Review Date: April 20, 2012
Released by: Something Weird Video
Release date: 12/5/2000
Region 0, NTSC
I live in Los Angeles, and within walking distance from my apartment are four medical marihuana dispensaries, two of them almost directly across the street from each other. In my neighborhood I have often been solicited for money by a broken, crippled old man, who was at least honest in telling people that he needed the money so that he could buy medicinal pot, and it’s not unusual to walk down one of the streets in my area and catch the distinctive smell of marihuana being smoked in some alleyway. I work in the casting of television commercials, and a colleague of mine tells a story about how he once worked on the casting for one of those laughably bad anti-marihuana PSAs that are always showing up on television. To hear my friend tell it, everyone working on the casting, from the camera operator videotaping the auditions to the owner of the facility where they were held, used marihuana themselves, and sometimes even smoked it on breaks during the auditions. In 2010 the state of California almost legalized marihuana in full defiance of federal law, and almost every adult that I know here uses it, and the ones who don’t use it have used it in the past. In my home state of Maine, which culturally is a whole world away from southern California, a similar situation prevailed as well. Medical marihuana is also legal there (although there it’s not out in the open to nearly the same extent) and I knew countless adults there, men in their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, sometimes professionals with respectable office jobs, also smoked pot. And numerous surveys have reported that the average American adult is very likely to have tried marihuana at some point in their lives.
And yet, despite the fact that marihuana is so widely accepted amongst so many Americans in today’s society, the “War on Drugs” continues to escalate; New York City arrests more people for pot offenses than anything else, the federal government spends billions of dollars trying to staunch the flow of narcotics into the country, and only the most left wing and libertarian political figures call for it to be legalized, while the right wing of the political spectrum continues to demonize marihuana and those who use it. A good friend of mine, and former roommate both in and after college, once lamented to me that the social conservatives who dictate so much of the Republican Party’s policy had the marihuana issue all wrong. In my friend’s words, the conservative right-wingers who railed against pot did so because it was associated with the “hippies” and “Occupiers” and leftists who stood in the way of their agenda. But if those same right-wingers understood just what pot actually did to hippies left wingers who used it – that it made them lazy and apathetic, and therefore less likely to actually stand in the way – they would cheer the fact that it was so prevalent. And while I’m not sure that I fully agree with him, American culture has for decades been full of people who seem to have completely deluded themselves as to what exactly marihuana does to the people who use it, as evidenced by the three films featured in today’s review.
The first feature is Marihuana
(1936), which tells the story of high school senior Burma Roberts (Harley Wood
), who has a tense relationship with her mother (Juanita Crosland
) and older sister Elaine (Dorothy Dehn
). The source of the problem is the fact that her mother dotes over the soon-to-be-married Elaine while largely ignoring Burma, and the fact that her mother does not approve of Burma’s boyfriend Dick (Hugh McArthur
), forcing her to see him in secret at rowdy beer parlors and other disreputable places.
One night at a beer parlor, Burma, Dick and their friends make the acquaintance of an older man named Tony (Paul Ellis
) and his associate Nick (Pat Carlyle
). When someone in the group suggests they hold a barbeque the next weekend, Tony invites them to hold it at his beach house. The barbeque turns into a rather rowdy, drunken party, at which point Tony and Nick introduce another element into the fun – mysterious cigarettes, which, when smoked, cause the teenagers to become even more raucous. Burma and Dick sneak away for some intimate alone time on the beach, while the other girls strip naked and go skinny-dipping. But the fun ends when one of the young ladies, too drunk and high to swim, drowns in the surf. The scandal that ensues further estranges Burma from her family. Worse, she discovers that she is now pregnant.
Dick knows he has to marry her but has no money, so he goes to Tony for help, and Tony sets him up with a job helping Nick unload narcotics shipments at the harbor. But the police bust the operation and Dick is shot and killed when he tries to flee. Burma goes to Tony and confronts him, and he offers to help her by sending her away to have her baby. After she gives birth, Tony convinces her to let him adopt the child out to a wealthy couple he’s found. Several years pass and Burma finds herself more and more involved with Tony and Nick’s criminal operation, delivering hard drugs to wealthy customers. During one such delivery she spots her estranged sister Elaine and her new husband playing with a female child. Still seething with anger at her sister, Burma hatches a plot with Nick and Tony to kidnap the girl for a $50,000 ransom. But there’s something about this child of her sister’s that Burma doesn’t know, and when she finds it out it will force her to finally confront the hardened criminal that she’s become!
The next feature is Assassin of Youth
(1937), which opens with a car accident and hysterical newspaper headlines about a marihuana-crazed youth who hit and killed an old lady with his car. And as it turns out, this particular old lady was quite wealthy, and her will has stipulated that her money was to go to one of her granddaughters, provided that the girl show herself to be of good moral character. Sensing an interesting story, a Chicago newspaper editor assigns the up and coming young reporter Art Brighton (Arthur Gardner
) to travel to this girl’s small town and get a scoop. Art journeys into the countryside, where he is quickly able to snag a job working at a local soda shop frequented by the potential heiress, a pretty high schooler named Joan Barry (Luana Walters
A local judge will soon be ruling on whether or not Joan’s moral character makes her deserving of the inheritance, and there are forces at work trying to set Joan up and put her into compromising situations. Her cousin Linda (Fay McKenzie
) knows that, if the judge rules against Joan, she will automatically receive her grandmother’s money. Linda is secretly married to local prettyboy Jack Howard (Michael Owen
), and the two plot to ruin Joan’s reputation with alcohol and marihuana, which Linda, unbeknownst to Joan, is a dealer of. Jack and Linda manage to create a compromising situation in which Joan’s clothes are destroyed at a lakeside barbeque, forcing her to come home wrapped in a blanket, and to get her drunk and cause rumors about her spending the night with Jack. But even those scandals aren’t quite enough to do the trick, forcing Linda to plot more mayhem. At the same time, Joan’s little sister Marjorie (Dorothy Short
) has become addicted to marihuana and is in danger of slipping into insanity. Art Brighton, realizing what is going on, offers Joan his help in clearing her name and saving her sister. But with the ruling on the inheritance coming up, the two of them will have to act quickly to stop her cousin’s devious scheme.
Finally we have the infamous Reefer Madness
(1936). The film begins with the stern high school principal Dr. Carroll (Joseph Forte
) addressing a meeting of the local parent-teacher association, giving a brief introduction about the wave of narcotics infiltrating American society and then segueing into the telling of a story that involved students at his own school, students who fell into the use of the dreaded weed marihuana. We flash back in time as Carroll recounts the events, meeting students Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig
), his love interest Mary (Dorothy Short
) and her brother Jimmy (Warren McCollum
). We also meet adults Jack Perry (Carleton Young
) and his girlfriend Mae (Thelma White
), who are members of an expansive marihuana distribution gang in the city and who use their apartment to hold raucous parties and to sell dope, assisted by college dropout Ralph Wiley (Dave O’Brien
) and bad girl Blanche (Lillian Miles
). Bill and Jimmy fall under the influence of Jack’s gang and soon they are both getting high every afternoon after school. One afternoon Jack runs out of reefers and asks Jimmy to drive him to pick some more, but Jimmy is so stoned that he drives like a madman, running over a pedestrian and then fleeing the scene, which results in a police investigation.
Soon after, the pretty and innocent Mary, sent to fetch Jimmy and bring him home, finds herself in Jack’s apartment. Bill is in the apartment’s bedroom having sex with Blanche as Ralph gets high and tries to force himself on Mary. Bill comes out of the bedroom and sees what, at least from his stoned perspective, appears to be Mary willingly giving herself to Ralph, causing Jimmy to attack the man. In the ensuing fight Ralph pulls out a gun and tries to use it. Jack intervenes and Bill is knocked out, but while trying to subdue Ralph the gun goes off and Mary is struck in the back by the bullet, killing her. Desperate to cover up what happened, Jack puts the gun in Bill’s hand and splashes water in his face to wake him up, telling him that he was the one who killed Mary.
Bill is arrested and put on trial, where many sordid details of his addiction to marihuana are revealed. To the horror of he and his family, the jury finds Bill guilty of murder. But all is not lost for the young man because Jack and Mae, under instructions from the head of the narcotics syndicate, have been trying to keep the increasingly unstable Ralph under cover so that he can’t reveal what actually happened. But keeping Ralph placated means keeping him inside where he can smoke plenty of marihuana, and he becomes increasingly psychotic, ultimately snapping in a way that breaks the case wide open and gives Bill his chance at vindication.
Upon watching the three films on this DVD, one is tempted to try and make a judgment about which one of them is the best. Although I have made such a judgment in handing out letter grades for them, trying to quantitatively measure their merits and demerits is still very much a fool’s errand. It’s not a question of how good they are, it’s a question of how enjoyable they are to modern audiences. And the most entertaining of the three is still Reefer Madness
. There simply is nothing in either Marihuana
or Assassin of Youth
to match the bizarre shot-for-shot intensity of their companion film. While the two lesser-known productions have a few interesting qualities, the shining star of this collection is the infamous cult classic. Yes, as a cult film its popularity has long been surpassed by everything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show
to Plan 9 from Outer Space
to The Room
. But while it can no longer be considered the king of the midnight movies, it will always remain the granddaddy of that phenomenon.
According to the gods of Wikipedia, Reefer Madness
was funded and produced by a church group. The production was then sold to roadshow distribution legend Dwain Esper, who made some editorial changes to make it more marketable, adding extra footage to the picture to enhance it’s exploitation value. It was the collision between these two forces that created the camp favorite that we know today. Dwain Esper also directed Marihuana
, and yet the reason why Reefer Madness
became a cult classic and Marihuana
remained obscure is a story of more than fate and luck.
The difference between a watchable and an unwatchable bad movie often boils down to the degree of cynicism inherent in the film’s conception and production. On a deep, often subconscious level, audiences can tell the difference between a bad movie made by indifferent people looking to make a buck and a bad movie made by earnest people who lacked the resources or the talent to pull off their ambitions. While any low budget filmmaker needs a certain amount of cynicism to pull off a cheap movie (if only to convince oneself that somebody else will want to see what they are making), the ones who make the most watchable films are usually the ones who maintained some ambition and idealism through the process. There is a great gulf between the films of Ed Wood and the films of someone like Jerry Warren, who directed movies like Teenage Zombies
and who imported (and destroyed) foreign films, creating cinematic monstrosities like Invasion of the Animal People
and Creature of the Walking Dead
. Even though neither man had much talent, even though neither man ever had a proper budget to work with, and even though they both created movies that were uniformly terrible, the films of Ed Wood remain much more enjoyable by far. Watch one of Ed Wood’s 1950’s movies, and you will see an honest filmmaker who is out of his league but trying to figure out how to make the most of his limited resources. Watch a Jerry Warren film and you will see a filmmaker with dollar signs in his eyes, a man rushing through everything and not even bothering to make an effort. Wood never figured out how to mount a proper low budget production, but Warren didn’t even try to learn. That is why Plan 9 from Outer Space
is still watched and revered today, while Teenage Zombies
or The Incredible Petrified World
are condemned to permanent obscurity.
Dwain Esper was not nearly as slipshod or uncaring as Jerry Warren was, yet David F. Friedman, who knew Esper and who provides an audio commentary on Marihuana
, describes him in a way that makes it very clear what was on his mind when he made a film. And one can tell by watching his films that he was a cynic. Had he been the one to direct Reefer Madness
it surely would not have turned as fun or as funny as the film we know now. For that we can thank the church group that made it. Organized religious groups are often accused of hypocrisy and cynicism, yet anyone who’s watched their share of Christian-themed movies and programs can attest to the fact that these productions are usually embarrassingly earnest in their message. There isn’t much room for subtlety in their writing, nor is there much demand for ambiguity in their direction and acting. These movies have a message to imbue and the message trumps the medium almost every time. They are deadly serious and honest in that message, and yet, especially to outsiders, they often turn out to be hilariously stupid and laughably condescending. And in the case of Reefer Madness
, that mentality produces camp riches of almost indescribable hilarity and replay value. Dwain Esper may have sexed up the movie and given it a much better title (the original name for it was the rather bland sounding Tell Your Children
), but the film would never have become ripe for rediscovery had its underlying seriousness not remained in place.
Beginning work on this review, I was struck by just how little I knew about the background story behind Reefer Madness
. I was also struck by the fact that I myself had never wondered about where the film came from, despite having seen it many times and despite usually having an interest in the background of the cult films I enjoy. It’s not that there is no scholarship out there devoted to the film; a few Google searches will give you all the basics about who made it and why, and how it was distributed. Historians of film culture and drug war politics have made plenty of inquiries. Yet compared to the obsessive scholarship surrounding movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space
and Manos, the Hands of Fate
, the level of interest into the creation of Reefer Madness
seems subdued. Perhaps the film’s age limited the number of inquiries that could be pursued, as many of the participants were dead by the time it was rediscovered in the 1970’s. Whatever the story may be, the fact remains that while directors like Ed Wood and Hal Warren have become posthumously famous for their bad movies, Reefer Madness
director Louis Gasnier remains a distant and mysterious figure, even to most cinephiles. While the film itself has been absorbed into pop culture, the men who made it have not.
thus remains an enduring cultural milestone, and also an important footnote in the history of the War on Drugs, an endeavor that has grown increasingly unpopular and controversial in recent years, even as the federal government continues to lavish billions of dollars into its prosecution. Dwain Esper never considered his film properties to have the kind of replay value that Reefer Madness
has had, and ultimately allowed them to fall into the public domain, which he came to regret after this film’s renaissance as a midnight movie in the 1970’s. And when it was rediscovered, it was exhibited not just for comedy but also as a way to lay bare the overwrought hysteria that had surrounded marihuana for decades. And by making it okay to laugh about it they began the slow process of marginalizing the forces trying to keep it illegal. The now clichéd stoner comedy jokes of potheads thinking their hands are huge and old people accidentally ingesting marihuana brownies would have once been unthinkable in a movie, but each time Reefer Madness
was run through a projector it brought those tropes closer into being. And for better or for worse, once that happened any attempt to stamp out marihuana use went from a long shot to an impossibility.
When I was about to start my freshman year of high school in the late summer of 1997, my parents made me sit down and watch a special report that they had taped off the ABC news program 20/20
. The subject of the report was marihuana and the fact that modern teenagers were using it. It wasn’t exactly a fear-mongering piece of scare journalism, but it was a somber warning about the possible dangers of marihuana use. After the program was over, my mom asked me if I had any questions about marihuana. I said that I didn’t, which clearly disappointed her, and then she looked at me and said, “You do realize it’s at the high school, right?”
Yes mom, I knew. I knew it very well. And I was not afraid of it. I had stopped being afraid of it four years earlier when my parents gave me a VHS tape of Reefer Madness
In contrast to their companion feature, neither Marihuana
nor Assassin of Youth
are actually that concerned with marihuana itself. Although both features make a point of warning about the dangers of the dastardly weed, it doesn’t come across with much sincerity. Marihuana is introduced into both films as a plot device that helps deliver what at the time were salacious thrills, with a cloak of moral respectability. Both films are the work of cynics behind the camera, and while they both have unintentional comedy value, they are not especially memorable. Assassin of Youth
is particularly rough going. At seventy-three minutes (compared to sixty-six for Reefer Madness
and fifty-seven for Marihuana
), the plot-heavy story drags by at an incremental pace, helped occasionally by schlocky material that is uncomfortably wedged between uninteresting scenes of characters talking and arguing with each other. The characters are dull and often unsympathetic, and there is little action or excitement What it does have in abundance is talk, as characters have discussions, wring their hands and mope about. And while some of their discussions are important, the dialogue heavy script misunderstands what roadshow audiences of the time wanted.
For all its faults, Marihuana
at least has that understanding down pat. This false and sleazy morality tale is the most risqué of the three (even featuring some surprising nudity during the party sequence). Dwain Esper may have been a greedy, mean son-of-a-bitch, but he at least delivers the goods. He proves surprisingly adept at staging his scenes and takes his camera into real places that lend a semi-documentary feel to some moments. In Assassin of Youth
, the characters go to a nighttime barbecue at a lake, which is obviously a studio set with a rear projection of a lake or an ocean, filmed in obvious day-for-night. While this is indistinguishable from the major studio practices of the time, Dwain Esper bests it in Marihuana
by going to a real beach and shooting night for night. The opening scene was filmed in what was obviously a real beer parlor, and the scene where Dick is shot to death by the police was filmed at a real wharf, with real diesel engine repair shops lining the waterfront and seagulls circling overhead. One strangely beautiful shot shows detectives sitting in a car, discreetly watching as marihuana is unloaded off a boat, and we can see the reflections of flying gulls in their windows.
