Times have certainly changed since videos like this excitedly warned the masses about venereal diseases such as ‘Sex Madness’, the contraction of which apparently results in young women taking a fancy to each other at burlesque shows. Such public service education-exploitation films were commonplace following the adoption of the stricter version of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, and today we can look back on many of these pre-war films with more than a little embarrassment, while some of them cause us to chuckle away knowingly. However it’s worth bearing in mind just how powerful and dangerous they were when they first appeared; the more extreme efforts, such as this one, failed to educate and in a different climate – where such relationships were illegal – these films probably caused as much indirect pain and harm as direct amusement.
The most notorious of all, of course, is Reefer Madness, a hysterical tale from 1936 about the dangers of marijuana use and over-exposure to jazz. Also known as Tell Your Children, The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness, it often comes a close second to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space in lists that attempt to identify the worst films ever made. It’s certainly has more than its fair share of cringeworthy moments, but is it actually that bad?
The Parisian director of Reefer Madness, Louis Gasnier, has avoided the notoriety of his angora-loving American colleague – no Tim Burton film for him –but like Wood he led an unusual and interesting life, and was far more prolific. Working first in France and later in the US, Gasnier was a member of the ‘Vincennes School’, a group of early French filmmakers which also included Gaston Velle, Georges Hatot, Lucien Nonguet, Lépine, Andre Heuré, Georges Monca and Albert Capellani, any one of which could possibly be the Martin Scorsese of his day, such is my knowledge of early 20th Century French productions. (For what it’s worth my money is on Monca.)
Gasnier was employed as a theatre actor and director in Paris before embarking on a long stint as a contracted filmmaker for Pathé. He made his name through his association with the silent era comedian Max Linder, and it has been suggested that Gasnier made over 100 films between the years of 1909-1914 alone, with the director failing to receive credit for a number of early works made in France and Italy. In 1913 he agreed to move to New Jersey to head-up Pathé’s new US production facility in Fort Lee, and the widespread acclaim he received as the co-director of the successful 1914 series The Perils Of Pauline (and the similar The Exploits Of Elaine) propelled Gasnier to the position of executive vice-president within the American division.
A couple of years later Gasnier resigned from the position in order to set up his own production company, and used his ties with Pathé to secure distribution for his new films. His career peaked during the following few years, and by the early 1920s he was well-known for his adventure serials set in exotic locales and as a purveyor of social melodrama. However things took a turn for the worse in the mid-20s and Gasnier had to file for bankruptcy, subsequently finding employment under a division of Paramount, where he guided the young Cary Grant through a couple of early roles. In 1935 Paramount decided they wouldn’t be renewing Gasnier’s contract, and after a long period without work he decided he would have to take the first picture that was offered to him. That was Reefer Madness, although at the time it was known as Tell Your Children.
Financed by a church group with the intention of educating parents concerned about cannabis, Tell Your Children was originally produced by George Hirliman, but shortly after completion it was purchased by the exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper, who inserted a number of salacious shots and released it on the exploitation circuit. Films about marijuana were particularly popular around that time because of hysteria surrounding the Marihuana Tax Act, which was published in 1937, and as well as Tell Your Children other notable efforts included Esper’s own Marihuana and Elmer Clifton’s dramatically-titled Assassin Of Youth. The film was given different titles for different regions of the US, and the New England title of Reefer Madness eventually stuck after more than a decade of screenings. Neither Esper nor Hirliman bothered to protect the film’s copyright, and 30 years later Keith Stroup, founder of the pro-legalisation of marijuana group NORML, bought a print from the Library of Congress archives and began showing it on California college campuses. It came to the attention of Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema in New York, who noticed an improper copyright notice, and he began distributing it nationally – making a small fortune for the company. Since the 1970s re-release the film has been considered a cult classic, a camp production often described as being ‘so bad it’s good’ as well as routinely being referred to as the worst movie of all time (or at least one that runs Plan 9 pretty close). It has been adapted for the stage and a TV remake of the musical appeared in 2005 featuring Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell, and a colourised version has also appeared.
Reefer Madness is a fairly simple film, primarily revolving around Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young), a couple – living in sin, to use the parlance of the day – who sell marijuana to local people; Mae prefers to sell to customers her own age, while Jack is happy selling to teenagers. Their apartment is home to a seemingly-continuous (but fairly tame-looking) party in the lounge, where jazz is played and mind alteration is practiced. However all usage of the demon weed by those who visit leads directly to various serious incidents: one man mows down a pedestrian in his car after smoking joint. Another couple, Blanche (Lillian Miles) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) start an affair while round at Mae and Jack’s. A guest named Ralph (Dave O’Brien) attempts to rape a young, stoned girl which leads to a fight and, eventually, the accidental killing of the woman in question. Ralph goes insane, which is attributed to his marijuana use, and then tells everyone he is going to the police to explain what happened. It gets worse. Jack attempts to kill Ralph, but Jack is instead beaten to death. The police arrest Ralph and Mae. Blanche is a witness, but instead of testifying she jumps out of a window, and falls to her death. By the end Mae’s fate is unknown while Ralph is sent to an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his life. And all because of a toke or two.
Obviously no-one should take Reefer Madness seriously. The depiction of the effects of marijuana here is ludicrous, and it looks as though no-one involved with the production ever thought to actually try the drug first. As such nearly all of the film’s events are so outlandish it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought this was an educational film; one of the funniest scenes, for example, sees Blanche playing the piano in order to take everyone’s mind off the terrible events – her playing becomes so fast it’s almost cartoon-like.
The acting is universally bad, the dialogue is awful (screenwriter Arthur Hoerl was responsible), and once you’ve had one or two giggles at the sheer ridiculousness of the plot it quickly becomes very boring indeed. But second-worst film of all time? Not a chance. At least the people making Reefer Madness were trying to make a decent film, even if they got it horribly wrong. I’d much rather watch this for an hour than any of those modern, cynical and noxiously ironic attempts at making a bad movie (hello Sharknado my old friend). Still, let’s be clear: I’m not about to argue that Reefer Madness is in need of a critical re-appraisal; it’s pretty dire, and even if you get completely baked it still isn’t very funny.
As for Gasnier, he continued to work with Hirliman, finishing out his directorial career with a couple of features at Monogram Pictures before retiring at the age of 65. He lived for another 22 years, and in a late interview he revealed that he was practically destitute; to make ends meet he returned to acting, in small parts, in mainstream features, usually playing an elderly Frenchman. Of all the hundreds of films he made, he’s remembered for the one he would have least liked to have been remembered for. Dude. What a bummer.
Directed by: Louis Gasnier
Written by: Arthur Hoerl
Starring: Kenneth Craig, Dorothy Short, Lilian Miles, Dave O’Brien, Thelma White, Carleton Young
Running Time: 66 minutes