Dorothy ShortLillian MilesDave O'BrienThelma White
Reefer Madness
Also known as: Tell Your Children
Medium: film
Year: 1936
Director: Louis J. Gasnier
Producer: Samuel Diege, George A. Hirliman, Dwain Esper [reissue]
Writer: Lawrence Meade, Arthur Hoerl, Paul Franklin
Keywords: 1930s exploitation, gangster
Country: USA
Actor: Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, Lillian Miles, Dave O'Brien, Thelma White, Carleton Young, Warren McCollum, Patricia Royale, Joseph Forte, Harry Harvey Jr.
Format: 66 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 1 August 2010
Not as loopy as I'd been expecting. It's good for a few laughs, but it's oddly tame. I can see how it became a cult hit among the college and cannabis-smoking circuit on being rediscovered in the 1970s, mind you.
A bit of history on this thing. It was originally produced in serious intent by... okay, that one's up for debate. Some say it was commissioned by a church group, while others say the army. It wants to tell us that marijuana is evil. Unfortunately it ended up falling into the hands of Dwain Esper, the sleazemeister who'd bought Tod Browning's Freaks to show on the exploitation circuit under lurid titles like Forbidden Love and Nature's Mistakes. Esper's own films include Narcotic (1933), Sex Maniac (1934), Marihuana, the Devil's Weed (1936) and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937). His final film was The Strange Love Life of Adolf Hitler (1948). Admittedly I'm using the most entertaining alternative titles for some of those, but even Reefer Madness was originally called Tell Your Children.
Anyway, Esper added some salacious insert shots, although no actual nudity (unlike some of his own films), and put it out as education-exploitation. We've got the Production Code to thank for that genre.
The film itself starts promisingly, by explaining that marihuana (as they spelled it in 1936) is more vicious than opium, cocaine and probably also cyanide. Its addicts will experience: (a) sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter, (b) dangerous hallucinations, (c) ideas, (d) emotional disturbances, (e) violence, then possibly (f) incurable insanity. This is explained to us by an old bloke talking to camera in a documentary-style prologue. They do not however explain that cannabis wasn't illegal back then and America hadn't even yet passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. At any rate, after seven or eight minutes of this, the story begins.
You probably know where this is going already. A clean-cut young nerd with a bow tie and Mickey Mouse hair is lured into smoking weed and thereafter stops going to the tennis club and his school grades go downhill. No, really. That's about it. Admittedly there's also death, gangsters, a murder trial and so on, but that's just thanks to bad luck and him hanging out with bad people. Surprisingly, the film doesn't get much mileage out of all those blood-curdling consequences of cannabis it had been alleging. Compare it with anything on the modern drugs war, for instance, like Elite Squad or City of God. Something like that would have blasted a 1936 audience into bloody gibbets, whereas this in contrast is strictly small-time stuff. If anything, much of its modest humour value comes from being quaint and unintentionally camp.
So, how funny is this? That's the only reason you'll be watching it, after all. Stuff that made me laugh included:
(a) Ralph checking out his male friend's arses, then dutifully being interested in girls because it's in the script. There's another bit of gay subtext later, in which a lady invites Mr Nerd to a party at "my girlfriend's apartment".
(b) Ralph's "puff-grin puff-grin".
(c) 1936 dancing.
(d) Some of the camp acting, e.g. "Mary... Mary was... dead," or the comedy reaction to a suicide.
(e) Death Race 2000, where one herbal cigarette turns a motorist into a racing demon. Fair enough, that one was hilarious.
(f) The film's final shot, in which Mr Exposition delivers a final warning to camera, then the words TELL YOUR CHILDREN zoom up at us.
Apart from that though, it's a bit low-key. Everything's done with great solemnity, most obviously the murder trial, but there's not much here that's particularly cannabis-related. The film might as well have been called Don't Be A Twat or Gangsters Aren't Your Friends. Admittedly the film's determined to underline the horrors of marijuana and so we'll see gangsters complaining to each other that this is too much even for them, or alternatively we'll be told about the boy who killed his entire family with an axe, or the girl who did something unspecified with five men. However that's all tell, not show. There's a sequence where cannabis makes girls turn nymphomaniac (but keep their clothes on) and of course at the end a character who's gone incurably insane, but even so there's surprisingly little connection between the plot and the direct effect of drugs.
Viewed un-ironically, there are okay bits. The scenes of innocents being lured into smoking their first bad cigarette are a bit sinister, while I quite liked the relationship between the two cannabis pushers.
Obviously this isn't a great film. However it's not horrible and its anti-drug message is ludicrous, but not woven into its fabric nearly as much as I'd been expecting. You could make a far funnier anti-cannabis movie by packing it with stuff like the Death Race 2000. Don't go in expecting to see an overt comedy, but instead a mostly straight thirties film with a goofy message for its audience. However that said, I wasn't watching the 2004 DVD with LSD-like colourisation and a commentary track by Michael J. Nelson from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. I can see why it's become a cult classic, but personally I wasn't blown away by it.