The film was innocently titled Tell Your Children when first released in 1938, reportedly funded by a church group with a burning desire to alert parents about an "unspeakable scourge" sweeping America.
Within the two years that followed, it appeared under several other titles: The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness.
But stoners and straights alike know it best by its 1947 reissue handle Reefer Madness, the one that made it what the DVD restorers of Legend Films call the bestselling cult film of all time (that's assuming you don't include The Blair Witch Project or The Passion Of The Christ in your definition of "cult").
If you've been anywhere near a college or university campus in the past half century or so, you and your chuckling cohorts have probably seen Reefer Madness, undoubtedly through a purple haze and with ready access to a case of beer and a large pizza (with extra cheese, of course).
It's the story of all-American sweethearts Bill (Kenneth Craig) and Mary (Dorothy Short), who fall prey to the "soul-destroying effects" of marijuana, a drug we learn is even more deadly than heroin or cocaine (insert snickers here). A lengthy opening scroll warns us that marijuana is "a new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers ... a violent narcotic ... an unspeakable scourge ... the real Public Enemy No. 1!"
Told in flashback by high school principal Dr. Alfred Carroll (Josef Forte), a stiff with Coke-bottle glasses who looks like he could use a toke or three, Reefer Madness is meant as a cautionary tale of the most urgent kind. Smoking weed, Dr. Carroll tells us, can lead to such anti-social activities as hit-and-run driving, jumping out of windows and shooting innocent people -- and these are just the side trips on the road to complete criminal insanity.
Judging by the dubious talents employed in making Reefer Madness (including French-born director Louis J. Gasnier, who had earlier made the Perils Of Pauline silent serials), marijuana also has the wicked side effects of terrible acting, atrocious dialogue, horrific honky-tonk piano playing and the flat-out goofiest dancing ever (now we know where Seinfeld's Elaine got her inspiration).
The bud is supplied by squabbling crime duo Mae Colman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young), possibly the best-dressed and most generous pushers in the history of the drug trade: Jack sports a three-piece suit, Mary various snappy dresses and the duo distributes weed without money ever changing hands. Do they think marijuana grows on trees or something?
It's impossible to watch this film without huge metaphoric quotation marks hovering over the screen, because everything is filtered through the cynicism of supposedly more enlightened times. This new DVD pushes the sarcasm further than ever, because the film is colorized for the first time, allowing for some mocking hues -- including green and pink for the toke smoke.
Before you cry "blasphemy!" the original black-and-white version is also on the disc. And the colorization is far better than the paint-by-numbers hack jobs of years past -- skin tones are very realistic. Legend Films president Barry Sandrew and creative director Rosemary Horvath explain on their shared commentary track that the project was a combination of dedication to detail (real marijuana was brought in to verify the digital greens) and inspired goofiness (nerds were made even nerdier with "dorky yellow" sweater vests).
The film is surprisingly flat on its own, especially if you watch it completely straight. Moments of stoned insanity intersperse long minutes of turgid plotting and bad acting. The best way to view Reefer Madness is with the commentary track by Mike Nelson, one of the acid wits behind Mystery Science Theater 3000, the mock TV sci-fi show often credited as an inspiration for the whole notion of the DVD commentary.
Nelson rips in with some savagely funny asides.
"These are not your father's potheads," he says, noting the pre-World War II dress and diction.
"Actually, they're your grandfather's potheads, aren't they?"
For a scene in which FBI agents shovel dope into a blast furnace, Nelson quips: "You know Robert Downey Jr. can't even watch this scene without breaking down in sobs."
He also questions the film's assertion that a single toke can lead to madness: "Consider the case of (rocker) David Crosby. No, he didn't go insane after one puff, but apparently smoking your weight in marijuana every month will cause you to turn into a 400-lb. barely coherent walrus man."
If all this isn't enough irony for you, the DVD also includes a bizarre short called Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook, in which an elderly gent nicknamed Grandpa Ganja extols the late-life virtues of the illegal smile. He proudly shows off one of his own homegrown plants (which his cat promptly starts nibbling on) as he explains how best to purchase weed from your friendly neighbourhood biker gang.
Very strange ... especially when you think that nowhere in this disc is there any attempt to put Reefer Madness in the context of its time.
Everyone is so busy poking fun at the rubbish on screen, they forget to tell us who exactly made the film in the first place, and what effect it had on the America of 1938. Apparently it was an explosive effect, since it was banned by New York censors of the day.
Although attributed to an unnamed church group, it's entirely possible that exploitation artists who were skirting the strict Hollywood Production Code of the 1930s made Reefer Madness. No one could show sex, drinking and drug taking in a regular film. They could, however, show all these things in an instructional film, packing the house with kids who were pretending to be learning how to avoid evil. Just like reading Penthouse helps young lads learn how to avoid evil women, right?
If this was indeed the case, then Reefer Madness was having a laugh on its viewers long before its viewers were having a laugh on it -- and wouldn't that just be the strangest trip of all, dude?
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