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.

Short Film Saturday: Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943)

I saw this film plenty of times growing up. I think once upon a time Disney had a VHS collection of wartime shorts. This became one Disney would make sparse over years until the Disney Treasures line was launched and all the World War-Two era shorts were re-collected. Leonard Maltin typically not only did intros for the DVD collections, but also specific shorts that may have problematic content in a more politically correct age. Are the portraits of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini broad stereotypes? Yes. However, I’m not sure the availability was limited just due to that. The film is for the most part just a mockery of these three dictators, namely Hitler, and the disdain for him is fairly clear throughout. The main objection could be that the plot is Donald has a nightmare that he’s a Nazi. I realize that it’s risky to put an already iconic character like Donald Duck in Nazi paraphernalia, but this is a product of the war, this like many other wartime Disney fare can be classified both as being entertaining and propaganda. I doubt there’s a nation on Earth that’s been immune to propagandizing in cinema, much of it still consumed for aesthetic and historical purpose to this day.

The risk Disney took with Donald recognized and rewarded by the Academy with an Oscar. The nightmare aspect is a reveal, but one you can see this coming once the surreal sequence starts, and at the end he unabashedly exclaims his love for the US. I think the riskiness of the venture is lessened by the fact that Donald is still Donald. Namely, he’s ornery, accident prone and somewhat a non-conformist and not a “good Nazi” at all, even in a dream.

I’m glad that Disney did bring this one out of hiding with a disclaimer. If you feel something is inappropriate for mass consumption, you’re more than free to say so. However, I do think this falls within the realm of satire, and I’d hate to see that become further endangered just because on occasion it goes too far. Which is me speaking in generalities, most of the cultural insensitivity you may find in this piece is aimed at the dictators themselves. Anyway, without much further adieu, enjoy!

Review- Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney/Marvel)

As is always the case when dealing with a superhero film I feel that one’s personal history with a character is an important factor to consider when discussing the film, at the very least so I can relay to you my frame of reference. In the crop of superhero films released this year Captain America is likely the property I had the least amount of history with, which if you think about it is an advantage to the film. For as much as I talk about disengaging expectation built by other media from a film the reason I write on it so much is that it’s a fight against human nature to more purely and accurately judge a film.

So Captain America, to me, is free of the restraint of expectations but does it take advantage of this advantage? Not fully, no. The film sets its character up well enough: Steve Rogers is a kind, disciplined, brave young man who yearns to serve his country in the hour of its greatest need but is repeatedly rejected due to his build and health problems. This film, especially the opening, runs the risk of being overly overt propaganda, however, it focuses on character enough, at the beginning at least, such that it narrowly avoids that.

Another manner in which it dodges the P-word is in the turn the film takes immediately following the experiment that gives Steve his abilities. The trajectory from everyman to super-being isn’t a straight ascent because at first the only responsibility he’s given is that of pitchman. He has to fight the power and be a little rebellious to truly fulfill his destiny so that makes it a bit interesting.

Another strength that the film has to fall back on is the strength of its cast, the supporting cast mainly. Not to discredit Chris Evans, he does a fine job and is believable as Steve at both stages though he’s not as dynamic as he was in Star Trek and it seems like he was always waiting for the transition- that CG job making him skinny is quite impressive.

First and foremost among the supporting cast is Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter and the love interest in this film and is not only a strong, intelligent woman but makes the love interest in a superhero film vital for the first time in some time. If you think about it many of the recent crop have had love interests as either an afterthought or not at all. The relationship between her and Steve gives this film the little extra it needs to get by.

Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving each do rather well in their respective required roles: Jones as the disbelieving Colonel and Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, replete with an authentic-sounding accent in a film with too much foreign intrigue to dabble in foreign tongues like others have recently. Also quite enjoyable is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine who takes Steve under his wing.

This isn’t the only recent superhero film of late to deal with actual historical events in a fictionalized context, see the recent X-Men film, what that film did though that this failed to do (and it was the major failing of it) is that it made its tale as high stakes and intriguing as the historical incident in which it wrapped itself up. It also re-wrote history in a major way this film decided instead to write a subplot so to an extent you’re watching the undercard of World War II as Captain America and co. go after Red Skull and his rogue band of occultist Nazis and Hitler and the majority get second billing and no play. When an actual man who wanted to take over the world takes a backseat to a fictional creation who does, it’s a monumental task to make that notion as scary regardless of how likely it is in the world of the story.

Thus, in Captain America his initial battle as a hero, which in the end is more climactic, is also more effective.

When it’s all said and done Captain America is an effective and enjoyable film with obvious flaws that could’ve been handled and addressed better than it is.