Fox // 1938 // 65 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 3rd, 2004
Sixty-five years later, audiences are still hooked!
We've all heard the story before. Heck, you probably know someone who's lived it, if you haven't yourself. Right, daddy-o? A casual interest in dancing the Charleston and listening to that damnable jazz -- played by a white guy secretly wishing he was Fats Waller -- leads to dabbling in the addictive morass of "marihuana." Oh, it all starts off innocently enough. What harm can there be in a few reefers, right? Next thing you know you're up to your eyeballs in all manner of moral perfidy: rape, murder, insanity, "errors in time and space" (which primarily manifest as sloppy games of tennis), uncontrollable hysterical laughter, and necking with loose girls. The tragedy!
Luckily, Dr. Alfred Carroll's here to set us straight before we make the biggest mistake of our lives.
You can't afford to miss Dr. Carroll's presentation at the meeting of the School-Parent Association at 8:30PM at Truman High School. Dr. Carroll will be giving the straight dope on dope. He'll share a letter from an agent of the Department of Narcotics about the deadly drug marihuana. After that, he'll transition into a series of flashbacks about dope peddlers Jack and Mae, and their corruption of high schoolers Bill, Mary, and Jimmy. The lives of your children depend upon your attending this meeting, as does the very fabric of society. Besides, it's gonna be a trip, man.
It's de riguer in high school health classes (or at least it was when I was in high school) for marijuana to be presented as the gateway drug. One puff of the nasty weed leads to dropping acid, snorting cocaine, smoking crack, then mainlining the ol' horse. Play around with pot, and you'll suddenly find yourself stealing televisions and car stereos to support a smack habit, your life unfolding in a ratty tenement with a syringe in one hand and a belt cinched around your arm as you sit in your own ick because bowel control is the least of your concerns. Reefer Madness treats marihuana as a gateway, too, but not to other drugs. In the dope cosmology of this flick, the path of weed bypasses the harder stuff and goes directly to insanity, murder, and suicide. It all plays as gloriously over-the-top camp, a quality that's made the little movie legendary for decades on college campuses. I don't know, though. Perhaps Reefer Madness is a hyper-real exposé on the dangers of cannabis in the pre-World War II era. Their hair ladled in Brill's Cream and their dreams and autonomy squelched beneath tweed jackets and sweater vests, the high schoolers in this film seem just the sort of dudes who'd fly immediately into anarchy after a couple bong hits. Bill Harper starts out as a kid so innocent he goes gaga over Mary's mom's hot cocoa. Is it any wonder a blunt would drive him to extremes? And it's not like he had Floyd or the Dead to mellow his buzz.
Okay, I'm kidding. Reefer Madness isn't an exercise in realism. It is a prime mover in so-bad-it's-good cinema, though, and we have one Dwain Esper to thank for it. Esper was the auteur behind cinema classics like How to Undress In Front of Your Husband, How to Take a Bath, and Sex Madness. When he stumbled upon a little church-financed anti-drug propaganda flick called Tell Your Children, he bought it and turned it into Reefer Madness. The flick was Esperized with the addition of a lengthy and rococo scene of Mae putting on her stockings, a shot of a stoned Mary unzipping her dress, and an off-screen sexual liaison between Bill and a hop-head hussy named Blanche -- risqué stuff for 1938. Ultimately, it's the co-opting of the church group's heartfelt (if zanily overwrought) message by Esper the exploiter that makes the movie such a good time, for Reefer Madness debates itself. Despite the repeated warnings that spliff leads to immorality and madness, the scenes of the gang toking up in Mae's apartment and getting their 1930s groove on have a certain wacky exuberance. The movie's stuffed shirts may insist that marihuana is bad, but Esper's gaggle of weed-hounding jazz aficionados sure makes it look like fun...at least until the Grim Reaper shows up and kills everyone's buzz.
Louis Gasnier was a veteran of silent films, but his direction of Reefer Madness is so flaccid you'd never guess it. The flick demonstrates none of the visual panache or economy of storytelling one expects of a silent director. As a matter of fact, Gasnier shows an almost avant-garde fascination with the mundane, dilating narratively insignificant moments to an extent that rivals Warhol's art films. All right, I'm being flip. The long takes in Reefer Madness are more of a piece with the hackery of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fave Coleman Francis (The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Skydivers), than they are with Warhol's work. They're likely attributable either to Gasnier's apathy or Esper's need to pad a picture that, even with his additions, is barely feature-length. Either way, the joining of bad form with bad content makes viewing the film exponentially more entertaining. Had it been competently constructed, Reefer Madness might strike modern audiences as sadly ironic rather than hilariously ironic. That would be a bummer, man.
