Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) [DVD]
Director : Louis J. Gasnier
Screenplay : Arthur Hoerl (story by Lawrence Meade)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1936
Stars : Dorothy Short (Mary), Kenneth Craig (Bill), Lillian Miles (Blanche), Dave O'Brien (Ralph), Thelma White (Mae), Carleton Young (Jack), Warren McCollum (Jimmy), Pat Royale (Agnes), Joseph Forte (Dr. Carroll), Harry Harvey Jr. (Junior)
When it was first released in 1936, Reefer Madness, originally known as Tell Your Children and The Burning Question, was intended to serve as a warning against the mortal dangers of using of marijuana, which in the 1930s was the most feared drug in the country. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, under the leadership of Harry Anslinger, had demonized the one-time roadside weed as a primary source of corruption, vice, and violence, even going so far as circulating stories such as the one about a man who smoked dope and, as a result, went crazy and killed his entire family with an axe.
No one is slaughtered with an axe in Reefer Madness, but that particular urban legend is mentioned by one of the characters, illustrating just how deep the fear of the “demon weed” had gone and how far campaigns against it had strayed from the facts. Reefer Madness in no way, shape, or form reflects the realities of marijuana use, which is why it is viewed as so sublimely silly today. Within its brief, 65-minute narrative, it links smoking pot to murder, rape, insanity, and suicide, suggesting that pot is not just harmful, but downright lethal. We can watch and laugh now, but when audiences viewed it in the late 1930s, many of them likely took it quite seriously.
Ironically, Reefer Madness would have probably faded into the blurry history of early low-budget filmmaking were it not for the pro-marijuana group NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). In the early 1970s, Keith Stroup, head of NORML, stumbled across a public domain copy of Reefer Madness in the Library of Congress and started showing it at the group’s fund-raising events. From there, it moved onto the midnight movie circuit alongside such camp classics as John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), where it was recreated in the audience eye as a comedic howler. The ridiculous plot, bad acting, inane dialogue, and complete detachment from the realities of drug use made it ripe for ironic viewing—what had been a clarion call to an obvious evil became instead evidence of just how hysterically misguided the prudes of an earlier generation really were.
The movie’s overwrought didacticism is evident in its narrative structure, which begins with Dr. Caroll (Joseph Forte) gathering concerned parents and citizens into a meeting during which he stresses the dangers of marijuana usage and then illustrates his point by relating the story of a group of innocent, all-American teenagers who allow themselves to get hooked on the weed. Their daily activities change from studying for tests and playing tennis to hanging out in the apartment of Ralph (Dave O'Brien) and Mae (Thelma White), local dope peddlers who nevertheless are as clean-cut and well-dressed as any member of the city council. The apartment, then, becomes a haven for all sorts of melodramatic turmoil, ranging from wild jitterbug dancing, to dope-infused sex, and later multiple murders. Everybody ends up either dead, insane, or in the slammer, and Dr. Caroll returns to the screen in a bookend concluding sermon in which he admonishes us in the audience to tell our children because we could be next!
Interestingly enough, Reefer Madness is not nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. When compared to the ineptitude of some exploitation films from the era, particularly those directed by the infamous Dwain Esper, Reefer Madness looks almost polished. After all, there aren’t any egregious continuity errors (just a few small ones), all the sets look relatively plausible, and the camera remains in focus most of the time. The acting is what most point to as the source of the movie’s most absurd humor, particularly O’Brien’s hammy overacting once Ralph goes insane and starting cackling to himself and feverishly chainsmoking joints.
The director, a French émigré named Louis J. Gasnier, was actually a seasoned veteran, having made movies since virtually the dawn of the medium. In his native France, Gasnier had been responsible for discovering comedian Max Linder, and once he moved to the U.S. he was instrumental in developing the early movie serials, particularly The Perils of Pauline series (the first of which he directed in 1914). Unfortunately, by the 1930s, Gasnier had fallen on hard times because he lack of fluency in English made it difficult for him to direct sound films with English dialogue, and he was stuck making mostly low-budget cheapies for Poverty Row production companies.
Most of Gasnier’s films, however, have been long forgotten, but not Reefer Madness. Over the past three decades, it has become a cult film of legendary status, one that anyone with even the slightest appreciation for the ephemera at the fringes of the movie industry should see. It is in no way a good movie, and it’s not even really that unique, given that several other marijuana-themed movies such as Marihuana and Assassin of Youth were released at roughly the same time. Rather, the persistent popularity and must-see status of Reefer Madness can only be attributed to its unwittingly potent combination of prosaic cinematic badness and utterly misplaced sincerity, which, in its own odd way, makes the movie as endearing as it is hilarious.
|Reefer Madness Special “Addiction” DVD|
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
|Audio|| English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
English DTS 5.1 Surround
English Dolby 1.0 Monaural
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by Mike Nelson|
Audio commentary by Barry Sandrew Rosemary Horvath of Legend Films
“Grandpa’s Marijuana Handbook” short film
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||April 20, 2004|
|Reefer Madness has been in the public domain for decades, and because of this it has seen numerous—and I mean numerous—bad DVD releases that utilized the worst of the worst prints for their transfers. That cannot be said for his new “Special Addiction” (ha-ha) version of the film prepared by Off-Color Films and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The film is available in two versions: its original black and white and a new colorized version. Both feature digitally restored transfers from what appears to be an exceedingly good print, given the age of the film and the archival disrespect it has seen over the years. In comparison to the soft, dark, grainy, and scratched transfers we’ve had on the market, this new disc looks positively fantastic. There are still some signs of age, of course, as well as the movie’s inherent cheapness, but those are endemic to watching a movie of this sort. A few words on the colorized version: It looks terrible, but in a grandly trashy, oddly appropriate way. It’s sacrilege to colorize something like Casablanca, but Reefer Madness works with the gaudy comic book pinks, greens, and blues (the pot smoke even comes out in garish pastel tones). It in no way looks natural or realistic, but then, nothing about the film is natural or realistic.|
|Some might see remixing the monaural soundtrack of Reefer Madness into both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround as overkill. They’d be right if it made much difference. For the most part, both the DD and DTS soundtracks don’t different significantly from the original monaural, largely because the sound mixers didn’t have much to work with. This is, after all, a low-budget movie with virtually no sound effects and no extradiegetic music except during the credits. The credits music is somewhat spaced out in the 5.1 mix, and they do a nice job utilizing the multiple speakers to envelop us as Bill hears voices in his head when he sees his girlfriend being taken advantage of, but that’s about the extent of it.|
|There are two audio commentaries included on the disc. The first is by Mike Nelson, best known as the wisecracking human component of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 trio. Nelson doesn’t have much to say about the movie, but he does make mildly sarcastic comments every 15 to 30 seconds, many of which are quite funny. The other commentary is by Barry Sandrew, president, and Rosemary Horvath, creative director, of Legend Films. This commentary is more informative in nature, as they focus primarily on the film’s restoration and colorization. They make a few lame attempts at humor early on, but give it up pretty quickly. In the 25-minute short film “Grandpa’s Marijuana Handbook,” Evan Keliher, also known as Grandpa Ganja, an aging, self-proclaimed “pot expert” who claims to have been stoned every day since 1967 and calls marijuana “the penicillin of the 21st century,” does his best to wax poetic about the benefits of pot, especially for the elderly. He’s mildly amusing, but not nearly as funny as he probably thinks it is. (Also included are four minutes of outtakes.)|
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment