Harry Anslinger Goes to the Movies: To the Ends of the Earth

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the author of The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Ends of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Ends of the Earth Lobby Card
Ends of the Earth (1948) lobby card. Image courtesy of MoviePosterdb.

Above one of the many neo-classical governmental buildings that populate Washington, DC, an American flag waves proudly. “United States Department of Treasury,” the voiceover intones. “That’s right, the place they make money.” Dissolves bring us inside where assembly lines stack and sort sheets of cash, “that green stuff,” the narrator drones, “you scramble to get, and then give back at the end of the year, so cheerfully.” But Columbia Pictures’s 1948 thriller To the Ends of the Earth isn’t about money or taxes. Or, at least, it isn’t about their physical presence. Instead, it’s about unassuming quiet objects. It’s about secret circulations of global capital flows. And in particular, it’s about an “innocent, pretty little thing”: the poppy flower and its dark passenger, opium.

Following Agent Michael Barrows, the narrator and protagonist, through China, Egypt, and Lebanon before returning to the harbors of New York, the movie tracks across opium manufacturing and trade routes while regularly referencing the drug onscreen—shocking for a Hollywood film produced during the era of the Production Code. And while the movie has been mostly forgotten, never released on DVD let alone streaming services, it’s an important document about the ties that bind drug policy, governance, censorship, mass media, and the twilight of the Hollywood studio system.

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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]

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A causerie on spontaneity, consumption, and film

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Ferdinand Nyberg, who published his last article, on the drug culture surrounding Berlin’s Görlitzer Bahnhof, last month. Enjoy!

In his essay ‘The Dehumanization of Art’ (and elsewhere), José Ortega y Gasset opines that it is to the domains of art and science that one should turn if one wishes to decipher the direction of change in a society. Artists’ methods and practices, in this reading, presage that which will (or at least what might) happen in wider society. The many objections to which this avant-gardist view of culture might be subjected do not interest me here. Instead, I should like to colligate this notion with the idea that an artwork’s ‘identity’ can be found in its minor details, as put forth by art critic Giovanni Morelli. An artist’s style, claims Morelli, and – if you will – an artwork’s ‘truth,’ isn’t found in the ‘big picture’; rather, it is located in its subsidiary features. If an artwork depicts a human, focus not on the body as a whole but on the hands, ears, or other body parts. (Many historians will be familiar with Morelli via Carlo Ginzburg’s essay ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes.’) What happens when we juxtapose these two ideas? I claim that reading art might indeed provide indicators of social change but that these often lie not in the ‘broad strokes’ or deliberate techniques of the artists (or here, auteurs) – instead, changes are best found in their apparently incidental gestures.[1] Below, I identify one such gesture (or gesticulation).

Artificial acting techniques abound, of course. Some of these are immanently tied to generic requirements or traditions. Thus the exaggerated facial expressions, overdone makeup, and high-decibel speaking of a theatre actor is totally acceptable and left unquestioned by viewers. It’s simply how theatre is done; and if actors were to stray from this tradition, the back audience would likely demand a refund. Other artifices, however, aren’t meant to be noticed – these proliferate in film.

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Oscar Hopefuls Contending with Drug War History

(Editor’s Note: Today’s post is brought to you by our contributing editor Matthew June.)

For your consideration… Oscar contenders are hitting theaters, awards season is coming, and more films than you might realize have ties to the history of U.S. drug policy. Although the film barely shows any trafficking and rarely even mentions drugs, the context of Sicario will be obvious to most viewers. Hyper-realistic, violent, and morally ambiguous, the film plumbs the depths of our failed drug war and its devastating consequences for the U.S.-Mexico border region. Without much hope for a viable solution, the film also offers no explanation for why the U.S. finds itself in this position.

Sicario Poster (Lionsgate Motion Pictures) & Bridge of Spies Poster (DreamWorks Pictures)
Sicario Poster (Lionsgate Motion Pictures) & Bridge of Spies Poster (DreamWorks Pictures)

Next on the docket for Academy voters, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies arrives in theaters this weekend. At first glance, the latest starring vehicle for Tom Hanks might seem like the antithesis of Sicario. It is a period-piece drama with a moral protagonist helping Cold War America retrieve one of its heroes. Bridge of Spies is based on the life of former Nuremburg attorney, James B. Donovan (Hanks), who successfully negotiated the release of Captain Francis Gary Powers when the Soviet Union shot down his U-2 spy plane. After this mission – and the focus of Spielberg’s film – ended, however, Donovan took on another assignment that gave him an important supporting role in the development of federal drug policy. Exploring that overlooked history, in turn, offers another vantage for surveying the blighted backdrop of Sicario.

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