It's kind of astonishing. Even given my high regard for Dwain Esper's films that were written by his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, this was nothing like what I'd expected.
It's obviously cheap, has bad acting and is stuffed full of stock footage, of course. The production values are poor. Dwain Esper is of course the exploitation maestro whose name is also on Maniac
, Marihuana, Sex Madness and other lurid schlockers, so I'd been expecting something that was essentially Reefer Madness
, but good. It's written by Hildegarde Stadie, after all.
I was wrong. Instead it's the true story of Hildegarde's uncle, Dr. William G. Davis, presented under his own name and introduced with a letter to "Dwain" (i.e. Esper). It begins with the usual 1930s waffle about wanting to "warn" the public about SHOCKING BEHAVIOUR (roll up, roll up!), but for once that title card is the exact and literal truth. Stadie had travelled with Davis as a little girl as he peddled his patent medicines and displayed Stadie naked with a python. (She omits that episode and indeed her own personal involvement in events, so in fact what we have here has been toned down somewhat from real life.) He was a huckster and a drug addict. Stadie is simply showing us what he was like, in a film that would seem surprisingly accurate and even-handed in its approach to drugs even today.
Understandably this went down badly with even the pre-Code censors of 1933. Stadie's letters from the New York board are staggering. They call it "indecent", "immoral" and "will tend to corrup [sic] morals and incite to crime". When Stadie rightly points out that it's hardly glamorising its subject, she gets a near-hysterical screed in response that practically quotes her entire film back at her and seems to regard "to show honestly" as a synonym for "to corrupt".
The downside of this, unfortunately, is that it makes the film less effective. Stadie falls into the Historical Trap that lies in wait for anyone adapting real life, which is to turn her screenplay into a bullet-point list of episodes that happen for no better reason than that they actually did. This doesn't really work with an audience. We want things to happen for internal, dramatic reasons. That's more satisfying and the reason why people watch fiction in the first place... but the secret to appreciating this film is to regard it as only semi-fictional. It's a dramatised biography with a fat slab of educational and philosophical content, disguised as a 1930s exploitation film.
As such, I think it's a startling piece of work, especially given that Stadie's writing about something so obviously personal.
We begin with Dr William G. Davis (Harry Cording) discussing drugs with some friends. One of those is unfortunately a white man (J. Stuart Blackton Jr.) in yellowface make-up, which allows Stadie to bring the Chinese viewpoint on opium but is still hard to watch for a modern audience. Blackton's painfully unconvincing. He pulls focus. Every minute of his screen time is like having a tap-dancing elephant on screen... but if you can make yourself listen to what he's saying, he's providing a more nuanced approach to the film's subject than you'd have expected even had it been made today. He discusses the history of opium, brings up the Chinese philosophy to it and analyses how this differs from Western attitudes.
We also see stunning car stunts in what must surely be stock footage. This is cool. I like Esper's use of stock footage, just I do Ed Wood's. Other things you'll see in this film (all relevant) include a car running head-on into a train, a caesarian operation, a 1930s carnival with carnival freaks (which as a Tod Browning fanboy blew my mind) and snakes (rattlers, sidewinders, a king snake and its unwilling dinner).
Anyway, before long Blackton's introducing Dr Davis to opium. This scene is set in an opium den, with actors who really are Chinese and a strong sense of verisilimitude. It feels truthful. However it's also kind of disturbing that our hero's response to getting high is a wedding. His married life had the potential to be a powerful element of the film and it's certainly true that Stadie shows us all the stages that his poor wife will get driven through, but unfortunately Joan Dix just isn't a good actress. She does have her moments, even making me laugh in her first scene in the clinic. However Stadie's screenplay isn't quite joining all the dots with Dix's character and the performance isn't doing enough to get us over that. We're also in trouble whenever she gets dialogue on philosophy or medical ethics.
Nevertheless their relationship is still a huge part of the movie. You'll be asking yourself how much she knows, or suspects, or how much he's telling her. She works it out faster than you'll be expecting, for a start, then tries to stand by her husband and support him. Meanwhile Dr Davis behaves like a real person, at one point committing himself to a narcotics hospital. (What happened next made me laugh out loud, although it's also ghastly.)
Dr Davis's life goes to the next stage. He grows a villainous beard and starts working the carnivals. His silver tongue's rather wonderful, actually. "A man who could spellbind kings! A modern Cagliostro! The greatest quackopath of modern quackerdomery!"
...and then comes the Dope Party. "Very few people, other than professional investigators, have really witnessed a Dope Party," gasps the intertitle. We're told that it's a recreation of what really happens at one. Against all the odds, given the apparent exploitation genre, this is true and you could almost use it as a textbook study.
Methods of drug use are shown in detailed close-up. They snort it, or else they melt it in a spoon and then inject it. The film is specific about the drugs it's talking about: heroin, cocaine, marijuana, morphine, etc. What's more, though, the behaviour of the people is textbook too. It's a million miles away from the caricatures of Reefer Madness
. Everyone has their own reactions, whether it's that they laugh a lot, can't stop talking or get paranoid. ("I know the bulls are watching!" You'll need to know that 'bull' means 'policeman', but fortunately I did because I've read my Ed McBain.) A man and a woman get horizontal together, although Esper cuts away before we can see anything happen. No one gets the munchies, though.
That ten-minute scene is the film's fulcrum. It's crucial, but it's also theoretically unnecessary to the main business of telling Dr Davis's life story. After that, we're back to the barely fictionalised biography. Everyone looked as if they were having fun at the Dope Party, but in fact our protagonist's falling apart. He's losing it. He associates with prostitutes, starts fights about money and has clearly lost control of his life. His final scene in the film is brutal, pathetic and a triumph for Harry Cording, who acted in 283 films in his thirty-year career but was uncredited in most of them and generally played roles like "Townsman" and "Boiler Room Engineer". I'd be surprised if this wasn't a career highlight for him and I'm including the fact that he was also in Karloff/Lugosi's The Black Cat (1934).
It's a harsh and laceratingly fair film. It pulls absolutely no punches with its portrayal of its protagonist, but at the same time it's almost startlingly level-headed when actually talking about drugs and refuses to throw tabloid headlines at us. "The greatest friend to drugs is ignorance. Its enemy education." "The only cure is the will to be cured." It occasionally strays into semi-bollocks by over-intellectualising, but that I can forgive.
This isn't an entirely successful film. It's clearly far less entertaining than, say, Esper and Stadie's entirely fictional (and loopy) Maniac
the following year. However I admire Stadie even more now and I think what she did here was extraordinarily brave. I'm also almost angry at some of the reviews I've seen that judge this film on its production values. (e.g. "the un-believability of the whole story that makes one giggle", "obvious from my review that this is a terrible film" and most outrageously "makes little attempt at realism".) I want to find these people and shout at them. I also love Hildegarde Stadie, who I note with pleasure lived to the triumphant age of 98.
You'll need to cut allowances. It's not particularly entertaining, the acting's sometimes bad (although Harry Cording's always taking it seriously) and it has a ghastly example of yellowface makeup. It's from a cheapie exploitation filmmaker and it looks like his other exploitation films. However for what it is, it's also one of the bravest and honest movies about drugs I know.