Accidentally Hilarious Blogathon: Reefer Madness (1936)

If you have not yet seen Reefer Madness, be mindful that it will only consume a little more than an hour of your life. Now you may want to read what I have to say about it before investing said time. One thing that I can tell you is that movies so bad that they make me crack up are rare. Probably even more rare than “Bad Movies I Love.” So the fact that I’ve subjected myself to Reefer Madness a few times, only once with the aid of Rifftrax (the MST3K guys’ new riffing outfit) should say something about it, or me, or both.

In brief, this is a propagandist cautionary tale about the extraordinarily exaggerated dangers of marijuana usage. I am not condoning or condemning recreational drug usage, but if you’ve seen enough movies or TV, or lived in reality, you’ve seen the effects of various narcotics on people. One of the strangest things about this film is that they often seem like they’re on something else entirely, sometimes something you may have never even heard of rarely does it strike one as even a caricature of marijuana usage.

If there is one think I can credit Reefer Madness with is that it changed its title from Tell Your Children to Reefer Madness. It’s a smart marketing move, but also it’s less vague and more closely reflects the rather asinine levels of hysteria that this movie engages in. It’s propaganda to the nth degree, and that in an of itself is not a bad thing. There are films that are very openly propaganda that work to this day. Some seem rather innocuous like The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, others are frightening in their effectiveness and their reflection of a time like Triumph of the Will.

Reefer Madness (1936)

The standard disclaimer prior to the film that had just recently become Hollywood standard operating procedure due to a lawsuit (the one about similarities to real people being coincidence) rings particularly hilarious, not just because of the browbeating foreword that makes allusions to gangsters and also employs the old spelling of marijuana (with an “H” instead of a “J”). However, the unintentional humor this film finds is not just through dated syntax and cinematic techniques. If your tolerance for that is nil almost anything might be funny if it wasn’t meant to be.

Reefer Madness (1936)

Now clearly some of it is attributable to the time in which this film was produced. Whether the statements that marijuana was the worst drug around (Worse than heroin or opium) was commonplace it’s clear that those beliefs are no longer commonplace. And it would seem they were never deemed factual:

What makes Reefer Madness so notorious is its utter disregard for truth, and over-the-top dramatization. It should be noted however that the movie was made with the complete cooperation of the DEA then known as the Bureau of Narcotics.

The narrator [theoretically a high school principal, Dr. Alfred Carroll] warns parents about the dangers . . . “Marihuana is… an unspeakable scourge –the Real Public Enemy Number One! Its first effect is sudden violent, uncontrollable laughter, then come dangerous hallucinations, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions, leading finally to acts of shocking violence…ending often in incurable insanity.” He tells us how “time slows down…almost stops,” that it is “worse than heroin.” Can it get any worse?

Reefer Madness (1936)

Most frequently the chuckles here come from the stiff acting (in straight scenes, even for the time) and the the awkward blocking of characters whether its the dancing, the interpretation of what being high is or other manic behaviors; or in the framing scenes with the didactic lens-spiking and finger-pointing.

The dialogue isn’t exempt from inducing laughter; things like “All you gotta do is keep him from having too many reefers” or “She’s dead. Mae, get me some water” or the audacity to have Shakespeare be poorly recited by these line-readers.

However, the more frequent offender is unquestionably the facial reactions of certain characters. They are almost always overboard and occasionally mystifying as to what is being reacted to, or precisely what it intended – a prolonged stare is only assumed to be murderous rage because we understand the narrative not because the actor staring is conveying the proper emotion. The fact that most of these instances occur when characters are high really undercuts the intent, such as it is. An intent mind you that the foreword of the film clearly states, which is simply something that should not be done.

Reefer Madness (1936)

Another issue is a seemingly all-too-frequent tactic by propaganda films which is framing an innocent for some crime and having them saved by intervention to see the error of their ways. If they really wanted these things to work they would go full on tragedy. Not that it’d make the movie good, but more effective.

When fundamentals like editing lack on top of everything else just enumerated the film will never “work” except to make you laugh when you ought not. Of course, with a running time of just over an hour that dictates that a lot of things happen immediately: upon first puff of smoke you want to dance to something “hot” and engage in spastic bliss, the act of smoking itself becomes euphoric like a dumb baby eating candy. The editorial issues in narrative and technical terms are great, the logic flaws and exaggeration, such as a secondhand story of someone being rendered permanently insane by marijuana, take it over the edge.

