Luana WaltersFay McKenzieDorothy ShortFern Emmett
Assassin of Youth
Medium: film
Year: 1937
Director: Elmer Clifton
Writer: Elmer Clifton, Charles A. Browne, Leo J. McCarthy
Keywords: 1930s exploitation
Country: USA
Actor: Luana Walters, Arthur Gardner, Fay McKenzie, Michael Owen, Dorothy Short, Dorothy Vaughan, Earl Dwire, Fern Emmett, Henry Roquemore, Hudson Faucett, Gay Sheridan, Edwin Johnson, Edward Hearn, Jack Ingram, Eva McKenzie
Format: 80 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 15 April 2013
It's another 1930s exploitation film about marijuana. It's violently (and amusingly) at odds with medical facts, but in that it's merely following the lead of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time. Otherwise, it's quite good.
Of course, being well made means it lacks the giggle factor of Reefer Madness et al. You can't laugh at it as you can with those similar but much worse films. The director, Elmer Clifton, was a writer, director and actor from the early silent days who'd been a collaborator of D.W. Griffith. He's in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but he gave up acting in 1917 to move behind the camera. Admittedly his sound-era work isn't prestigious, writing and directing lots of low-budget Westerns and exploitation films, but this is someone who'd been making movies for twenty years even in 1937.
Similarly the cast aren't nobodies. I see Luana Walters is also in Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), which I still haven't managed to track down, while the old bat who looks like the Wicked Witch of the West (Fern Emmett) has no less than 235 imdb credits. You'll see "uncredited" a lot if you look through these people's CVs, but that doesn't necessarily mean that much in the days when there might easily be only half a dozen actors credited in a cast list in the first place.
Let's face it, though. Almost no one these days will be watching this film except to laugh at its hysteria about drugs. This is so lurid that I started wondering if "marijuana" wasn't being used as a synonym for drugs in general. At one point we see white powder, after all. According to this film, marijuana turns you into a killer. "Your daughter is a psychopathic case. She is on the verge of insanity." These words are said by a doctor at her bedside, then some time later she's said to be at death's door! You might be thinking that this is an isolated freak reaction, but no. This doctor had inspected four young people that day, all with similar symptoms. One could hypothesise that our small-town doctor is incapable of telling the difference between soft and hard drugs, but obviously it's more entertaining just to accept that the film's talking through its hat.
However it's not the film's fault. Its title is referring to an article that year of the same name by Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He had a "Gore file" of tragedies supposedly caused by marijuana. "An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze." Or if that's not enough, here's another Anslinger quote... "By the tons it is coming into this country - the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms... Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him."
The first in-depth marijuana study was the La Guardia Committee, promoted in 1939 by the mayor of New York. It shot down, among others, the U.S. Treasury Department's claims that marijuana caused addiction and insanity. Anslinger condemned the report as "unscientific".
In other words, it's not Clifton's fault that his film's ludicrous. Everything his film says is taken from the government's official position and there had as yet been no scientific study to disprove it.
As for the film itself, it's a light small-town tale with plenty of comedy. It's fun. I'd have been recommending it had Luana Walters's character not been a loser.
The plot involves Walters's grandmother dying and leaving her a lot of money, but with a twist. The will has a morals clause. If she isn't a good girl, she won't get a penny. On the face of it, this is the world's most pointless stipulation, since Walters is the kind of girl who'll turn down dates because it's Sunday and she's taking her mother to church. She's too good to be true. She'd sooner die than do anything improper... but unfortunately the scriptwriter's given her the common sense of a whelk. She has a scheming cousin (Fay McKenzie) who's trying to blacken her name in order to cheat her out of her inheritance, which seems a bit optimistic given that McKenzie is secretly the town's drug dealer and would seem unlikely to satisfy any moral clause in anything at all.
Anyway, Walters goes to parties where people are taking drugs and lets people spike her food or drink... twice. I repeat: twice. Once was bubble-headed enough. She also falls in the lake and lets this become a nudity episode that's spread around the whole town. In short, her plot function is "the mug". Does she do anything for herself? No. Does she show any initiative? No. Is she noble and self-suffering throughout all this? Of course, yes, but you still don't care because the woman's a loser.
However even apart from her, there's still plenty to enjoy. There's a reporter who's been sent to investigate the local drugs scene and starts out by getting himself hired to mix everyone's drinks. There's a town gossip (Emmett) who looks like Margaret Hamilton and rides around town on her broomstick, um, scooter, sticking her nose into everyone's business. There's a pair of dreadful old rogues who spend all day cheating at draughts... and one of them's the town judge. There are pathetic gangsters, although that's just a consequence of the general light-heartedness rather than actual parody. Clifton's written a nice, juicy storyline that still manages to be entertaining and full of comic business even after it's managed to hole itself below the waterline by writing Walters as such a plank.
Some of the jokes are pretty good, too. The two rogues had me laughing out loud in the courtroom. Emmett gets a hilarious moment of hypocrisy ("He's always sticking his nose in other people's business!"). I loved the reefer zombie. ("Hey, where am I going? I live here!")
As for the acting, I'd go so far as to call it good. There's an appalling lapse when Reporter Boy's trying to apologise to Walters, in a hollow scene to which neither actor is committing in the slightest. Apart from that, though, everyone's very watchable. Fay McKenzie in particular is eating up the screen as the drug-dealing bitch, always sparking with zest and life. She's positively smouldering. The old-timers milk the comedy for all it's worth, too. Note the bit where the two rogues decide to deliver their dialogue as asides straight to camera. "There's a nice girl." "They don't come any better."
It even delivers as exploitation. Walters gets naked, albeit only in silhouette after dark, while you'll also see a pair of see-through trousers and a girl lifting her skirt to dance. There's also a minor story beat involving sex at a party.
In summary: a slick, rather good film that's unfortunately suffering from two mortal wounds. One is the drugs message and the other is the fact that the plot is built around people trying to rip off Walters's "too noble to be true" character... and eventually you'll almost be cheering them on. This counts as failure, I think. I'm going to rate Elmer Clifton provisionally as a slick and entertaining hack (which is praise), but he misstepped here. Oh, and I had trouble telling apart Arthur Gardner and Michael Owen, until they appeared on screen together and I was reassured that they were two different actors after all. Nevertheless I liked enough about this film to make it almost worth a recommendation, despite its problems, and I'd happily watch more from Clifton.
"Find out if marijuana is playing any part in the lives of these young people!"