Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reefer Madness

TCM is running a day of movies on Friday about juvenile delinquency. I've recommended quite a few of them before, but not Reefer Madness (which was also known as Tell Your Children; I don't recall which title is on the print that's aired on TCM). It's shown up as part of TCM Underground before, and it's quite an appropriate film for Underground because of its cult status. This time, it's getting an airing at the slightly less ungodly hour of 6:00 AM tomorrow.

The movie opens with a bunch of school administrators hosting a meeting for the organization of concerned parents, who are concerned about, and getting informed of, the newest scourge to hit good middle-class communities of the 1930s: marijuana. To make the point, the school district has brought in somebody from the federal government, who represents the Department of Narcotics, which I'd presume is a forerunner of today's DEA. The narcotics agent proceeds to tell the parents how the problem is getting worse, and how it could affect their town, because in fact it's affected towns just like theirs. And to terrify the parents more, let's fade to an example story of just what's been happening in those other towns....

In tone, this opening makes Reefer Madness reminiscent of the MGM Crime Does Not Pay shorts, except that the shorts were slighlty more based in reality, and that's not saying very much. But let's hit the viewer over the head with over-the-top warnings about the dangers of this evil drug! The scene is what I guess you could say is the 1930s equivalent of a crack house, except of course that they didn't have crack in those days; instead, the drug openly consumed in the house is marijuana. Generally, it's only adults, but one of the people -- I think a recent high school graduate, although it might be a senior -- recruits some young unsuspecting underclassmen to ome to the house and party. (I'm reminded of the scene from Dahmer in which high school-aged Jeffrey Dahmer asks the high school wrestler to his house for some pot.)

Anyhow, the teens smoke week -- and it turns them nuts. They start playing the piano really fast and dancing like Ruby Keeler; they blithely get into hit-and-run accidents; they become licentious; and eventually they get involved in murder and framing one of their own for that murder! It's hilarious to think that a generation or two on and the predominant view of marijuana is that it would make its users lazy and give them the munchies. But, dammit, we've got to terrify those parents!

I'm not quite certain how much the people making this movie were being serious, and how much they were trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the sort of people in government and enforcing the Production Code. Nowadays, the stuff presented in Reefer Madness seems so obviously untrue. But back in the 1930s, you'd have to think a lot of the parents in smaller towns would actually believe this stuff. After all, we still have moral panics to this very day, with caffeinated energy drinks seeming to be the latest moral panic. Well, that and the "epidemic" of obesity, which is being used by many in government to put all sorts of their pet regulations on grocery store food and restaurants. And there are a lot of people who believe the crap being spewed by the moral scolds of today.

Reefer Madness is hilariously bad, but it's a movie that deserves to be seen not only for its historical value, but because it's in the "so bad it's good" camp. It's fallen into the public domain, so there are a lot of DVDs and various prints out there to be had. Just make certain you get the 1930s movie, and not Reefer Madness: The Musical from 2006.

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