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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sometimes, the road to success for a film can be circuitous. The
anti-marijuana film "Reefer Madness" bears this distinction. Initially,
in 1936, a small religious organization bankrolled it as "Tell Your
Children" with a moral message about the wages of smoking pot.
Notorious exploitation film maestro Dwain Esper forged a reputation
with exploitation films, including "Narcotic" (1933), "Maniac" (1934),
and "Marihuana" (1936). Esper got his mitts on it, inserted additional
footage, and changed the title to "Reefer Madness." Esper toured the
exploitation circuit with "Reefer Madness" and made a bundle.
Afterward, "Reefer Madness" and thousands of similar exploitation
titles languished. In 1971, founder of NORML (Nation Organization for
Reform of Marijuana Laws), Keith Stroup bought a copy from the Library
of Congress for $297 and started showing it a pro-marijuana parties.
Ironically, designed originally to discourage marijuana usage, the same
film had been appropriated as part of a campaign to make the idea of
forbidden pot looks as archaic and old-fashioned as this campy bromide.
At best, "Reefer Madness" qualifies as undistinguished hokum.
"Reefer Madness" opens with a foreword brimming with bombast. "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! Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then come dangerous hallucinations--space expands--time slows down, almost stands still--fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances--followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts the loss of all power to resist physical emotions . . . Leading finally to acts of shocking violence . . . Ending often in incurable insanity. In picturing its soul destroying effects no attempt was made to equivocate. The scenes and incidents, while fictionalized for the purposes of this story, are based upon actual research into the results of Marihuana addiction. If their stark reality will make you think, will make you aware that something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace, then the picture will not have failed in its purpose . . . . Because the dread Marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter or yours . . . . Or YOURS! "Reefer Madness" opens and closes with crusading Lakeside High School Principal Dr. Carroll (Joseph Forte of "Pals of the Saddle") addressing concerned adults at a Parent Teachers Organization. This bespectacled high school educator advocates the classes about narcotics so youth will not become victims of addiction. Chiefly, he rages about marijuana. He argues vociferously that the dreadful narcotic will destroy future generations. Dr. Carroll recalls a past incident that encapsulates the devastation that marihuana leaves in its wake. The plot concerns drug peddling at the street level. Aside from some documentary footage, "Reefer Madness" exhibits no actual marihuana. The cigarettes--or 'reefers' as they call them--are twisted up into paper cylinders ready to be smoked. The movie presents us with three of the drug dealers: all white, middle-aged, well-dressed, and clean-cut. Jack works with Mae Coleman (Thelma White of "What Price Jazz"), in an apartment near a high school. Jack (Carleton Young of "The Horse Soldiers") entertains kids with marijuana. Mae abhors the idea of exploiting these kids. "Oh," moans Jack, "why don't you get over that mother complex!" Another dealer, Pete Dally (Richard Alexander of "Modern Times"), has a low opinion about the distributor, Joe, and Jack preying on the youngsters.
Enter squeaky clean, upright Bill (Kenneth Craig) who is friends with Mary. They do their home work together and drink hot chocolate at her parent's house. They recite Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Bill meets Jack and Ralph on the street near Mary's parked white convertible car. Mary's younger brother Jimmy (Warren McCullum of "Boys' Reformatory") is ensconced in the back seat. He gets promptly hooked on weed. One day while give Jack a lift, Jimmy runs a red light, and strikes a pedestrian with his car as he makes a right-hand turn. Jimmy races away from the scene of the accident. By now, Dr. Carroll is concerned about Bill's academic tailspin. Blanche (Lillian Miles of "The Gay Divorcée") accompanies Bill to Mae's place. Not long afterward, she fires up Bill's first marihuana cigarette. After the police visit the Lane residence, Mary goes looking for Jimmy. She obtains directions to Mae's, and an ardent Ralph greets her at the door. Ralph has been admiring Mary from afar. Running off another couple, he sees this as the perfect opportunity. Ralph gets Mary stoned and tries to take advantage of her. Bill leaves Blanche and stumbles in Ralph and Mary. He hallucinates. Instead of seeing Mary defend herself from Ralph's unwanted advances, Bill sees Mary taking down her top for a lascivious Ralph. Bill and Ralph fight each other. Jack separates them by clobbering Ralph with a revolver. Now, Bill and Jack struggle. Jack's gun discharges and the bullet strikes Mary and kills her! Jack makes it look like Bill shot Mary and warns Ralph and Blanche to keep their mouths shut.