The film's cast is a conglomerate of unknowns and B-movie character actors. The only actor I recognized is Edward LeSaint, who played the judge; with his bald pate and authoritative baritone, he had a long career of playing judges, including in the Three Stooges short Disorder In the Court, which is where I'd seen him previously. The cast delivers performances wooden enough to be appropriate to the stilted material, yet competent enough one doesn't feel the desire to go fetal or run screaming from the room in embarrassment for them. They're given no help from Paul Franklin's and Arthur Hoerl's creaky script, adapted from a story by Lawrence Meade. The dialogue is loaded with memorable howlers, though, replete with '30s slang. Also of note is that the movie's story is built on a series of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. It must have seemed incredibly disjointed to the pre-Citizen Kane crowds to whom it first played, but it works now almost as a parody of modernist storytelling conceits. I have no idea whether the flick's structure was a result of Franklin's and Hoerl's apathy and/or incompetence, or Esper's structural monkeying. Either way, it's yet another happy accident that's made the film enjoyable for audiences over the past four decades. At times, Reefer Madness plays like a wry and carefully studied satire of propaganda films. That that wasn't the filmmakers' intent -- either the church group's or Esper's -- only adds to one's appreciation and entertainment.
For decades, Reefer Madness has been living in the Public Domain tenement, stealing TVs and car stereos to support its ganja habit, and previous DVD releases (I count at least six) have reflected it. The film's typically been presented from muddy and damaged source materials, often with scenes missing; there's a long history of the removal of various Esper additions during the film's theatrical runs. Fox and Legend Films have teamed to remedy that with this restored DVD edition. The image has been meticulously cleaned and carefully transferred (more on that later), and the soundtrack is presented in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS Surround, as well as the original mono. The disc's producers have, indeed, pulled out all the stops for this tiny cult classic.
Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 provides an excellent commentary that plays much like an episode of the show, minus the 'bots. He makes much hay with the dated slang, uptight sensibilities, Jack's never-ending raid of Mae's fridge, and the casting of middle-aged actors to play high schoolers (although, I have to say, I once thumbed through a high school yearbook from the '50s, and all the students did look middle-aged; I don't think kids started looking like kids until the 1960s). A second, and far less entertaining, commentary is provided by Barry Sandrew and Rosemary Horvath from Legend Films. They try their best to be amusing while discussing Legend Films's proprietary colorization technology, to which Reefer Madness has been subjected (more on that later), but the track grows tedious long before the film's 67th minute has rolled around.
Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook is a featurette starring Evan Keliher (AKA Grandpa Ganja), an advocate of pot's medicinal uses and author of the book Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook: A User Guide for Ages 50 & Up. The piece starts out with Keliher smoking a bowl, and quickly becomes a study in how pot-induced dry-mouth and reading from cue cards don't mix. The one-note humor wears thin in pretty short order and, at 25 minutes, the featurette runs about 15 minutes too long. As if that weren't too much, we're also given four minutes of Grandpa's outtakes.
The final extra on the disc is a Reefer Madness trailer, newly produced by Legend Films.
Legend believes that color adds to the marketability of a title for today's generation of buyers, and opens up the world of classic films to whole new audiences.
So says Legend Films's web site. And here we enter into the subject of this disc's great flaw. Yep, the flick's been colorized. In their commentary, Sandrew and Horvath discuss the attempt to give the picture a bright, artificial, comic-booky look, and so we have puffs of marijuana smoke that are bright green or violet or red. Even if the palette wasn't intended to be realistic, the end result is still that cheesy watercolor effect we all know from Ted Turner's days of experimenting with colorization. And it's still, as far as I'm concerned, a bastardization of the movie's original look. I know it's a crappy movie, but it's a well-loved crappy movie and it doesn't deserve being mucked up with gimmicky color that enhances nothing.
All is not lost, though. The good news is that the unspoiled black-and-white version of Reefer Madness is offered on the disc, and it's the same restored print from which colorized version was produced, so it looks better than I've ever seen it. The image is mostly clean and sports good contrast. Minor source damage remains here and there, and there are some jumps in a couple scenes due to missing frames. The entire film is intact, though, and has been carefully handled by Legend. The bad news is that the black-and-white version is treated as a supplement on the disc. It's not indexed into chapters, and the only soundtrack option available is a 2-channel rendition of the original mono (which is fine by me, as the Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks available on the colorized version are understandably limited). Rubbing salt in the wound, Mike Nelson's commentary only accompanies the colorized version.
The bottom line is that this is still the best version of Reefer Madness on the DVD market, and I've never seen the film look better. The colorization sucks, but it's what Legend Films does (they're slated to release a colorized collection of Three Stooges shorts, including the aforementioned Disorder In the Court, as well as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead). The fact that they were kind enough to offer an unaltered version of the movie on this disc softens the blow considerably, as does their careful restoration job and digital transfer. All things considered, Legend has treated Reefer Madness with a surprising amount of respect, and I have no qualms recommending this disc to the picture's fans.
Millions of college students since the 1960s can't be wrong. Reefer Madness is a classic.
To those who don't plan to buy this disc, I say this: the next tragedy may be your daughter's...or your son's...or yours...or yours.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Mike Nelson
* Commentary by Legend Films
* Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook Featurette
* All New Reefer Madness Trailer
* Original Black-and-White Feature
* Legend Films