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Smoke screens

By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 18, 2008

Reefer badness
No such ambiguities wafted about the drug seven decades ago. When Prohibition ended in 1933, an entire federal bureaucracy was sitting around doing nothing, waiting for the axe to fall. So Harry J. Anslinger, assistant prohibition commissioner in the then–Bureau of Prohibition, pushed to make dope the new scourge of the nation. Aided by a propaganda campaign of films and newspaper articles (William Randolph Hearst also had it in for hemp, because it was an alternative source of paper and he had invested heavily in wood pulp), Anslinger effectively demonized the drug. As a result, the “Marihuana Tax Act” was passed by Congress without much resistance in 1937, outlawing marijuana (and hemp) to the present day.

Thus was the stoner-movie genre born, a step-child of Anslinger’s efforts. One of the first of its kind, Reefer Madness (1936; originally titled Tell Your Children), actually started life as an earnest if utterly fraudulent harangue against the dangers of pot. A church group had produced it, but an exploitation studio bought it, spiced it up with some lurid footage, and passed it off as an educational film in order to do an end-run around the puritanical standards of the Hollywood Production Code of 1934.

The opening admonitory title-card prologue promises a good time:

Marihuana is a violent narcotic — the Real Public Enemy Number One! . . . Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then come violent hallucinations . . . the loss of all power to resist physical emotions . . . leading finally to acts of shocking violence ending . . . in insanity . . .

Hey — I’ll have what she’s having. But other than the uncontrollable laughter, the rest of Reefer Madness fails to measure up to the hype. True, it offers crazy piano playing, hot jitterbugging, an off-screen drug-addled tryst, an attempted rape, an accidental shooting, and a trip to the loony bin, but when I saw it decades after it opened, it was about as exciting and funny as my first (or was it my thousandth?) hit of hashish while listening to “Stairway to Heaven.” Audiences of the 1930s agreed, and along with other such films as Assassin of Youth (1937), it failed to catch on.

Until, that is, 1971, when Keith Stroup of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws bought the print and turned it into a popular midnight movie. Laugh at the cornball melodrama all you want, latter-day stoners, but maybe it worked after all. Hardly any more marijuana movies were made for decades, and apparently nobody smoked the stuff except for jazz musicians, beatniks, and Norman Mailer.

Where there's smoke, there's fire: The '60s
What was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. Even before the ’60s instituted pot as a cultural phenomenon, a few movies showed the way. As early as 1955, High School Confidential depicted “weedheads” as representatives of teenaged rebellion — and perdition. In 1958, Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil presented a preview of the War on Drugs to come. Welles plays crapulous Hank Quinlan, head of a border-town police department, who works covertly with the local Mexican drug dealer to maintain the status quo. They ally to counter such threats as Charlton Heston’s crusading anti-drug DA. The dealer kidnaps the DA’s Anglo wife (Janet Leigh) to frame her for drug use and murder, getting her stoned and locking her up nude in a motel room with a bunch of leather-clad dope heads, led by, of all people, Mercedes McCambridge.

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