Meanwhile, Bill finds himself in court, and Ralph goes insane hiding out at Mae's apartment. In court, Dr. Carroll attributes Bill's violent behavior to cannabis. Ralph kills Jack with his fists, and the authorities arrest him, along with Mae and Blanche. Blanche clears poor Bill of Mary's murder, but she commits suicide. As "Reefer Madness" concludes, Dr. Carroll warns parents that they might suffer some similar fate if they grow lax in their vigilance. Meanwhile, presumably the filmmakers forgot about Jimmy. He is never brought to trial for the hit and run accident. Everything about "Reefer Madness" is hysterical. The filmmakers are acquainted with only the basics, and rely on exaggeration when they depict the consequences of the abuse marihuana by youth. "Reefer Madness" is an acclaimed example of inferior filmmaking.
Such a load of propaganda b.s. could only be a product of the
isolationist, narrow-minded decade of the 1930's & the great
depression. Put together by tobacco executives who felt that the market
for cannabis threatened their tobacco crops, the film shows ordinary
teenagers who go crazy on marijuana, laughing hysterically & running
over people with their cars. In once scene a bureaucrat points to a
cabinet full of crimes related to marijuana & describes one where a
girl butchered her entire family. Anyone who knows anything about pot
knows that it's one of the few substances that can actually calm down a
I saw the film as a comedy, because it really is ridiculous. The sound quality is terrible - besides the somewhat muted voices you can hear what sounds like a projector reel running in the background. Also the acting is second-rate at best. But, if you're in the mood for some 1930's tobacco propaganda, this is for you.
Classic 1936 exploitation film. Originally titled "Tell Your Children",
its cast is mostly unknown actors of the time. The plot involves high
school students who are lured by drug pushers, a hit and run accident,
manslaughter, suicide and rape.
Financed by a church group, it was targeted at parents, attempting to teach them about the dangers of marijuana.
After languishing for decades, it was rediscovered and out of copyright. Modern audiences, especially on university campuses, embrace it as a comedy that provides an interesting perspective on the "War on Drugs".
This is well worth viewing as an amusing retrospective on life as it was perceived through cinema.
First of all I'd like to make a quick short comment about the movie.
Reefer Madness is a movie who's humor you will not fully understand in
all its ridiculousness unless you are high or have at least smoked
marijuana at some time in your life. You can get an idea about it, but
not the full idea. Reefer Madness is actually a little boring to watch
it straight. The movie has an ironic humor with an historical context
that some people may not understand. The irony exists in the expected
results of the film as a scare tactic and the actual results of the
movie which brought marijuana to the curiosity of the public masses and
made the drug counter-culture more popular. It is curious to note that
after Reefer Madness was released, the Motion Pictures Association
banned the representation of any narcotics in films. Originally made as
a tool in J.Edgar Hoovers war on drug users, alcoholics, and
homosexuals, Reefer Madness is still used as a tool in some drug and
alcohol rehabilitation facilities in spite of it's propaganda.
The rest of this is about history and may sound a bit like a conspiracy theory rambling, but it's really just a bit of a brain storm. I have a general idea about the historical context of the film and I do believe that it has a great deal of importance for the reasons why the movie was made in the way that it was. I believe it has something to say about the administration of the time and how the way of thinking has transcended to the present day. For anyone interested in history read on. I only have a general understanding. I'm not an historian.
The 1930's were a time of economical hardship due to the Great Depression. The movie was made just after the 21st amendment which terminated prohibition. Alcohol was legalized and there were fears that other vices might also be tolerated as a result. There was concern about communism spreading at that time. This was known as the red scare, which had been an issue since the Russian Revolution of 1918. After the turn of the 20th century there was a large increase in Mexican immigration. During that time, the Mexicans brought the marijuana with them and introduced it to the states. Pot was not introduced into the American culture until the Mexicans traveled north with it. Cocaine, opium, and heroin were the drugs of the day before marijuana was really known. It could be found in sodas, throat lozenges, and other medicines. The Mexican immigrants were considered to be an "inferior race" at that time and they lived in the ghetto immigrant communities where violence and alcoholism were common.
In white America deviant behavior such as alcoholism and drug use were feared to be the cause of the deterioration of traditional American values along with homosexuality and of course the ever present evil of communism. Social and political instability were threats in the American psyche in the 1930's. Subversive tactics such as propaganda were employed. The media has always been used as a weapon in the war on drugs which began with J.Edgar Hoover and his newly created FBI which was formed to combat the feared Marxist movement and other counter-culture movements. Lists of names and files were made. Many people were falsely arrested in the name of national security. This began a period of action analogous to the Salem witch hunt of the late 17th century.
These tactics have been employed throughout the McCarthy era in which Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg were executed by the government for allegations that they disclosed nuclear secrets to the soviets during World War 2. From what I understand, the Russians were allies of the US during World War 2 and the Rosenbergs passed on information about airplane propellers. Maybe there's something that I don't understand, but that to me isn't a capital crime. For some reason, however, the American government was allowed to murder these 2 people and shame and orphan their children forever.
The propaganda of the government has continued to pervade the American society in different ways at different times throughout history. The most current example I can think of is the release of the last 10 pages of the files that were held by the FBI on John Lennon and his alleged involvement in the Communist movement which were finally disclosed last week. The report was held for reasons of national security for no reason because there was nothing substantial that would have made him a threat to anything.