Even who the protagonist is and what’s the central event seems in doubt in Act III. The trial is the logical assumption but it crosscuts so quickly with all the other balls in the air that its hard for that to have any impact. Indicative of the nature of the film even things that almost work falter and go too far over the top (which is more attributable to direction than anything else).

Reefer Madness (1936)

As I’ve said, this one does make me chuckle, even as bad and as hard to watch as it is. It does have a narrative so to speak which put it above the several MST3K-ilk films where what the point is is doubtful. Aside from its being a few levels up the dung heap another positive thing is that among credited cast members only Kenneth Craig (Bill, a second banana good-boy-gone-bad) claims this as his only film credit so it didn’t instantly kill careers not even the token kid Junior (Harry Harvey, Jr.).

And having slammed it, and explained why I find it so fun to laugh at this film several times over, I will close on a more positive note: this is a film made in 1936 that was re-released three years later, then 13 years later rebranded with the title that would cling to it to this day. Sure it’s infamous, but its a cult film for better or worst. The Rifftrax I referred to was in 2011 on a Thursday night and it was the most packed theater at a multiplex in my hometown, which is not exactly a cinematic mecca. That says something. And I think when you boil it down, the bad movies that survive are the ones made with earnest intentions by some, if not all the cast and crew. That’s true of Troll 2 and certainly true of Reefer Madness. The people who fashioned this meant well in their own head, they probably didn’t achieve the immortality they wanted with this film but the audience always has the final verdict and to this day we find this one accidentally hilarious.

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8 comments

  1. Movies, Silently · July 14, 2014

    Thanks so much for joining in! This stinker has really taken on a life of its own, hasn’t it? Of all the types of bad movies, the only thing I like more than sword and sandal is social commentary. This is the granddaddy of them all. Fun review!

  2. girlsdofilm · July 16, 2014

    At only an hour long it would seem almost rude not to watch this! I think that’s my favourite part of these so-bad-it’s-good movies, they don’t really take up too much time. I can’t wait to see this ‘social commentary’.

    • bernardovillela · July 16, 2014

      Hah, no they don’t. The hour or so long movies from the early thirties, even when abysmal, are pretty easy to watch because of that. I have featured many of the ones from Poverty Row the last two years.

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  4. Silver Screenings · July 29, 2014

    I saw this years ago as a pre-teen and even as a naive teen I could see through it. However, I remember being fascinated at how fimmakers from the time would chronicle drug use.

    So glad you included this in the blogathon. When anyone mentions a film that’s unintentionally hilarious, this is always top of mind!

    • bernardovillela · July 29, 2014

      Thanks, glad you liked it. I too first saw it when I was young.

  5. Invisible Mikey · July 31, 2014

    There are so many reasons this was a film destined for infamy, as opposed to “fame”. It’s a pretty interesting story!

    1. It’s not a studio movie at all. It was made by a church group independently, like our more current “Left Behind” type shoestring production.

    2. Shortly after the churchies made the movie, it was bought by notorious exploitation producer-director Dwain Esper (Maniac, Narcotic, Sex Madness). He’s the one who re-titled it “Reefer Madness”, and re-cut it, inserting more salacious footage to emphasize the sex and insanity. He unintentionally turned a low budget “educational” film into camp.

    3. Though he toured it around the country under various titles in the 40s and 50s, Esper failed to file the copyright properly, and the film fell into “Public Domain”. So when Keith Stroup of NORML found it in the Library of Congress archives, he was free to buy a print for $297, and to use it to promote marijuana legalization in California, in 1972.

    4. Because the NORML showings on college campuses raised $16,000, it caught the attention of Robert Shaye, the head of New Line. He got hold of a better quality collector’s print, and made dupe negs which went out to the “Midnight Movie” circuit. New Line made a respectable fortune from these showings, and the movie gained “cult” status.

    Since then it’s been made into a musical, and 20th Century Fox colorized it and re-edited it yet again for DVD release on (of course) 4/20/2004.

    • bernardovillela · July 31, 2014

      Thanks reading and for the additional info. Its independent/public domain status and the existence of the musical were the only parts I really knew. I wanted to have minimal set-up and hoped ancillary information would divulged here. Now it has!

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