we can blame Dwain Esper for many of them.  Esper directed such "classics" as Sinister Harvest (about opium), Narcotic (about drug addiction) and Marihuana (about you-know-what).

He also had a keen eye for the exploitation of other movies.  He came across a movie called Tell Your Children!, which he didn't direct.  It was directed by a man named Louis Gasnier.  But Esper took it  and edited it and sent it out on what was known as the exploitation circuit.  The movie went by several names, depending on in what region of the country you saw it.  My favorite title is, undoubtedly, the one they used in the Pennsylvania area; "The Burning Question".

The original film had been seriously made and produced by a church group to warn parents of the dangers of marijuana.  But even with out the salacious edits and insertions Esper added to the film for his exploitation round, the movie is pretty ridiculous.  And I say that even if the viewer has never partaken of the evil devil weed in question.  But if you have experienced the sensations from trying it at least once, you will see that the assertation of the film about the effects of smoking border on the insane.

You probably won't recognize any of the people in this movie.  Many of them did go on to make other movies, but I found out if you click on the links available in the wikipedia entry for Reefer Madness, each of the entries that actually has a picture of the actor or actress in question is a still photo of a scene from this movie, which suggests it is the only film of note in which they were ever involved   The exception may be Carleton Young who, according to IMDb, has 258 film and TV credits.  Personally I remember him as delivering the final line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

Reefer Madness (1936):

From the opening crawl at the beginning of the movie:

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! 

It's worse than that!  As Dr. Carroll (Josef Forte, not even a real doctor, mind you, just an actor) states it's even  more vicious and more deadly than opium, morphine and heroin! (Really!)  Just witness what it does to people in the movie.  One puff (and apparently not even having to inhale it... Bill Clinton, anyone?) turns normal people into raving lunatics.

Dr. Carroll  relates a story that happened right here in "your city".  There is a band of drug dealers, headed by Jack (Carleton Young) and Mae (Thelma White).  Mae harangues Jack.  As opposed to Mae, who prefers to deal only to adults, Jack has an affinity for dealing with teenagers.  (Not sure if these "teenagers" are high school kids, or already out and going to college.  They sure look old to my eyes.)

Helped along in Jack's scheme is Ralph (Dave O'Brien), who is a college dropout.  Apparently Ralph  smoked one too many joints and decided he liked that life better.  He and his own lady friend, Blanche (Lillian Miles) help host weed parties, where dancing and smoking are de riguer.

At these parties, a regular is a character, known as "Hot Fingers" (Ted Wraye), who can tickle the ivories like nobody's business.  But after each set he has take time out for a smoke break, which he does in a closet with a hilarious looking paranoid face.  (Question:  Why is he hiding when everyone else in the place is smoking, too?  Your guess is as good as mine.)

In one scene young Jimmy (Warren McCollum) is playing chauffeur to Jack, who has gone to pick up more joints from his distributor.  Jack leaves Jimmy alone with a reefer (marijuana cigarette) and when he comes back, Jimmy takes off in the car like a rocket sled on rails.  He ends up hitting a pedestrian, but doesn't stop, apparently not noticing it.

Back at Mae and Jack's apartment, Bill (Kenneth Craig), who has come to the party unaware of the illicit aspect of it, begins to talk with Blanche and she convinces him to smoke one of her kind of cigarettes.  You can see the immediate effect and transformation of Bill in his expression.

Bill's transformation from a clean-cut, top student comes to the attention of the authority at the school,  our Dr. Carroll, whom I can't decide whether he is a guidance counselor or a principal, but he addresses the change in Bill.  But Bill denies there is anything influencing him, so the doctor lets it go.  But Mary is distressed and seeks out Bill and ends up at the pot house.  Where Ralph tries to get her high and puts the moves on her.

This being a moral tale and an exploitation film, some serious repercussions occur, not the least of which is Mary being accidentally shot and killed.  Jack tries to frame Bill for the shooting and Bill goes on trial.  How it all plays out in the end is typical of these types of moral films, and Dr. Carroll ends with the admonition to his audience that vigilant observation of your children is the only solution because what happened to Bill could happen to "yours, or yours, or yours or YOURS" (while significantly pointing to the screen audience.)

Who knows how effective the film was on audiences of the day, but it is significant that the "menace" of the dangerous drug was never eradicated.  And it's overblown hyperbole has been refuted.  For those of us who turned out all right despite the danger, it becomes a humorous look at history of drug control.  (And, just so you don't get the wrong idea, your humble blogger no longer indulges, but I do stand with those who seek the complete legalization of marijuana).

Well folks, time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  Drive safely, folks.  Especially if you have been indulging yourself.



  1. This film had a cult following in my middle school. I didn't see it until I was much older, but there were a group of boys who re-enacted scenes and quoted it ad infinitum. So when I finally saw it, years later, I was well familiar with this gem.

    I didn't realize Dwain Esper did a whole drug series. I will look for it on YouTube.

  2. I have most of them. One of my box sets from Mill Creek has 20 so called cult classics. My only disappointment is it doesn't include "How to Undress in Front of Your Husband"... Thanks for reading.

  3. I'm going to have to see this one--it seems rather infamous, and you summed it up so well. Thanks for the great review, Quiggy!

    1. It's a favorite for people who actually indulge. Can't remember if I was actually stoned the first time I saw it. But it still gets a laugh or two, and I've been clean for nearly 10 years... Thanks for reading.


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