Just in Time for 4/20 - A Look Back at Arguably the Greatest Anti-Marijuana Propaganda Flick of All-time!
Kids, let me level with you: in all my 26 years on Earth, I have never tried the marijuana. Hell, for that matter, I’ve never even smoked one of those regular cigarettes, so consider me one naïve summinabitch when it comes to any and all drug related matters.
As far as the “mortal perils” of marijuana goes, I reckon I am in a pretty unpopular camp, because I still think it does more harm than good to people. As a generality, people that smoke ganja are pretty much the reason I don’t, as literally EVERY single person I have personally met that routinely hit the bong or rolling paper were people that, to varying degrees, were all pretty dim. Now, that’s not saying that ALL people that smoke weed are losers, lazy or incompetent, but as it pertains to people that I know that smoke weed, it’s pretty much a unifying, non-fluctuating characteristic.
That said, the demonization of weed by certain activist organizations (and especially the federales) is probably ten times stupider than the stupidest dope smoker I’ve ever met. As a Gen Y kid, me and my cohorts were pretty much beaten over the head from birth that marijuana was a.) bad, b.) evil, c.) going to kill you and d.) help Osama bin Laden conquer the Americas. If the feds spent as much time, money and effort on investing in alternative energy programs as they did anti-drug campaigns in the late 1980s, we’d probably be driving solar-panel-powered cars while listening to our wind-powered iPods right now.
Obviously, marijuana isn’t necessarily the healthiest lifestyle choice out there, but I think it’s a foregone conclusion that MOST of the reported health consequences of the drug are, at the very least, overstated, and just about all of the long-term psychological complications supposedly associated with usage is pretty much unfounded. That said, the United States government has invested god only knows how much money in programs, campaigns and weird-ass policies to get us to think that marijuana use is a launching pad to prostitution and insanity, with the only end dividend being a bunch of goofy propaganda for us to sit around and laugh at while high on wacky tobacky.
While the generation of NARC, DARE and “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” probably got the most of it, we were FAR from being the first generation inundated with anti-weed propaganda. As a matter of fact, federally-funded anti-ganja “entertainment” in the States actually predates the Second World War, with scores of fantastically crappy movies pushed on theater owners throughout the 1930s to get neighborhood teens to think marijuana would turn them into instant schizophrenics that would axe-murder their entire extended family.
While movies of the sort are really a dime(bag) a dozen, there is undoubtedly one piece of propaganda that stands head and shoulders above them all from the era, a film that has gone on to become one of the most screened and (ironically) beloved midnight movies in history: Louis Gasnier’s 1937 masterpiece (of crap), “Reefer Madness.”
As one of the most notorious public domain films out there, the flick has been re-released, re-screened and re-distributed under a half dozen or so titles, including such sensational monikers as “Doped Youth,” “Dope Addict” and “Love Madness.” Additionally, the film was played constantly in the early days of MTV, which is where it probably garnered its modern day following.
As the cult-classic celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, I’ve decided to give the film a thorough combing, providing a little bit of commentary and insight on the picture as a whole. I’ve embedded the entire movie below, so if you’ve got an extra hour or so to kill (or if you’re really, really stoned right now), why don’t you give the flick a good look-see and read along with my own stream-of-conscious thoughts as we watch it?
As you can see, the film begins with some scrolling text warning us about the perilous “marihuana,” which we are told often leads to bouts of “incurable insanity” for smokers. After being informed that the “scourge” could possibly claim the lives of our sons and daughters (or even “yours,” which is listed in two separate fonts, seemingly to indicate both a masculine and feminine emphasis), we are shown a series of faux newspapers, with headlines boasting of increased police and PTA efforts to combat the drug.
From there, the film jumps to a lecture at a PTA conference, where some guy is demanding that schools institute compulsory narcotics education problems…which is shit that TOTALLY doesn’t happen today in the States. Like, at all. After he talks about the importance of PTA participation in combating the “scourge” of ganja, we get a brief scene which details the production cycle of marijuana, from its harvesting to its distribution (with the not so subtle suggestion that parents check their children’s’ high heels and pocket watches for dope residue.) After our narrator informs us that marijuana is deadlier than heroin and the news reports about the effects of weed AREN’T exaggerated, we segue into a story about a woman named May, who is ordered by an older male figure to clean up their house, most likely because that’s the only thing women are good for. In the next scene (which parallels a scene in which May spends eight hours putting on a dress, apparently), the older gentlemen gets invited to a party by what seems to be some coworkers. So, we skip to the party, and it’s your typical soiree; people drinking, smoking some cigs, and generally dancing like they were experiencing epileptic seizures. Then, the guy playing the piano decides to get up and spark a J in the closet, all the while doing his best impersonation of Cesar Romero’s Joker as he puffs away.
