Sensationalism in Defense of Anti-Narcotics is no Vice: Revisiting the Cinematic History of Reefer Madness

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.

Advertisement for the film Marihuana from the June 9, 1936, issue of the Modesto Bee (California)

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

In Minneapolis, after running successfully for a few days at the Time Theater, a women’s group petitioned Mayor Tom Lattimer to stop showings of the film. Lattimer refused, but a subsequent appeal to Police Matron Blanche Jones and a lawsuit in municipal court led to the arrest of the theater operator Bennie Berger for showing an “indecent film.”[3]

Early the next year and for most of the rest of the film’s run through fall 1938, there is significant evidence from local newspapers in smaller cities suggesting that—instead of rejecting the movie as “obscene” or otherwise morally questionable—theater operators, officials, and even censorship authorities actually embraced the sensationalism of the film as a tool for warning and educating potentially wayward youth.

A January 1937 review in The Ada Evening News (Oklahoma), for example, directly addressed the questionable content of the film. The Ada review started by hinting that the film “is said to bear the stamp of approval of the United States Bureau of Narcotics,” before applauding the “anonymous” cast members for their “competence” in portraying their roles under “intelligent direction.”

The News further praised the movie’s “brutally frank” portrayal of the marijuana situation that was “carried out with irreproachable authenticity.”[4] After the short run of the film at the Ada Theater, the paper defended the “sensational scenes which show an abandonment of morals and good taste” as to be expected from a film of this nature that “teaches little which isn’t already commonly known.”[5]

The Port Arthur News’s (Texas) more matter-of-fact review in February suggested a keen awareness of the effectiveness of the film’s more controversial scenes, asserting that the central plot of the film revolved around the “mental, moral, and physical degradation of a beautiful girl” (emphasis mine) due to marijuana use.[6] When it reached Charleston, North Carolina, in October, the Daily Mail billed the film as a call to action to “stamp out the evil” and noted how audiences “marvelled [sic] at the bold frankness of the story.”[7]

Marihuana, however, had a less enthusiastic reception in larger cities, where critics panned its lack of artistic value rather than its threat to public morals.  A January 1938 review in the Chicago Daily Tribune barely acknowledged the “crusading intent” of the film and instead dismissed the film as an artistic failure for “[wallowing] in cheap melodrama, poor acting, [and] stupid dialogue.”[8] Reviewers at the Los Angeles Times in June, similarly wondered if the film would get its message across since it “panders too much on the morbidly curious.”[9]

But smaller cities continued to buy in to the value of the melodrama. In July, prior to a four-day run at the Rialto Theater in Lima, Ohio, the Lima Times called attention to the relevance and immediacy of the issue, arguing: “[every] young person who jauntily [jokes about being willing to ‘try anything once’] in the supposed spirit of levity” should view the film. The Times highlighted the movie’s “intensive background of fact founded on laborious research” in cooperation with legal authorities and praised the film’s “authentic picture” of the use of marijuana by young people. The sentiment was echoed in the Cleveland Call and Post in advance of a run at the Cedar Theater.[10]

Advertisement for the film Assassin of Youth from the March 13, 1938, edition of the Hammond Times (Indiana).

This same intriguing disconnect between large and small cities continued with the release of Assassin of Youth in 1938. Driven more forcibly by producer Leo J. McCarthy, the film was able to garner explicit endorsements from a number of important local and national groups. Under the title in the opening frames of the credits, for example, the film advertised that it had been “Passed by the National Review Board.”

Assassin of Youth follows young high school girl Joan Barry (Luana Walters) as she helps intrepid reporter Art Brighton (Arthur Gardner) uncover a dope ring that has ensnared her younger sister and threatens to tarnish the Barry family name.

Initially, though, Assassin of Youth ran into potentially serious roadblocks due its controversial content. Following the film’s release in February, State Censorship Boards in both New York and Pennsylvania banned the movie for indecent content.[11] The New York State Board of Motion Pictures, which twice denied licenses for showings, deemed the film “indecent, immoral, tending to incite to crime and to corrupt morals,” and specifically singled out scenes of “sex exhilaration” in the film caused by the use of marijuana among teenagers.  In June, despite McCarthy’s active lobbying, an appeal to the New York State Board of Regents failed to overturn these prior rejections. The Regents did, however, allow for an educational permit but continued to prohibit its showing in “any place of amusement.”[12]

Elsewhere, local review boards, particularly in smaller cities, reached the opposite conclusion. In March, as the film was being banned in New York and Pennsylvania, ministers, parent-teacher groups, and law enforcement in Hammond, Indiana, previewed the film in advance of a three-day run at the Calumet Theater and “[urged] parents to send prep age students to view it.”[13]

Before April showings at the Aladdin Theater in Wichita, Kansas, the film received the endorsement of local Police Captain Leroy Bowery, a “national figure” on marijuana, who screened the film at the urging of producer Leo McCarthy. Bowery lauded the film as “a splendid picture from the crime-prevention standpoint, [that] escapes being dull by having a fast-moving, interesting story with considerable humor.” He argued that “every high school boy and girl of the United States should see this picture.”

