Eighty Two Years Later, the Original Stoner Movie Remains an Unlikely Hit
by Eric Danville
The Birth of Reefer Madness
Directed by long-forgotten French filmmaker Louis Gasnier, Reefer Madness was originally released with the title Tell Your Children in 1936, the year before the Harry J. Anslinger Marijuana Tax Act made pot illegal in the United States. A cautionary tale supposedly bankrolled by a long-forgotten local church group, it warned parents what would happen if America’s youth were to take even one puff of the Devil’s weed: wild dancing and make-out parties, followed naturally by vehicular homicide, attempted rape, assault and battery, murder, insanity and suicide. And there’s no way you can watch it without laughing… At least not today.
The melodramatic cause-and-effect that drivesReefer Madness’s plot is a big part of its appeal as an unintentionally hilarious masterpiece. According to Eric Schaefer, associate professor at Emerson College in Boston and author of Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959, “Personal hygiene movies and anti-drug movies shown in classrooms weren’t content with saying, ‘You should know about this.’ Rather than present things in a dispassionate way, they always had to go over the top to make their point. Then they became ridiculous.”
They sure don’t come much more ridiculous than Reefer Madness. The story of the soon-to-be-tragic teens is told by the stereotypically patrician and completely fictional Dr. Alfred Carroll, who starts the show by lecturing concerned parents about the menace of mar-ee-wannnna. Jitterbugging schoolkids pitching woo while reading Romeo and Juliet share screen time with shady characters like “Hot Fingers” Peroni, a hybrid of Gene Wilder and Frankenstein’s monster who plays piano at the local malt shop when he’s not hiding in a closet burning a joint that turns him into a cackling, wild-eyed freak. The film’s most famous bit of comic relief features murder-witness-in-hiding Ralph Wiley, who collapses in a chair puffing a huge joint while giggling maniacally and screaming at another pianist, “Play faster! Play faster!” (In the world of Reefer Madness, three things are for certain: no one ever passes a joint, weed makes everyone laugh like hyenas, and every room has a piano.)
These days, Reefer Madness is lauded as high camp, but it was originally serious—and effective—anti-drug propaganda. Then, as now, crime-based films were “advised” by law-enforcement agencies, whose real job is to make sure producers get the desired message across, and Reefer Madness was no different. “There wasn’t any real research being done at the time,” Schaefer says, “and often the people making these movies were at the mercy of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to get their information, and [the makers of Reefer Madness] got much of that information directly from Harry Anslinger. He had his axe to grind and agenda to push, and these movies certainly helped passage of the Marijuana Tax Act.” Ultimately, Schaefer says, “I think these movies created a lot more curiosity than they tamped down.”
Reefer Madness Hits the Road
After playing what was probably an unimpressive number of high-school auditoriums and VFW halls, Reefer Madness might have been forgotten completely had it not been for Dwain Esper. A director and producer of exploitation films, Esper’s greatest talent was apparently his knack for coming up with film titles; his directorial body of work includes the movies Sex Maniac, Narcotic Racket, and How to Undress for Your Husband. As the story goes, Esper found a copy of Tell Your Children in 1938, saw its potential as a roadhouse attraction and gave it a typically sexier title. Then it was showtime.
Reefer Madness made the rounds of small roadhouse theaters for the next decade or so, playing to a much different audience than before: people looking for a cheap thrill. Joe Kane, America’s own Phantom of the Movies and publisher of Videoscope magazine, finds Esper’s efforts at rebranding for the exploitation crowd less than successful. “It’s much more effective as camp than as exploitation. I think that the people who went to those roadhouse screenings were probably very bored. They didn’t get much sex. Assassin of Youth had skinny dipping, Marihuana had the lingerie party. Reefer Madness? You got the make-out scenes,” he laughs. Still, Kane remembers the film fondly. “It still stands up as entertainment,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun than other anti-dope films. It’s a lot less dingy. And you have this all-American, squeaky clean crowd of squares who you can’t wait to see get violated.”
After doing its time on the exploitation circuit,Reefer Madness might have been forgotten completely (again) if not for Keith Stroup. In the early ’70s, Stroup was a draw on the college lecture circuit as spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). After attending one presentation, Stroup’s speaking agent suggested that he check outReefer Madness, mentioning that it had fallen into the public domain and was being offered for rental by his company (which would soon go on to make its name as New Line Cinema, thanks in large part to the approaching success of Reefer Madness).
Stroup watched the movie—he remembers thinking it was “great for ten or fifteen minutes, otherwise it was the same exaggerated play on the dangers of marijuana for an hour”—and had a filmmaker friend edit it down to about 25 minutes. He credits that edit with really helping the film find its audience. “Kids were going to enjoy seeing it initially anyway, because it flies in the face of their own experiences. But students notoriously have a short attention span, so you don’t want to spend too much time on a silly movie, because you’re there speaking to them for a serious purpose.”
Whenever he could, Stroup integrated screenings of the film into his public appearances. “Every time I got an invitation to give a talk for NORML, I would immediately find out if it was an environment where they would feel comfortable with me bringing a copy of Reefer Madness.” he recalls. “Not every environment wanted it, obviously. Some people thought it wasn’t serious enough. If you’re going to testify before a city council, for example, I wouldn’t bring a copy of Reefer Madness!” Once it was re-reintroduced to America, Reefer Madness actually helped Stroup achieve his ultimate goal: “It forced people to confront the exaggerated allegations that had been the basis of our public policy.”
That’s exactly what people did, and look what’s happened since. Eighty-two years after the original anti-drug propaganda film helped turn smoking marijuana into a crime, California turned the legacy of Reefer Madness on its head. So, maybe the best way to celebrate one of the dopiest films of all is to sit back, light up and have the last laugh.