by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
For Reefer Madness — originally issued in 1938 as Tell Your Children, then reissued in 1939 as The Burning Question (one of the worst puns in a movie title ever) and in 1947 under the name it has been known, loved and loathed by ever since — we ran the DVD Charles had bought via the Internet and brought our own DVD machine to play it. I hadn’t seen this since the last time I ran my Beta video in the early 1990’s and I’d forgotten how dull a movie it really is. In a number of ways it’s a good deal better than the average 1930’s exploitation film — it was made at a semi-respectable studio (Grand National), the acting is professionally competent (for the most part; a couple of the principals really ham it up in the final reel but I’m inclined to blame the director, Louis Gasnier, whose best known credit was the original Perils of Pauline in 1914, rather than them) and the sets have a refreshing solidity to them — they don’t look like they’re about to fall down on the hapless actors, as they do in some of the Monogram films from the 1940’s — and though there are a few obvious stock-footage clips (including that familiar “Help is on the way!” shot of police cars roaring out of a station that was also used in two far better films, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and the original King Kong) the film doesn’t seem padded out with stock footage, as some of the tackier independent productions of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s do.
Alas, a relatively competent technical production (including the occasionally creative camera angle) is enlisted in the service of a particularly ridiculous script (by Arthur Hoerl from an “original” story by Lawrence Meade), not only in its overwrought presentation of the case against marijuana (which comes straight out of the presentation Harry J. Anslinger, who was essentially FDR’s “drug czar,” made to Congress in support of the 1937 law that illegalized marijuana) but also in its utter inability to dramatize the depravity to which the drug allegedly makes its users sink and its lazy fall-back on traditional 1930’s gangster tropes. One problem with the early-1950’s anti-Communist movies that keeps most of them from reaching even guilty-pleasure status was that Hollywood knew only one way to depict evil — so the bad-guy Communists, the bad-guy Nazis in earlier films or the bad-guy drug dealers here end up behaving exactly like the bad-guy gangsters in Little Caesar, Public Enemy and all the subsequent films that followed that template.
Thelma White’s performance as Mae Coleman, live-in girlfriend of drug dealer Jack Perry (Carleton Young), actually creates a multidimensional character — a good-time girl and borderline alcoholic herself, she nonetheless has enough morality left to question her partner’s ethics in hooking high-school kids onto marijuana and eventually she becomes the closest thing this movie has to a genuinely tragic figure. The rest of the cast members are either doing the snarling gangster clichés or are your typical mid-20’s Hollywood actors looking utterly unconvincing as high-school students (did male high-school students in the 1930’s routinely go around in suits and ties? I didn’t think so!), and while Lillian Miles as Blanche actually turns in one of the better performances in this film as the girl who hooks Our Hero, Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig), on pot so she can have her wicked way with him, her competence here only underscores the horrible career tragedy that plummeted her from a featured role in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical in 1934 (she sang a chorus of “The Continental” in The Gay Divorcée) to a film like this just four years later.
All the clichés get trotted out — Bill’s gooder-than-good girlfriend Mary Lane (Dorothy Short — with all the Catholics running the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency it’s not surprising that the name “Mary” became irrevocably attached to the most innocent female character in film after film after film in 1930’s Hollywood) gets shot accidentally in Jack’s and Mae’s apartment, Jack frames Bill for her murder, Bill is tried and meanwhile Jack is killed by Ralph Wiley (Dave O’Brien — I guess he had to be in something that would make his later PRC vehicles look good by comparison!), the craziest pothead of all, who at the end of the film is judged criminally insane and sentenced to an asylum for the rest of his life.
One problem with Reefer Madness is that, whereas there were plenty of people in Hollywood who either had been alcoholics themselves or knew alcoholics and therefore had a knowledge base with which to depict the effects of drink with some semblance of realism, either nobody there had had any real experience with marijuana or (if they had) they weren’t about to admit it — and more than anything else I suspect it was the sharp variance between its effects in real life and the depiction of them in this film that made Reefer Madness a camp classic in the early 1970’s when it was rediscovered and watched — for the first time in its exhibition history — by people who had actually smoked marijuana themselves and therefore realized what it did (and didn’t) do. About the only clue the actors had as to how to portray being “high” was to roll their eyes and grin hideously! — 11/13/02
One more piece of movie trivia: this morning’s Los Angeles Times contained an obituary for Thelma White, who was in Reefer Madness (she played Mae, the co-tenant of the apartment where the film’s pot orgies take place), who just passed away at the age of 94. She said that she was an RKO contractee in the 1930’s and they actually loaned her out to participate (needless to say she was not happy about that!), and in later years she was distressed that this, of all films, was the one she was remembered for — though she clearly had a sense of humor about it: when the recent stage version of Reefer Madness (which spoofed the original) opened White attended two performances and enjoyed it immensely.
The last time I watched Reefer Madness I singled out White’s performance as the one genuinely good piece of acting in the film: “Thelma White’s performance as Mae Coleman, live-in girlfriend of drug dealer Jack Perry (Carleton Young), actually creates a multidimensional character — a good-time girl and borderline alcoholic herself, she nonetheless has enough morality left to question her partner’s ethics in hooking high-school kids onto marijuana and eventually she becomes the closest thing this movie has to a genuinely tragic figure.” R.I.P., Thelma White, and may your spirit end up in a place that has as good a sense of humor about the awful movie you did your best to redeem as you did! — 1/13/05
We ran two rather eccentric items from the “Oddities” disc of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 digital archive project, an episode of a really cheesy animated series from the Cartoon Network called Space Ghost that featured MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and magicians Penn and Teller as guests and a 2004 colorized and “restored” version of the film Reefer Madness with Mike Nelson delivering an MST3K-style commentary. The colorization was flamboyantly unrealistic, especially in the scenes set in the apartment of the dope-pushing couple at the center of the action (such as it is), Jack Perry (Carleton Young) and Mae Coleman (Thelma White); every wall of the place is in a different “shocking” pastel color and when the film’s participants exhale the smoke from the (to borrow the title of a different anti-pot exploitation film of the period) “weed with roots in hell,” everyone exhales smoke of a different pastel color: shocking pink, bright purple, bilious green, jaundice yellow.
The movie has never looked better since its initial release — imagine all that time, effort, money and computer power spent restoring this! — nor has it been sillier; though Mike Nelson didn’t sound as funny without the two robot voices also involved (at least part of the fun of MST3K was the way the three performers played off each other in ridiculing the films), he got in some zingers, from his comment on the long opening foreword (“Yeah, a crawl with five minutes of text” — actually it was only three — “that’ll really grab ’em!”) and the ridiculous performance by actor Josef Forte as Dr. Alfred Carroll, principal of Truman High School (you mean they named one after him before he was President?) and the principal authority figure and propagandist within the film itself, lecturing to an on-screen audience of extras who seemed hardly able to contain their boredom. (One wonders if there was an assistant director with a classroom pointer jabbing them to wake them up between takes.)
The movie remains a great camp classic, not as outrageously over-the-top as Dwain Esper’s Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell and actually considerably better produced, since it was shot at a good third-tier studio, Grand National (though the production of the film has variously been attributed to a church group and the U.S. Army, the named producer, George W. Hirliman, was studio head of Grand National when this film was made and was also making Westerns for RKO release) and the sets have a refreshing solidity. Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh (later the PRC house man) lights everything clearly and visibly — even scenes that would have benefited from a dark, noir-ish atmosphere don’t get it — and the acting is wooden (with one exception, Thelma White’s genuine pathos as Mae, conscience-stricken dope dealer who’s willing to sell to adults but resents her boyfriend for hooking naïve high-school kids on the stuff) but not as mind-numbingly incompetent as some of the performances we’ve seen in other exploitation “B”’s of the period.
As I’ve written before about Reefer Madness, I suspect the reason this long-forgotten anti-dope film (which was actually called Tell Your Children on its initial release and for which imdb,com lists at least four other titles: Dope Addict, Doped Youth, Love Madness and The Burning Question) caught on in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a cult movie was that for the first time it was actually being seen by people who had themselves used marijuana and therefore knew that whatever it did, it didn’t make people behave anything like the manic way they do in this film, falling into uncontrollable laughter at the first few puffs and then getting more hyper until they go crazy and kill someone. (In Dr. Carroll’s opening spiel he mentions a teenage reefer smoker who went so totally bonkers on the stuff he killed his entire family with an ax.) The colorizers deliberately ramped up the camp value the way they treated the film, and their intentions were showcased in a long credit roll in which virtually everyone who worked on the restoration and colorization job (which seemed to be more people than were involved in making the film in the first place!) was given a “stoner” alias in the middle of their real name.
Incidentally, imdb.com gives the U.S. release date for this film as 1936, which can’t be right since the name of the movie on the marquee of the theatre the car driven by Jimmy Lane (Warren McCullom) passes while en route to running down an elderly man on the street in a pot-stoked hit-and-run is Any Old Love, a fictional film starring “Terry Rooney” — the film-within-a-film James Cagney’s character was shown making in the 1937 Grand National musical Something to Sing About. Therefore, 1938 — the date given in the American Film Institute Catalog — is more believable as a release date for Reefer Madness.
Also, imdb.com claims that Dorothy Short, who plays the virginal heroine Mary Lane (remember what I’ve pointed out about how movie writers in the 1930’s often called their virginal heroines “Mary” to make the Catholic audiences — and, more importantly, the Catholic censors — happy?), and Dave O’Brien, who plays her killer, Ralph Wiley (the poor kid who at the end goes entirely crazy due to his long-term pot use and is incarcerated in a mental hospital for the rest of his life) were married for real — and I can’t watch this film without wondering how Lillian Miles, who plays Blanche (the heavy-duty pothead who seduces tragic victim Bill Harper, played by Kenneth Craig, away from Mary and despoils him), could have fallen so far so fast from her days sharing the big “Continental” number in The Gay Divorcée with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers just four years earlier! And I did like Mike Nelson’s joke about the film’s use of the older spelling of “Marihuana” — “This film was made before the letter ‘j’ was invented.” — 8/24/08