76 years of 'Reefer Madness'

U-News Staff

The original ‘Reefer Madness’ poster.
The original ‘Reefer Madness’ poster.

’30s anti-pot propaganda is unintentional comedy “Reefer Madness,” a 1936 antimarijuana propaganda film, is a story deserving of its own cheesy disinformation narrative.

“Reefer Madness” is so thrillingly ironic that contemporary viewers, enthralled in uproarious laughter at the campy acting and outrageous plot, might easily misinterpret its seriousness as satirical comedy.

Nor would they likely be offended by the jazz music, dancing, partying and premarital sex, which were reprehensible taboos by the standards of ’30s moralist crusaders.

When initially aired, three years after the repeal of the Prohibition of alcohol, marijuana was capitalized and spelled with an “h,” and federal drugs laws only criminalized the use of cocaine and opiates.

State regulation of cannabis use was increasing. Federal laws taxing, and later criminalizing, the drug were soon to follow.

After ‘Reefer Madness’s’ copyright had expired, it was rediscovered in 1971 in the Library of Congress Archives by Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). It instantly became a hit across college campuses at the height of the hippie era.

On the pot-smoking holiday of April 20, 2004, a colorized version of the original film was released, making it less of a bore to modern audiences that might be turned off by the antiquated production quality.

In the fictionalized plot, Dr. Alfred Carroll, a high school principal, urges members of a school parent group to push for the adoption of compulsory education against the use of narcotics. He wants “a particular emphasis on the dread Marihuana,” the “new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly-increasing numbers,” as described in the film’s forward.

Carroll reads parents a letter from the Bureau of Narcotics describing how the weed is cultivated and rolled into “reefers” (joints).

Carroll goes on a tangent about the crafty places people hide their dope and shows a large supply of confiscated heroin being shoveled into an incinerator. He finishes the letter contending that “more vicious, more deadly even than these soul-destroying drugs [opium, morphine and heroin] is the menace of Marihuana!”

The ensuing subplot depicts the descent of naïve, unsuspecting youth into “incurable insanity,” sudden uncontrollable laughter, uninhibited sexual encounters, jazz music and violent behavior induced by their “Marihuana addiction,” ending with the tragic “Harper Marihuana slaying” trials.

The subplot begins with weed dealer Jack Perry ordering Mae Coleman (presumably his cohabiting girlfriend) out of bed so she can clean the untidy house. Because Mae is high, she has lost sense of time and struggles to get dressed.

Mae sells reefers to other adults, but scolds Jack for selling to high school kids.

Jack leaves the house to meet up with his friends Ralph and Blanche, who help push joints.

At Ralph’s invitation, high school student Jimmy Lane returns to Jack and Mae’s apartment after stopping by the soda fountain, the scene of some hardcore reefer smoking and wild dancing. The cackling, crazy-haired jazz pianist steps out to smoke a joint.

Jimmy’s sister Mary is dating his best friend, Bill Harper, and it is revealed that Bill and Mary have had sex. After making out with Mary and reenacting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Bill stumbles on his way out of the Lanes’ courtyard, and meets up with Jimmy the next day to head to Jack and Mae’s apartment.

The reefer smokers continue the wild dancing and hysterical laughter. Jimmy and Jack leave to meet up with Jack’s boss.

Jimmy smokes a reefer as he waits in the car. The weed produces reckless driving and a hit-and-run crash with a pedestrian (who later dies) on the return.

Several days and copious reefers later, Ralph attempts to rape Mary at Jack and Mae’s while Bill has sex with Blanche in the next room. Bill hallucinates and sees Mary stripping for Ralph. Jack breaks up a fight between the two males and inadvertently shoots Mary as he strikes Bill’s head with the butt of the revolver.

An unconscious Bill wakes up to find the gun in his hand, and is brought to trial for the killing.

Meanwhile, Jack receives an order to kill Ralph, who threatens to snitch as he loses his sanity. In an unexpected twist, Ralph bludgeons Jack to death with a fireplace poker in the presence of Mae and Blanche.

The three are taken into custody, and Blanche commits suicide by jumping out of a window after telling authorities what actually happened.

Ralph is declared incompetent to stand trial, due to insanity caused by smoking too much pot, and is placed in an institution for the criminally insane. Mae’s fate is unspecified.

The benevolent Dr. Carroll, a character witness who helps Bill in the trial, concludes the film.

Pointing to parents, he implores them to “tell your sons and daughters… and yours… and YOURS” about the dangers of Marihuana.

Given today’s attitudes about smoking pot for recreational and/or medical purposes and research debunking many of the film’s claims about marijuana’s effects, contemporary viewers will be entertained by the crazy antics people in 1936 associated with smoking pot.

Be careful to contain the sudden, uncontrollable laughter induced by watching this comedically-reeming travesty; it can easily be mistaken for what the film claims is a symptom of “Marihuana.” Best stoner laugh goes to Ralph and his insane cackling.

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