Sunday, July 27, 2008


Turner Classic ran a couple of anti-drug propaganda B-movies from the 30's on their TCM Underground series recently (MARIHUANA and THE COCAINE FIENDS) and I was moved to go back and re-watch this film, the granddaddy of all drug movies. Taken at face value, as a very low budget, non-studio exploitation film, it's nothing special--it's competently made and the acting is OK. It had the luck to be rediscovered in the 70's and presented as a camp entertainment, mostly due to scenes of the exaggerated effects of pot smoking: immediate jitters, maniacal giggling, darting eye movements, and occasionally the need to shoot someone. I first saw this movie when I was in college in the 70's and we were practically falling out of our chairs laughing at it. Thirty-some years later, I still had an occasional laugh, but watching it as an indie B-film, I was surprised how compelling it could be.

The main narrative unfolds as a story told by a high school principal at a PTA meeting, the purpose of which is to warn adults about the dangers of marijuana (the movie's original title was TELL YOUR CHILDREN). Mae, Jack, and Blanche run a meeting place for their druggie friends out of her apartment. Jack and his pal Ralph go trawling at the soda fountain after school to get fresh young customers hooked on reefer, though Mae thinks they should stick with adults. Young Jimmy takes the bait right away and ends up involved in a hit-and-run accident while high. Soon, Jimmy's wholesome friend Bill is hooked, and they start frequenting Mae's place where the dope smoking is accompanied by wild petting parties. While high, Jack has an unpleasant sexual encounter with Blanche, and Bill forces himself on his girlfriend Mary, who is shot to death by Ralph, who frames Bill for the death. There are happy endings for no one (Jack gets beaten to death, Ralph goes insane, Blanche throws herself out of a window) except Bill who learns a valuable lesson about the dangers of marijuana.

The best scenes in the movie are those with a hopped-up piano player who sneaks out for a toke and immediately starts grinning and shaking, and with Ralph who laughs for no reason and gets a great over-the-top insanity scene near the end. Dave O'Brien, who plays Ralph, had a thriving career as a supporting player in many films, and if you ever watch the Pete Smith comic shorts on TCM, you'll recognize him as the bumbling, harried subject of many of them. Now that I'm a little more versed in 30's B-films, I can appreciate this film for more than its current camp value. It's no gem, but for a Poverty Row melodrama, it's more than satisfactory, and it's more enjoyable than the other two anti-drug films I saw on TCM which I'll be reviewing soon. The 20th Century Fox disc contains a restored black and white print and a colorized version. Normally I don't improve of colorization in any way, shape, or form (except for the tinting of silent films which were "colorized" during their first release), but this one is surprisingly well done, and the reefer smoke is in bright psychedelic purples, pinks, and greens, depending on who's puffing. There is also an amusing commentary track by Mike Nelson of MST3K. [DVD]

No comments: