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Tell Your Children(1936)

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Tell Your Children (1936)

Since the 1970s, Reefer Madness (1936) has been a cornerstone of the midnight movie phenomenon. Removed from its original context, the anti-drug melodrama gained popularity when shown to audiences of a different generation, who tended to have different views on the sinister menace of marijuana. As a result, the film was met with laughter, mockery and disbelief. Reefer Madness was considered so inept, unhip and out-of-date, that audiences flocked to it, and the first "ironic" classic was born.

The joke, however, was not on the filmmakers of 1936, but the cooler-than-thou midnight movie audiences of the 1970s. For Reefer Madness was not a straight-faced examination of drug addiction. Nor was it produced by the U.S. government as an educational tool, as they commonly believed. In fact, its purpose was not even to frighten viewers away from experimenting with cannabis. No, the makers of Reefer Madness were more hip than they have been given credit for. They knew exactly what they were doing.

The film is what's known today as an exploitation film, and it fits within a well-defined genre of low-budget American independents that glamorized sex, crime, and drugs while only pretending to offer a serious social message.

At a local high school in Everytown U.S.A., a moral crusader named Dr. Alfred Carroll (Joseph Forte) lectures the School-Parents Association on the scourge of marijuana. To illustrate the dangers the weed poses to the youth of 1936, he recounts the story of a group of high school kids (none of whom look younger than thirty) led down various paths of moral degradation.

Mae Colman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young) run a small-time dope ring, preying on the kids who hang out at the local soda shoppe. Some kids, like high school sweethearts Mary Lane (Dorothy Short) and Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig), easily resist the drug's temptation. But other kids are fooled by Mae and Jack's easygoing ways and, in time, even the most cautious teens succumb to marijuana's mesmerizing power.

Mary's younger brother Jimmy (Warren McCollum) takes a few harmless puffs and runs over a pedestrian while driving Mary's car. Under the influence of the devil's weed, Bill forgets Mary and falls into the arms of the weed-fiend Blanche (Lillian Miles) at one of Jack's wild parties, while Jimmy is holed up with his girlfriend in the next room. Mary comes looking for Bill, and is enticed to experiment by the lecherous Ralph Wiley (Dave O'Brien). After their initial bout of uncontrollable laughter subsides, he begins ripping the clothes from her body. Younger brother Jimmy rises to Mary's defense, shots are fired and Mary lies dead on a sofa. Jack puts the gun in Bill's hand and convinces him that he committed the crime.

While Bill is on trial, Jack keeps Ralph and Blanche under lock and key in their apartment until the storm of investigations subsides. As the walls of sanity close in, Ralph commands Blanche to play the piano faster...faster... faster. When Jack finally returns, possibly to silence the paranoid Ralph, he is bludgeoned to death by the hopped-up addict.

Now Blanche and Ralph are on trial for murder. Under the third degree, Blanche spills her guts and the drug ring is broken. She also clears Bill of the initial crime of murder and then, in a final act of decency, commits suicide by jumping through an open window. Now that the cloud of "marihuana" smoke has dispersed, will the likes of Bill and Jimmy ever be able to reclaim their innocence?

Reefer Madness's plot was preposterous in any era, by anyone's standards. Its preachments were as heavy-handed and obvious in 1936 as they were in 1973 (or 2008). But people didn't go see the film for its plot, or its message. They went to see characters indulging in vices that were forbidden to be shown in movies produced by the major studios. Responding to criticisms of the film industry, the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association -- later the MPAA) in 1934 began enforcing a Production Code that specifically outlined things that were not to be shown, or even insinuated, in movies. Hollywood had become homogenized. Here's the catch: independent filmmakers were not bound to the rulings of the MPPDA. This opened the door for low-budget companies with no-name actors to compete with big-money Hollywood titles in a way that was previously impossible.

Not only did "exploiteers" ignore the list of taboo topics, they used it as a veritable blueprint for their muck-raking, sensational exposs of prostitution, venereal disease, unwanted pregnancy, nudism, sterilization, child marriage, birth control, adultery, insanity, and of course, drug abuse. Any topic was game, as long as it was presented in the guise of education. Virtually every exploitation film begins with a long title scroll describing the problem, usually citing a few statistics and quoting a governmental authority. And pretty much every exploitation film ends with a stern lecture from a policeman, principal or doctor, generally delivered point blank to the audience. As long as these obligations were fulfilled, the filmmakers were free to indulge in vice to their heart's content, much to the audience's pleasure. Thus we are treated to a parade of sexual abandon, drug-fueled murder and a prolonged scene of Blanche slipping her shapely legs into a pair of black stockings. Those were the rules of the exploitation game.