Although I do think that Reefer Madness is hilarious and I believe it is good that we can all find the humor in the movie, it is at the same time an embarrassment to see the wasted energy and corruption of an elected government that I believe the people of this country should be able to have confidence in and be able to believe in. Perhaps the so called deterioration of traditional American values has been in itself a MacCarthyism. Nothing but spoon fed suspicion which has been given credence without substantial evidence in order to gain some ulterior motive. In the words of Aesop, "We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to office."
Plan 9 From Outer Space wasn't made as a work of art. It wasn't even made to be good. It was made for one reason and one reason only. To make money. And, being as bad ( and laughable ) as it was, it has become a cult classic as a result. I mention that by way of comparison. "Reefer Madness" falls into the same category, even though the production of it was somewhat better, with an added bonus for the folks involved with the making of it ...It was also meant to be used as a "teaching" tool. Teaching in this instance being synonymous with propaganda. Calling this flick "highly exaggerated" or "over the top" is putting it mildly. Which is exactly why, given the very pronounced change in society's view of marijuana, it is so much fun and rightly deserves the title "Cult Classic". Well done? Hardly. Fun? Oh yes. So ... I think everyone ought to see this at least once just for the fun of it. Parents, tell your children.
It's the year 1938. Hitler hadn't even begun his queste for world domination
yet (well, not really anyway) and the American government decided to teach
it's youngsters about drugs. And not just your typical heroin or anything,
but something far more dangerous; marijuana. As the American enemy No 1, it
makes you burst out in laughter, a lousy driver and a really bad tennis
In the midst are a couple of dealers who lure none-suspected teens into their appartment to sell them the drugs. One day, honorable Bill Harper (who sure loves his hot chocolat, thanks ma'am) happens to wander in this apartment, and instantly becomes a drug addict, completely ignoring his lovely girlfriend, Mary.
Mary one day has had enough of the bad habits her boyfriend has these days, and decides to confront him in the crack-house (if you will). But oh my, there's a struggle there and she gets shot by mean dealer-guy and owner of the apartment, Jack, who makes sure not he but drugged up Bill is taken for the killer.
All is decided in court where things work out just in time for Billy boy as the true killer is exposed (well, he was already dead at the time anyway). But let this be a lesson for you boy!
30's propaganda movie is silly of course, but underneath the (many, obvious and mostly hilarious) faults there's a decent story told here... a movie everybody should see, for various reasons.
This is a textbook example of how to make a PERFECT film--a propaganda
director, Louis Gasnier, was a pioneer filmmaker, most famous for his
"Perils of Pauline"
series, a serial.
This film was not originally intended to be campy, funny, amusing, etc., but to be a warning to parents about the "soul destroying" scourge of marijuana. In recent years, however, it has gained somewhat of a cult following, and is an excellent window on the past exaggeration of drug culture, and a warning for future generations... it is interesting to see current aspects of drug policy reflected and magnified in this film. Very fascinating.
When I heard about this film I was wondering how I would react to it. This film is one of the select few that are so bad they are good. The acting is atrocious, the music is a joke and just like the other anti-marijuana films it is pure propaganda. These kids, before they start lighting up, are so clean cut they make the Brady kids look like the Manson Family and when they do start smoking they become a bunch of over sexed goof balls who eventually become a bunch of psychotics. No wonder this film is generally regarded as one of the worst ever made, not just for the misinformation but for the garbage that it is.
My friends and I laughed at the absurdity of the implication that smoking marijuana will lead to chaos and death. As a movie, it is a bit dry, but as in indication of the attitude trends in the 1930's, it is interesting.This movie is fascinating in that it is governmental propaganda against Marijuana. I originally saw it in a Criminology class, as an example of the criminalization of certain aspects of our society. Again, in that context it is interesting, though the movie itself is indicative of it's era and lack of Hollywood stunts and special effect techniques, and thereby somewhat boring.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Hard to believe anyone could have taken this film seriously. Although it was
relatively short, I found it boring at times and wished there could have
been less moralising and more scenes of drug-taking and partying. After
reading all the hype, I was disappointed that it just wasn't camp
The owner of the reefer-house is blonde Mae (perhaps a scandlous nod to Mae West here, who was seen as the devil by the moral minority at the time). A group of teenagers (in a time before the concept of teenagers was properly invented) hang out there, to play the piano at ultra-high speed, dance with each other badly, make-out (generally off-screen) and smoke Mary-Jane. (One of the other female characters is interestingly called Mary). They hardly ever inhale.
While there are a couple of sensible messages here - i.e. it's probably best not to drive a car while under the influence, the moralising is so heavy-handed, and statements that tell us that marijauna is more dangerous than heroin and cocaine from so-called experts are just counter-productive.
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