Next, we cut to a scene with two Osmond looking kids playing tennis. They drink chocolate and recite Shakespeare for a bit, and then the male (a fellow named Bill) decides to head back home, where he’s endlessly berated by his younger brother while his parents act impossibly white. Because we don’t have enough subplots going on already, we’re then introduced to an additional four characters, a bunch of vanilla high school kids that like to hang out at the neighborhood malt shop and say things like “gee whiz” and “golly” a lot. By the time this thing ends, it looks like we’re going to have a larger ensemble cast than “War and Peace.”
In the next scene, we have some more white people seizure dancing, which Bill looks upon with palpable disgust. While some indeterminable fog hovers below the ceiling, some kids across the room start making out, which seems to really upset Bill, for some peculiar reason. Bill is just about to light up a cig, when one of his gal pals hands him a mysterious doobie. After being called chicken, Bill decides to join the crowd and light up. And uh, try to ignore the ensuing product placement for Phillip Morris that immediately follows suit, because I’m SURE that the cigarette manufacturers of America had ZERO involvement in either bankrolling the picture OR instigating a nationwide marijuana ban that ultimately helped their bottom line in the long run. I mean, not at all.
We have our first on-screen corpse in the next scene, as a driver under the influence of that devil weed ignores a red light and runs over some innocent dude just trying to cross the street. A few moments later, and we’re re-introduced to the lecturer that opened the movie, who claims that some furtive underground network is distributing marijuana to the city’s schools. A police officer of some kind then lists a number of unreferenced, reefer-inspired acts of murder and mayhem, which the lecturer decides to use as an educational tool to scare his students straight. Oh, and he also advocates snitching en masse, too. Make of that, whatever you will.
As it turns out, old Billy has become a truant, who spends all of his free time attending dope smoke parties and living in sin with that one broad that gave him his first taste of cannabis.
Well, things take a turn for the more disturbing when Mary (you know, Bill’s formerly straight-as-an-arrow girlfriend) decides to toke up with some generic dude, who then proceeds to maul her like a lawnmower – until some moderately stoned guy off to the side makes the save, of course. Cue a pretty lengthy fight scene, in which the violated broad on the couch somehow gets shot in the back. Bill, obviously fraught with sorrow, weeps over her corpse, while the guy that threw the party cooks up some cockamamie yarn to tell the po-po.
In our next scene, the two guys that decided to drive while baked have a brief discussion, in which they vow to NEVER, EVER tell anybody about the fact that they sort of ran over a dude in broad daylight with about 20 eyewitnesses watching them.
Apparently, Bill’s legal defense team was pretty lackluster, since he finds himself on trial for the death of his girlfriend in the next scene. His principal – the lecturer/narrator from earlier – says that he’s noticed Billy slacking off during tennis games, which is an indicator of how marijuana leads to “errors in time and space.” Oh, and teachers of America? If one of your student starts busting out into hysterical laughter during “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s a foregone conclusion that damned devil weed has gotten a hold of his/her mind.
Hey, remember the couple that was routinely throwing weed parties earlier in the movie? Well, they’re doing their best to cover up their role in the murder, a feat that is just a tad complicated because their partner in crime is a Level 60 dope-addict that could go all murder-tastic at any point in the movie. Following another long-assed courtroom scene, the jury finds Bill guilty, and we jump back to the young couple’s house. Hey, you know that blonde dude that tried to have his way with Mary earlier? Well, he’s all paranoid and crazy now, so he decides to smoke some reefers to calm himself down. Unfortunately, he smoked the kind that was laced with crazy juice and plutonium, because all he wants to do now is listen to a piano being played really, really fast and beat his business partners to death with oblong poles.
Of course, since this was some Hays Code shit, the entire cartel gets brought to justice at the end of the flick. One of the molls fesses up, so Bill’s murder charge is overturned…and then, that same moll decides to jump out of a window. But, uh, Bill is now free to go, so, yay? Oh, and the guy that actually killed Mary, and his business partner? Apparently, he smoked so much sticky green that it rewired his DNA, turning him into an anorexic Incredible Hulk that has to live in a mental institution for the criminally insane for the rest of his life. And after a repeat of the lecture that began the movie, the flick ends with the lecturer/narrator pointing directly at the audience, while the words “TELL YOUR CHILDREN” flash on the screen.
Well, uh, that was something, all right. It’s easy to see why this one has become such a cult favorite, with its uneasy mixture of melodrama, lecture and unintentional humor. All in all, this is a REALLY entertaining movie, which is something you really can’t say about most anti-drug propaganda flicks out there. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that 150 years from now, we’ll probably still be watching this one, having plenty of guffaws at how awkward and clumsy our coercive, manipulative media was way back when. If you haven’t seen “Reefer Madness” before, it’s something you need to catch at least once before you croak - and since it’s 4/20, I really can’t think of anything better to view while you, ahem, “celebrate” the day’s festivities.