The game was run like a carnival. The films were advertised with the most garish campaigns imaginable, and the prints were driven from town to town by a "roadshowman," who would often dress up like a doctor and lecture the audience, selling educational booklets for extra cash. This traveling salesman of independent film would also be there to help promote the screening, and intervene in case a local censor board or social group objected to the film.

Roadshowmen would also practice the "bait and switch." It was common practice for exploitation distributors to periodically re-title their films, create new ad campaigns and re-release them to an unsuspecting public. This allowed them to squeeze every bit of mileage (and potential ticket sales) out of a limited number of films. Reefer Madness was actually a third-generation title. The film was originally produced and released as Tell Your Children, which was shortly discarded because it lacked sensationalism. It resurfaced in 1939 as The Burning Question. The film was also shown (by W.F. Roadshows) as Doped Youth, with the sub-title Victims of Marihuana. The title Reefer Madness is believed to have originated with a 1947 re-release.

Screenwriter Arthur Hoerl had two years earlier written the screenplay of another exploitation film, Enlighten Thy Daughter, sold as "A Smashing Indictment of Parental Prudery!"

Thelma White was under contract to RKO Studios and was "horrified" when she was loaned out to the independent production. "I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic," she said in a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview. "I hide my head when I think about it." White, who was paid an estimated $2,500 per week to appear in the film, died on January 11, 2005, at the age of 94.

The film was resurrected as a cultural oddity by Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for Reform of Marihuana Laws (NORML), who supposedly located a print in the archives of the Library of Congress in 1971. He purchased a print of the public domain film for $297, then screened it in New York as a fund-raising event in May, 1972. New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye saw the film and introduced it to the midnight movie circuit that same year.

According to film critic J. Hoberman, "Reefer Madness was extensively screened throughout California as a fund-raiser for an electoral campaign to decriminalize marijuana" in the Fall of 1972.

When it was first circulated as a midnight movie in 1973, Reefer Madness was double-billed with Martian Space Party, a half-hour sci-fi parody created by the Firesign Theatre.

Underground filmmaker Jack Smith wrote an article for The Village Voice describing the climate at a late 1972 midnight screening in New York, "the scum of Bagdad audience with the yelling of witticisms, sound effects, booing, cheering, etc., pathetically eager and straining to encourage the screen to give the hallucinations they know very well are locked up in the movie business."

There have been numerous remakes of Reefer Madness. An ironic musical version by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney gained popularity in Los Angeles after its April 28, 1999, debut. On October 7, 2001, the play had its off-off-Broadway premiere. The New York Times grimly reported, "According to recent reports, irony is finished in American pop culture... There is further evidence, however, to be found at the Variety Arts Theater, that at least one extreme form of the ironic arts -- its flashiest and silliest incarnation, known as camp -- is indeed ready for last rites." The play was in turn adapted for the screen for the Showtime network in 2005. Variety warmed to this version, saying, "this infectious, quite elaborate musical production will probably shine best on the small screen.

Producer: Samuel Diege, George A. Hirliman
Director: Louis Gasnier
Screenplay: Arthur Hoerl, Lawrence Meade, Paul Franklin
Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh
Film Editing: Carl Pierson
Art Direction: Robert Priestley
Music: Hugo Riesenfeld, Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Dorothy Short (Mary Lane), Kenneth Craig (Bill Harper), Lillian Miles (Blanche), Dave O'Brien (Ralph Wiley), Thelma White (Mae Colman), Carleton Young (Jack Perry).
BW-66m.

by Bret Wood

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Tell Your Children (1936)

Stars Dave O'Brien and Dorothy Short got married the same year the film was initially released.

Because production resources for a film of this type were extremely limited, filmmakers employed a variety of ways to add visual impact to their work. The most common ploy was the use (and overuse) of stock footage and newsreel footage. In Reefer Madness, one can find second-hand footage of: newspaper presses, police examining a marijuana field, methods of drug smuggling, the establishing shot of a government building, policemen using radios, and police cars racing to the scene of a crime.

Similarly, the music was rarely recorded specifically for an exploitation film. The scores were generally pieced together from pre-recorded tracks available from stock music libraries. Thus Abe Meyer is credited on the film as "Musical Director" and most likely did not compose a single note for the film.

The film was shot in approximately three weeks.

Producer George A. Hirliman ground out adventure programmers for RKO in the 1930s, under the aegis of George A. Hirliman Productions. When he produced Reefer Madness, he was moonlighting under the company name of G and H Productions (it was the only film ever released under the slightly pseudonymous banner).

Thelma White was under contract to RKO Studios and was "horrified" when she was loaned out to the independent production. "I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic," she said in a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview. "I hide my head when I think about it." White, who was paid an estimated $2,500 per week to appear in the film, died on January 11, 2005, at the age of 94.

by Bret Wood

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Tell Your Children (1936)

Anecdotal accounts say Reefer Madness was funded by a religious organization, though others have erroneously claimed it was sponsored by the U.S. Army. Most likely neither is true.