Bowery, along with Iowa official Captain H. L. Pennington, provided a similar endorsement for a run at the Hollywood Theater near Estherville Iowa.[14] Over the next several months, Assassins of Youth was touted along the same lines for theatrical runs in towns like Delta, Utah; Clearfield, Pennsylvania; and Mansfield, Ohio.[15]

This short analysis has plenty of limitations and requires further exploration about specific motives and strategies. I’m specifically interested, for example, in researching Leo McCarthy’s role in promoting his film’s educational value. My initial findings, however, reveal some important insights that will guide my ongoing research.

The inconsistencies in the enforcement of content standards via censorship is well known. Censorship is routinely influenced less by objective standards of decency and more by local tastes and mores. The embrace of sensationalism, though, to SELL moral clarity in smaller, presumably less liberal and cosmopolitan, cities and towns was striking. In larger cities, on the other hand, where one might expect a more permissive attitude, these films were critically panned or  banned outright.


References

1. “Marihuana Use Is Described on Film,” Oakland Tribune, March 25, 1936; “‘Marihuana’ Tells of Drug Menace,” Oakland Tribune, March 28, 1936.

2. “‘Marihuana’ Film Slated for Run Here,” Humboldt Standard, July 20, 1936.

3. “Arrest Berger on ‘Marihuana’ Sex-Dope Pic,” 1936, Clippings File, Marihuana (Cinema 1936), Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

4. “”Marihuana’ Is Striking Expose of Dope Racket,” Ada Evening News, January 21, 1937.

5. “Actual Case Is Story of ‘Marihuana,’” Ada Evening News, January 24, 1937.

6. “[Untitled],” Port Arthur News, February 27, 1937.

7. “Lyric to Show Picture Dealing with Drugs,” Charleston Daily Mail, October 10, 1937; “Picture Shows Evil of Marihuana Drug,” Charleston Gazette, October 10, 1937.

8. “Trash, That’s Critic’s View of “Marihuana’,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 18, 1938.

9. “‘Marihuana’ on Screen,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1938.

10. “Film to Show Evils of Dope,” Lima News, July 22, 1938; “Evils of Marihuana Bared in Film Due at the Rialto,” Lima News, July 23, 1938; “Dope Racket Exposed in Rialto Film,” Lima News, July 24, 1938; “Rialto,” Lima News, July 27, 1938. “Film at Globe Shows Effect of Marihuana Drug,” Cleveland Call and Post, September 15, 1938; “‘Marihuana,’ Story of Broken Lives- at Cedar Oct. 5-6,” Cleveland Call and Post, September 29, 1938.

11. “Pastors Disapprove Film on Marihuana,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 14, 1938; “Marihuana Film Rejected,” Indiana Evening Gazette, March 15, 1938; “Marijuana Film Barred,” New York Times, March 14, 1938; “Philly Bans Reefer Film,” Baltimore Afro-American, March 26, 1938.

12. “Marijuana Film Barred”; “N.t.,” Variety, June 29, 1938, Clippings File, Assassin of Youth Clipping, Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; “Regents Ban Films on Narcotics,” New York Times, June 26, 1938. The lead actress Luana Walters even saw her reputation in Hollywood tarnished by her involvement in the film, see: Paul Harrison, “Hollywood,” Ironwood Daily Globe, December 8, 1938; Paul Harrison, “Hollywood,” Frederick Post, December 9, 1938; Paul Harrison, “Hollywood,” Helena Daily Independent, December 23, 1938.

13. “Movie Depicts Evils of Marijuana Smoking Habit,” Hammond Times, March 10, 1938.

14. “A National Authority Endorses ‘Assassin of Youth,’” Parowan Times, April 7, 1939; “Shows Menace of Marihuana,” Tyrone Daily Herald, May 21, 1939.

15. “Youth Assassin Picture to Be Shown at Avalon,” Millard County Progress, April 21, 1939; “Marihuana Smoking Thrilling Picture Theme,” Clearfield Progress, September 14, 1939; “Assassin of Youth,” Mansfield News Journal, April 16, 1940.

2 thoughts on “Sensationalism in Defense of Anti-Narcotics is no Vice: Revisiting the Cinematic History of Reefer Madness

  1. Bob the presence in Southern Texas is an interesting strategy within the government’s propaganda machine against marijuana. Do you think it was tailored to fight contraband? stigmatize the supplier?

  2. In smaller markets, theatres tend to be significant advertisers so booster reviews don’t seem too surprising. For a wonderful satire of drug education, check out “Catnip: Egress to Oblivion?”

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