TLBTV: CannaTalk – Movie Review: 1936 Film – Reefer Madness!

Show #4 in the series 'The History of Cannabis in America'

CannaTalk – Movie Review: 1936 Film – Reefer Madness! – Show #4 in the series ‘The History of Cannabis in America’


By TLB Contributing Author & Show Narrator: Eleanor Cooney

I think I’ve figured out the source, the wellspring, the inspiration for the films of John Waters, and that’s the 1936 steaming-hot hunk of celluloid anti-cannabis propaganda known as “Reefer Madness.”

I love John Waters. I think he’s the absolute ultimate iconoclast. Nobody makes ferocious fun of American convention, manners, morals and culture the way he does, and with such cheerful, smart, generous good humor. Yeah, I know—most people think Waters is a direct artistic descendant of the Big Daddy of so-bad-they’re-good flicks Ed Wood, the 1950s producer/director of what you couldn’t really even call “B” movies, right down to the pencil-thin mustache. And I have no doubt Waters metabolized every Ed Wood picture ever made. But like a forensic investigator hot on the trail of clues, patterns, markers, I know, I just know, that “Reefer Madness” was the original catalyst for Waters’ absurdist creative vision.

By 1936, anti-cannabis hysteria was a cresting wave washing over the country, and “Reefer Madness” arguably represents the moment that wave broke. In case you just got back from a mission to Arcturus, here’s the basic plot: After a high-school principal with a deliciously obsolete style of oration and delivery—you know, the ringing, rotund, old-timey announcer’s voice of authority and sincerity that verged on Britishness—lectures a roomful of concerned parents on the virulent dangers of the “new” scourge called marihuana, the action cuts to what looks like actual 20s or 30s footage of constables inspecting a “grow” in a vacant city lot, of some of the most sparse, tragic, raggedy-looking specimens of devil-weed you ever saw. We’ve come a long way, baby—at least when it comes to cultivation!

Next, wholesome sweater-vest- and frilly-dress-wearing high-school kids are lured to dope parties by a smooth-talking gangster-type individual in suit, tie and fedora. Nobody ever asks the youngsters for money; plainly, the only “payment” this no-goodnik craves is the ruination of promising young lives. Pianos play a major role in this drama: at every turn, it seems, there’s a leering piano-player pounding away on the keys, grinning and twitching, head wreathed in clouds of smoke, accompanying a roomful of wildly dancing couples, all of it frenetically speeding up as if everyone had just ingested angel dust. And let me tell you, the dancing is about as far from Soul Train as you can get; it’s as pathetic as the plants in that city lot. Obviously, no dance coach ever got near the set. Can you say “low budget?” Add alternately wooden and overwrought acting and ridiculous dialog, and you’ve got the gist.

Nevertheless, we all know where wild dancing leads, however rhythm-less and idiotic, and sure as shoot, there follows a cascade of interlocked disasters: First, there’s maniacal crazed laughter, then there’s vehicular hit-and run, loss of virginity, attempted rape, murder, lies and cover-ups, an innocent youth just barely escaping the hangman’s noose, a suicidal girl smashing through a window and plunging to her death, a once-suave reefer-smoker driven to psychosis sentenced to life in an institution for the criminally insane!

Here’s a fun and pertinent fact: Dwain Esper, the producer of the show that’s claimed the number one spot on several “worst movies ever made” lists had been a sideshow barker earlier in his career, exhibiting everything from two-headed babies floating in jars to the mummified cadavers of dead outlaws. He went on to produce some of the sleaziest, most hardcore exploitation films ever, thinly veiled as “morality” tales supposedly meant to teach the rubes about the perils of drugs and sex, distinguished by their interspersed stock footage of violence, surgery closeups and disaster. “Reefer Madness” came later, and is mild and restrained by comparison, but you can sense the old sideshow huckster at work. He knows how to tickle the rubbernecking prurience of the crowd so that they line up and part with their hard-earned money.

And guess what? He lived to the age of 88, dying in 1982, so we know for a fact that he was around to see cannabis bust out of jazz joints and living rooms and into love-ins in the park and at giant music festivals during the 60s and 70s, and to see his most famous movie become a cult classic, a favorite of stoners everywhere. Which means that he was around to see the early glimmerings of the turning of the tide, when the propaganda-induced fog was lifting once and for all and people began demanding justice for a plant that’s been a friend to humankind for centuries, relaxing and freeing the mind and easing the body that hurts, that can’t sleep, that can’t eat, that trembles with convulsions. And he had to have known that his film turned out to be truly educational in ways he probably never dreamt of back in 1936. The forehead-slapping absurdity of the portrayal of cannabis, immortalized in “Reefer Madness,” taught us something important about the mechanics of propaganda, and by extension, how to resist it.

Jeff Sessions probably watches “Reefer Madness” over and over again himself, to refresh and renew his sense of purpose and buck up his determination. He probably thinks the acting and script are first-rate, the music inspiring, the message true and authentic.

The rest of us, though, know that some movies, and this is one of them, just have to be watched through a windshield.

Watch this informative presentation …

Articles remaining in this CannaTalk series – The history of Cannabis in America:

Just who are these “not good” people who smoke marijuana?

Cannabis throughout history. Refuting the tired old “there’s not enough evidence” argument.

… and more articles and series to come!


Watch all past episodes of CannaTalk


About the Author/Narrator: Eleanor Cooney is a writer and a connoisseur of the absurd, the macabre, the bizarre and subterfuge, but chokes up over “brave dog” stories. She wrote three novels set in T’ang Dynasty China. Her nonfiction memoir DEATH IN SLOW MOTION was published by HarperCollins in 2004. She recently completed a novel called THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, a sly, dark, eclectic thriller for literate readers.


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