In order to appear legit, exploitation films peppered their films with statistics and quotations from "authorities." For this reason, the crusading Dr. Carroll has a sit-down with Mr. Wyatt, a J. Edgar Hoover-type figure at the "Federal Offices" of the "Bureau of Investigation." He in turn lectures Dr. Carroll on the need for mass education, providing valuable statistics off the cuff.

In one scene, a theatre marquee is visible, advertising, "Terry Rooney in Any Old Love." This indicates that the scene was shot on a set that had just been used for the 1937 independent film Something to Sing About, in which James Cagney plays the role of bandleader-turned-actor Terrence "Terry" Rooney.

Director Louis J. Gasnier was a frequent collaborator with Hirliman. Their partnership yielded such films as Bank Alarm (1937), The Gold Racket (1937), and Stolen Paradise (1941), made not for RKO, but various poverty row studios.

The Paris-born Gasnier is said to have discovered silent comedian Max Linder. Immediately after moving to the U.S., Gasnier began co-directing adventure films and serials with Donald MacKenzie, including such legendary titles as The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (1914). In the talkie era, he worked with several Hollywood superstars, including Cary Grant (The Last Outpost [1935]) and Clara Bow (Parisian Love [1925]). Exploitation films were often directed by Hollywood veterans, but usually after they were well past their artistic prime.

Screenwriter Arthur Hoerl had two years earlier written the screenplay of another exploitation film, Enlighten Thy Daughter (1934), sold as "A Smashing Indictment of Parental Prudery!"

The film was resurrected as a cultural oddity by Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for Reform of Marihuana Laws (NORML), who supposedly located a print in the archives of the Library of Congress in 1971. He purchased a print of the public domain film for $297, then screened it in New York as a fund-raising event in May, 1972. New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye saw the film and introduced it to the midnight movie circuit that same year.

According to film critic J. Hoberman, "Reefer Madness was extensively screened throughout California as a fund-raiser for an electoral campaign to decriminalize marijuana" in the Fall of 1972.

When it was first circulated as a midnight movie in 1973, Reefer Madness was double-billed with Martian Space Party (1972), a half-hour sci-fi parody created by the Firesign Theatre.

Underground filmmaker Jack Smith wrote an article for The Village Voice describing the climate at a late 1972 midnight screening in New York, "the scum of Bagdad audience with the yelling of witticisms, sound effects, booing, cheering, etc., pathetically eager and straining to encourage the screen to give the hallucinations they know very well are locked up in the movie business."

There have been numerous remakes of Reefer Madness. An ironic musical version by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney gained popularity in Los Angeles after its April 28, 1999, debut. On October 7, 2001, the play had its off-off-Broadway premiere. The New York Times grimly reported, "According to recent reports, irony is finished in American pop culture... There is further evidence, however, to be found at the Variety Arts Theater, that at least one extreme form of the ironic arts -- its flashiest and silliest incarnation, known as camp -- is indeed ready for last rites." The play was in turn adapted for the screen for the Showtime network in 2005. Variety warmed to this version, saying, "this infectious, quite elaborate musical production will probably shine best on the small screen.

Compiled by Bret Wood

back to top
Tell Your Children (1936)

"Crude technique, bad acting, and a ridiculous script are generally considered liabilities for a film, but here they're the very reason for its popularity. Some of the dialog is hilarious, like O'Brien (usually a star of B westerns, whose presence here is very curious) demanding that Miles play the piano 'Faster, faster!' as he becomes more and more agitated...Whether the film ever stopped anyone from smoking marijuana is doubtful, but it is certainly a greater success than its producers ever dreamed."
Motion Picture Guide

"Viewed through eyes blurred by no substance stronger than cough syrup, the film is still mildly diverting, with its censorious, bespectacled narrator and its scenes showing wholesome high-school students transformed into monsters by a single puff. It even has a weird, sort of Expressionist power in its mad, jerky party scenes. But its humor, especially for head-movie fans, has always been in its somber, tabloid-style hyperbole."
Ben Brantley, The New York Times (2001)

"It's basically a lousily made film, but the one-dimensional 'vice' and portentous didacticism more than make up for that. One of the most absurdly earnest exercises in paranoia you'll ever have the good fortune to see."
Time Out: London

"A sanctimonious morality play, shot in a no-frills style that might be termed 'Andy Hardy povera,' Reefer Madness balances scenes of hop-crazed jitterbugging and gratuitous cheesecake with the didactic asides of assorted stern authority figures...As the most dissolute hophead in the film, an actor named David O'Brien gives one of the broadest portrayals of mental illness ever committed to celluloid. A twitchy, eye-rolling nut-job who sits around cackling to himself and chain-smoking joints, O'Brien climactically bludgeons his dealer to death without missing a toke."
J. Hoberman, Midnight Movies

