Reefer Madness (1936):
(Tell Your Children; The Burning Question; Doped Youth)

Tell Your Children is the original title, and the indeed film owes its dubious fame to the derisive cult lionization of ensuing generations, dated somewhere between Easy Rider and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. A scared-straight tract on the "frightful toll of a new drug menace," "Marihuana" here and virtually the root of all evil, documentary inserts of raiding G-men before hectoring high-school principal Joseph Forte ushers in the narrative. The center of the drama is the weed dive ran by pushers Thelma White and Carleton Young, who reel in the youngsters with sleek reefers furnished by some middle-aged guy with adding machines in a bare room; amid the visitors is Warren McCollum, whose sister (Dorothy Short) is dating Kenneth Craig, all ramrod-straight, twentysomething "teens" about to have their innocence pulverized after one single puff. Toking leads to ax-murdering, jitterbugging, quasi-gang bangs and hit-and-runs, and White's place remains a pretty happenin' joint, all fun and games till somebody gets shot and Craig is dragged to the courtroom, facing the noose. Regarded as premier example of the misinformed educational-film genre and revived solely for camp chortling, the movie offers an early sketch of Blue Velvet, domestic decency just as exaggerated as outlaw seediness, wan virtue pitted against hophead vitality and its skid-row ellipses and mismatches weaving no less a trancelike effect. In that light, the movie's Frank Booth is Dave O'Brien's maniacal, finally murderous crackpot, cackling, sobbing, trembling from within the ubiquitous puff of smoke -- his is a lyrically absurd crescendo, or absurdly lyrical, if you prefer. By comparison, Lillian Miles' lachrymose confession is an anticlimax, though capped with a swan dive out a window by director Louis Gasnier, a bald, proto-Micheaux mise-en-scène anticipating Wood, Warhol, Rivette. The accusatory finger is ultimately aimed at the lens, but his silent-serial background shows in the close-ups, reserved, as in pre-talkie syntax, for the remarkable: the grinning wacko by the piano, Miles waking from a session of pot 'n' sex, O'Brien dissolving. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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