Stoner Cinema from the 1930s
The early history of marijuana in movies
Marijuana has been a favorite subject of filmmakers for generations. In the modern era, it's either used as counter-culture window-dressing (1969's Easy Rider, 1976's Acapulco Gold, 1998's The Big Lebowski) or as teen comedy punchlines (1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1998's Half Baked, 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, 2017's Grow House). Its portrayal in movies has changed quite a bit over the years, however. Back in the post-Jazz Era of the 1930s, marijuana was seen—by the establishment, anyway—as a deadly killer of our nation's youth. Much of that reputation is due to a trio of over-the-top exploitation flicks that now function only as campy comedies from a far different age.
The first major film to feature cannabis in a lead role is very likely 1936's Marihuana, a.k.a. Marihuana: The Devil's Weed, a.k.a. Marihuana: The Weed With Roots in Hell. As you can probably tell from the alternate titles, it's not a very sympathetic look at marijuana usage. The film is the hysterical brainchild of Dwain Esper, a building contractor who switched to making movies in the 1920s. He became known as “The Father of Modern Exploitation” by specializing in stories that concentrated almost exclusively on sex and drugs. Littering his resume you'll find such films as Sex Madness, Sex Maniac, Narcotic, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband and Modern Motherhood. At the time, the film industry dictated the moral content of films as part of the Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. The Hays Code, named after notoriously strict Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America President Will Hays). Esper sidestepped this code by distributing films himself, driving them around the country and exhibiting them in rented-out theaters (a technique know as “roadshowing”). Esper also wisely marketed his films as “educational,” aiming them at parents. Although more than likely the theater seats were filled with giggling teenagers, who—even in the 1930s—must have thought his films were hyperbolic in the extreme. Marihuana concerns a confused young party girl named Burma (Harley Wood), who goes to a shindig where the kids are drinking alcohol. Several girls smoke some of the devil's weed, and Burma ends up going skinny dipping and having sex on the beach with her boyfriend. Naturally she becomes pregnant, and her boyfriend has to get a job as a drug dealer. Baby Daddy gets shot by police, and poor, soiled mom ends up hooked on heroin. The end. In all seriousness, this one's a hoot and a holler.
The most famous exploitation film about marijuana is, of course, Reefer Madness. It has been colorized, remade, turned into a musical, rerun on late-night television, and its endlessly reprinted poster has adorned college dorm rooms for generations. The film was originally shot, possibly as early as 1936, under the title Tell Your Children. It was financed by a church group with the intention of educating kids about the dangers of puffing reefer. The film was later purchased by our old friend Dwain Esper, who re-cut the film with some salacious content and began touring it around the exploitation circuit, starting in about 1938. The film had dozens of titles around the country—The Burning Question, Doped Youth, Love Madness—but the one that stuck was Reefer Madness, a title it picked up in New England around 1940. The film was still making money at roadshow screenings until the early 1950s. The melodramatic storyline concerns a couple of naive teenage boys named Billy and Jimmy who get invited to a party at Mae and Jack's apartment. Mae and Jack are dirty drug peddlers, of course (although Mae doesn't like selling to teens). Jimmy smokes a funny “cigarette” and ends up running over some pedestrian in his jalopy. Eventually all of Jimmy's friends and family members are sucked into a soap opera-like web of rape, murder, suicide and insanity. At one point a guy plays piano really, really fast. In the best tradition of panic-inducing exploitation films, a high school principal shows up at the end, points directly at the camera and warns that the next tragedy could be your son or daughter! It's roundly considered one of the worst films ever made.
The next marijuana film to blaze across American screens was the somewhat more high-minded Assassin of Youth from 1937. The film was written and directed by Elmer Clifton, who started out in the silent film era working with D.W. Griffith on landmarks like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Clifton began his long career as an actor, then transitioned to writing and directing around 95 shorts, movie serials, Westerns and exploitation films. (Clifton gave us such indelible “white slavery” exposés as 1937's Slaves in Bondage and 1941's City of Missing Girls.) Assassin of Youth declares its anti-drug propaganda stand right there in the title. But it's also a entertainingly cheesy B-grade thriller. Seems that young debutante Joan Barry (Luana Walters, who went on to become the first actress to play Superman's biological mother in a live-action film) has been involved in an auto accident that killed her mother. Joan now stands to inherit her grandmother's fortune, but there's a “morals” clause in the will. Joan's evil cousin Linda and her weed-dealing hubby Jack try to pin a drug rap on innocent Joan in order to get their hands on that sweet cabbage. But with the help of a dogged newspaper reporter (Art Gardner, who later appeared in “The Rifleman” and “The Big Valley”), the marijuana gang is dismantled and Joan is saved. (Our hero even goes undercover as a soda jerk to bust the high-school heshers!) This one's got a significantly happier ending than most of these films.
All three of these films are in the public domain and can be found on DVD or on the internet. Feel free to watch them in the safety of your own home.