The level of authenticity visible in the production’s staging is completely missing from the script, although it entertainingly hits all the expected notes. The twist ending involving the child of Burma’s sister is perhaps a little too obvious, even by the standards of the day. These roadshow films warning about the dangers of drugs and other social evils only had two possible endings that they could use to avoid censorship. One showed the evildoers getting their comeuppance, while the innocent protagonists who had fallen under their spell were redeemed, renouncing everything they had done. In the other ending, the innocent protagonist goes down with the evildoers for a tragic ending that was supposed to serve as a warning. This is the ending that Marihuana
uses, with Tony and Nick going to jail and Burma OD’ing on heroin in a clear (but not overtly emphasized) suicide. Like almost everything else on display, it all rings very falsely, and yet the movie manages to retain the viewer’s interest throughout its brief running time. It may not have the crazy intensity of Reefer Madness
, but Dwain Esper knew how to give his audience what it wanted, and seventy-six years later that quality still shows through the otherwise rough and unpolished Marihuana
All three of these features are presented full frame 1.33:1, and while all three are watchable, they remain independent, low budget pictures that have seen better days. The three transfers are flagged for progressive displays, but appear to have originated from interlaced sources.
in particular is in rough shape, with an image that is affected by constant scratches, specks, rips and tears, not to mention numerous jump cuts caused by splices, especially towards the end. However, as badly damaged as the source print is, there are still some things to commend about the presentation. The image is actually quite sharp and detailed, with excellent contrast and a minor, pleasingly textured level of film grain. Even night scenes look decent, with adequate clarity and shadow detail, a nice surprise considering how little lighting Dwain Esper probably had access to.
While Assassin of Youth
was struck from film elements in surprisingly good shape (there is certainly damage on display, but not nearly as much as I had been expecting), the transfer still has a number of issues. First among them is that the image looks far softer and hazier in comparison to Marihuana
. In addition, while contrast and clarity is adequate during daylight and interior scenes, night scenes become incomprehensibly murky, and in many shots it’s almost impossible to tell what’s happening.
was struck from a print entitled Doped Youth
, and it too looks very rough, with constant scratches, specks and vertical lines, not to mention occasional bits of grime and the awkward splice here and there. On the plus side, contrast is actually quite good, with clean whites and solid blacks, and the image shows a pleasing level of detail, with occasional moments of real depth and clarity (for any viewers who are interested in Reefer Madness
but not the other two films on this disc, Legend Films did an extensive restoration a few years back and released it on DVD in both black and white and colorized versions and based on what I’ve seen, this is the best version of the film currently on the market).
All three films also suffer from some very noticeable chroma noise, giving parts of the image a greenish tint that is noticeable on many of the screen captures included in this review.
sounds weak, a victim of the ravages of time and its own haphazard sound recording. Several portions of the movie are afflicted with terrible background distortion, and dialogue varies from scene to scene and shooting location to shooting location. The quality of some of the outdoor dialogue recording is actually very good, and there are actually interior locations where things sound substantially worse. Maybe my hearing is just not what it used to be, but there is a lot of dialogue that I had a hard time making out, even with the volume turned all the way up.
Assassin of Youth
sounds slightly better. There’s plenty of popping, hissing and background distortion, but dialogue is a little bit clearer.
sounds surprisingly good for its age. Oh sure, there’s popping and hissing and other types of background noise, but aside from a few audio jumps caused by splices the dialogue is completely understandable. Every hysterical laugh and giggle, every histrionic outburst of the actors and actresses is clearly reproduced, and the track sounds amazingly good compared to some previous editions.
The principal extra here is a commentary track on Marihuana
featuring the late David F. Friedman, and moderated by Something Weird’s Mike Vraney. Although he had nothing to do with Marihuana
itself (he was only thirteen when it was made), Friedman did get to know Dwain Esper well, and he was very much a part of the roadshow distribution scene in the postwar era. The commentary track only spends a small amount of time dealing with Marihuana
itself, but Friedman has plenty to say about the roadshow scene in general. He shares his recollections of knowing Esper (who appears to have had a somewhat volatile personality) and of the roadshows that he saw as a youth growing up in Alabama. He also walks the listener through the mechanics of how roadshow distribution actually worked, and how much of the money was actually made through the sale of ancillary items like books on the subject of drug addiction and venereal disease, which would be hawked to the audience for one or two dollars before the show started. The commentary is a great listen, although unfortunately Vraney and Friedman get so wrapped up in their conversation that they forget that the film they’re watching runs less than an hour, and thus the track ends rather abruptly. It’s too bad they didn’t record commentaries for the other two features, because Friedman certainly had much more to say.
Following the commentary are three drug-related short subjects, two of them excerpts from longer works. First up is a five and a half minute scene from the 1938 roadshow schlocker The Wages of Sin
, directed by Herman E. Webber. Set at a seedy beer parlor, the excerpt shows a woman lewdly dancing and then stripping to her underwear before her date covers her with a tablecloth and rushes her away. Then two lovers, both high on marihuana, get into a fight on the dance floor. The woman bites the man’s ear and then the man assaults her, then she assaults the bartender when he tries to break up the ruckus! The full movie is available as a DVD-R from Something Weird Video.
Next up is another excerpt from a 1924 silent western called Notch Number One
(although SWV lists it with the more intriguing title of High on the Range
. One cowboy asks another cowboy about a new kind of cigarette in his pocket and discovers that they are marihuana reefers. He warns his friend that it’s a powerful narcotic and that he shouldn’t mess around with it, but his friend still wants to try them and see how they affect him. Later, back in his cabin, he lights up and takes a few puffs. Sadly, the excerpt ends there, so we never get to see what happens after he smokes the stuff.
The final short subject is a compilation of footage called Sinister Menace
, presented by Dwain Esper and apparently distributed along with his 1933 film Narcotic
. The short deals with the problem of drug smuggling and drug addiction in Egypt using a variety of footage, some it clearly staged. Local police officials demonstrate how drugs can be smuggled inside fruit, bread and even underneath the fur of camels. Pathetic looking local addicts are also shown snorting drugs through their nostrils. Interestingly, the narrator explains that Egypt has become a smuggling hub after crackdowns in Europe eliminated the local producers of illicit narcotics, and stronger border protection made it impractical for shipments coming from the Far East to go through the continent. A similar problem exists today in the United States, where state and federal crackdowns on the ingredients for methamphetamines have pushed production into Mexico, and tighter border security has created a demand for alternate, sometimes ingenious smuggling routes.
Closing out the supplements are theatrical trailers for Marihuana
, Assassin of Youth
and the 1942 anti-marihuana film Devil’s Harvest
, as well as a five minute gallery of drug scare movie photographs and artwork, accompanied by radio spots promoting several of the films.
is still the most entertaining of the 1930’s anti-marihuana movies, while Marihuana
is sleazily enjoyable and Assassin of Youth
is a bore. For viewers interested solely in Reefer Madness
, this three-film compilation may be a tad bit overpriced compared to the much cheaper restored edition. But for viewers interested in a miniature history lesson on roadshow filmmaking of the 1930’s, or in binging on old drug scare movies, this set is still a must-have, even ten years after its initial release, with acceptable audio/visual quality and several very enjoyable extra features. In honor of 4/20, I give it a hearty recommendation.
Movie – B-
Image Quality – C
Sound - C-
Assassin of Youth
Movie – C-
Image Quality – C
Sound – C
Movie – B+
Image Quality – C
Sound – C+
Supplements – B+
- Running Time – Marihuana - 57 minutes
- Running Time – Assassin of Youth - 1 hour 13 minutes
- Running Time - Reefer Madness - 1 hour 6 minutes
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- 1 Disc
- Audio commentary on Marihuana by Mike Vraney and David F. Friedman
- The Wages of Sin excerpt
- High on the Range excerpt
- Sinister Menace short
- Image and radio spot gallery