Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.
In a recent appearance on the Fiber Nation podcast, I was asked about the significance of Reefer Madness: Tell Your Children, the cult-classic film from the 1930s. As readers of Points are probably aware, the film follows the exploits of young Mary (played by Dorothy Short) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) as they get introduced and eventually fall victim to the ravages of “Marihuana,” the “Assassin of Youth.” Rediscovered in the 1970s, the film stands as a monument to the ignorance and hysteria surrounding the so-called Reefer Madness era of the 1930s, and it remains a frequent topic of popular discussions about marijuana. In addition to the discussion on Fiber Nation, an episode of Bong Appetite, a show I recently reviewed for Points, featured the film in its “Pothead Sleepover Party” episode (S1E5).
But the single-minded focus of drug reformers or historians on this one movie obscures the richer history of marijuana-themed films in the pre-World War Two period. Analyzing newspaper coverage of two other films, the appropriately titled Marihuana (1936) and Assassin of Youth (1938), adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of contemporary debates about censorship and the value of sensational films. Press reporting about these two lesser-known films highlights the, perhaps, surprising willingness of local newspapers and authorities outside of major cities to harness the sensationalism of these movies to communicate and educate the “real” dangers that this “new drug” posed to naïve youth.
Marihuana, written by Hildegarde Stadie and directed by Dwain Esper, was released in 1936. The story follows Burma “Blondie” Roberts (played by Harley Wood), who becomes ensnared by the dope trade, gives up her child to adoption, and turns to a life of crime. The film’s first showing (that I have been able to document) appears to have been in March 1936 at the Broadway Theater in Oakland. The Oakland Tribune touted the film as an “authentic study of the Marihuana menace,” “made in conjunction with Federal and State narcotic agents.” Similar reviews followed its run into El Paso, Texas, in June, and Galveston in July.
The film did not elude criticism and censorship. Later in July in advance of a three-day run at the Rialto Theater, The Humboldt Standard (California) called the film “daring” but also warned that it was not recommended for children. Perhaps to assuage local critics, the theater screened Marihuana along with a filmed lecture entitled “Crime and Sex Fools” and the short film, “March of Crime in 1936.”