The year 1936 was a banner one for cautionary cinema about marijuana and the evils sure to visit you if you dare to take a puff. Two films, Marihuana and the future cult classic Reefer Madness, were released that year, and a third, Assassin of Youth, was in production. Like television, rock and roll and marriage equality in years following, marijuana’s presence in polite society was almost certainly expected to bring about its downfall. One need only pick through the ruins of modern-day Colorado and Washington, where cannabis was recently legalized, to see how prescient these alarm-pullers were. Here are three examples of how the movies sensationalized the weedy menace.
Reefer Madness (1936)
A PTA meeting led by a concerned high school principal bookends the fevered drama about Mae (Thelma White) and Jack (Carleton Young), dope pushers who lure fresh-faced high schoolers to Mae's apartment to smoke the wacky tobacky. Mellowness is not the prevailing attitude. Thanks to this film, we now know that inhaling smoke from a marijuana cigarette leads to addiction, vehicular homicide, murder, attempted rape, suicide, extremely fast piano playing and insanity. "The next tragedy may be that of your daughter or your son,” the high school principal warns at the end of the movie, pointing randomly while adding, “or yours, or yours.” He then points directly to the camera to deliver his final line: “Or yours!” We are left with the words “TELL YOUR CHILDREN” superimposed on the image of the principal as the lights come up and the audience leaves so much smarter than when they came in. Small wonder that such ripe, over-the-top histrionics became a cult hit and camp classic. In 1998, a stage musical parody opened in Los Angeles; a movie version of the show was released in 2005.
Husband-and-wife team Dwain Esper and Hildegarde Stadie are the culprits behind the exploitation flick Marihuana, with Stadie as screenwriter and Esper at the helm. This cinematic twaddle sees a young lass named Burma (Harley Wood) toking up at a beach party and having sex with her boyfriend, while one of her girlfriends drowns during a skinny dip. Now pregnant, Burma and her boyfriend deal drugs to make enough ends meet in order to marry and raise a child. Burma gives up her baby for adoption after her boyfriend is killed in a drug deal and graduates from selling pot to dealing heavy narcotics. To scrape by, she kidnaps a child who, as queer circumstance would have it, turns out to be the one she gave up for adoption. In the end, the movie serves up a warning, not hope, as pillar-of-ruin Burma succumbs to a heroin overdose.
Assassin of Youth (1937)
Joan Barry (Luana Walters) would inherit her grandmother’s money in a heartbeat if she would only fulfill a morals clause in the old woman’s will. Too bad, then, that Joan becomes the target of her cousin Linda (Fay McKenzie) and Linda’s husband Jack (Michael Owen), who scheme to get her high and paint her as a floozy. Enter junior reporter Art Brighton (Arthur Gardner), whose undercover investigating reveals Linda and Jack’s nefarious motives. But is it too late to save Joan, who is caught up in a gang of pot-smoking criminals? Allow me to spoil the ending: No. And, for good measure, screenwriters Elmer Clifton and Charles A. Browne have Joan and Art get engaged by movie’s end. Clifton, who spent his early years working alongside D.W. Griffith, directed this exploitation flick, one of more than 90 titles in his career.