"As pure camp, Reefer Madness is only half-successful. Yes, there are scenes that are hilariously over-the-top -- including an oldster run down by a baked teenager -- but little else to sustain us for 67 minutes. Instead, the film is more interesting as a video time capsule reflecting what some saw as a threat to America's moral fiber."
Christopher Varney, Film Threat

"Director Louis Gasnier, who built his minor career around these sorts of instructional flicks, uses a lot of silent film school techniques extreme close-up (ill-advised when working with a group of mediocrities, as is the case here) to push the film's key emotional buttons (both of them), as well as rapid cross-cut editing to build tension and establish mood through contrast (again, recommended only if you have tension to build and moods to contrast, unlike here). So, while the movie is pretty poorly written, and terribly overacted, at least you can give Gasnier his props for understanding some of the basic grammar of film. That he uses his limited skills to produce such ridiculous material is to his embarrassment something that can only be appreciated through our amusement."
Dan Jardine, The Apollo Film Guide

by Bret Wood

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Tell Your Children (1936)

From the Foreword: "The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly-increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug -- a violent narcotic -- an unspeakable scourge -- The Real Public Enemy Number One! Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then come dangerous hallucinations -- space expands -- time slows down, almost stands still... fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances -- followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions... leading finally to acts of shocking violence... ending often in incurable insanity. In picturing its soul-destroying effects no attempt was made to equivocate. The scenes and incidents, while fictionalized for the purposes of this story, are based upon actual research into the results of Marihuana addiction. If their stark reality will make you think, will make you aware that something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace, then the picture will not have failed in its purpose... Because the dread Marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter... or yours or YOURS!

Dr. Carroll, quoting a letter from "a member of the Narcotics Bureau": The sale of marihuana is even more difficult to detect and halt than the traffic in drugs such as opium, morphine, and heroin...more vicious, more deadly even than these soul-destroying drugs is the menace of marihuana!"

(Listening to piano player in soda shop)
Jimmy: Say, he ain't no paperman.
Girl: Why, don't you know him? That's "Hot Fingers" Caroni.
Jimmy: Boy, he sure swings out hot with a mess of jive.

Bill: Gosh, hot chocolate!

Pete (a peddler): I don't need dough that bad... taking two-bit pieces from kids.
Boss: There are millions of two-bit pieces just begging to be taken. Don't be a dope.
Pete: I'm just dope enough to draw the line, selling hop to kids.
Boss: Alright Pete. You know what my policy's always been. If the boys are not satisfied, I'm always glad to have them retired. Retired... permanently.

Jimmy (hopped-up, behind the wheel): Let's go, Jack, I'm red hot!
Jack: Better be careful how you drive or the first thing you know you'll be ice cold.

Wyatt: A sixteen-year-old lad, apprehended in the act of staging a hold-up. Sixteen years old, and a marihuana addict. Here is a most tragic case.
Dr. Carroll: Yes, I remember. Just a young boy. Under the influence of the drug, he killed his entire family with an axe.

Dr. Carroll (to Bill): I'm going to ask you a straightforward question, and I'd like to have a straightforward answer... Isn't it true that you have, perhaps unwillingly, acquired a certain harmful habit, through association with certain undesirable people?

Prosecutor: Dr. Carroll, as principal of the Lakeside High School, did you during the last three months, notice any changes in the demeanor and attitude of your student William Harper?
Dr. Carroll: Yes, in a number of things. For example, a time's disassociation of ideas. In another instance, I happened to attend the recent interscholastic tennis matches. And while Bill Harper had been considered an exceedingly good player, I saw him miss the ball by as much as three or four feet. This, as I understand, could be attributed to the use of marihuana. It causes errors in time and space.

Ralph: Bring me some reefers!

Mae: Quit that crazy laughing!

Blanche: You want me to play something for you?
Ralph: Yeah. Yeah, that's it. Play something.
Blanche: Give me a smoke, willya?
(Blanche plays, they smoke, they kiss)
Ralph: Faster. Faster! Play faster. Faster. Play faster. Faster.

Judge: Although this court is convinced that to declare you guilty would have been a gross miscarriage of justice, we cannot condone your acts. And we can express only the hope that your experiences may not alone keep you but thousands of others from the vicious pitfalls of marihuana.

Dr. Carroll: Only through knowledge that we may safely protect. Failing this, the next tragedy may be that of your daughter, or your son, or yours, or yours (to audience) or yours.

Compiled by Bret Wood

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