REVIEW: Reefer Madness, then and now (1936/2005 Showtime musical)

Posted by Al Barger on August 11, 2005

The 1936 anti-drug propaganda film Tell Your Children has become perhaps the most infamous, disreputable film in American cinematic history. That's a pretty significant achievement there. It's also nice that our most infamous film is this silly thing, rather than a real monument to evil like Triumph of the Will.

It's been re-marketed since 1972 as Reefer Madness, known by modern tens of millions- far more success and notoriety than it ever had in original release. Of course, now it is widely taken in exactly the opposite way from the anti-drug message as originally funded by silly religious and government backers. That is, it is now viewed as a prime example of anti-drug demagoguery. People now look at it as a study in how to push people's buttons.

Brushing past that, though, most modern viewers famously like to watch this while they are actually smoking "the weed from hell." A cheap $5 DVD will provide fine entertainment for stoner college boys for generations to come. Pass it down to your kids. Tell your children.

The most favorite scene for this is when the piano player at the malt shop sneaks off into the closet for a few hits. The crazed faces the guy makes are utterly priceless. Camp was absolutely not the intent of the creators, but this actor seems to be winking at us with the exaggerated expressions.

Bureau Official: Here is an example: A fifteen-year-old lad apprehended in the act of staging a holdup - fifteen years old and a marijuana addict. Here is a most tragic case.

Dr. Carroll: Yes. I remember. Just a young boy... under the influence of drugs... who killed his entire family with an axe.


Anyway, a couple of all American small town kids have a couple of hits of the reefer, and pretty soon they're drug addicted whores, and people are getting killed. One chick goes crazy with guilt in the end, and jumps out a courthouse window to her death. The climax involves one of the characters being drug into court, out of his mind, driven insane by the weed. He's sent off to the mental hospital for the rest of his natural life. Tell. Your. Children.

To say that this movie was ill conceived does not even get to the main point, which is the underlying artistic dishonesty. A movie can let you see things from someone else's point of view, but in this case it doesn't because you know damned good and well that the people who made this had to know better. It's hard to figure from watching this movie what the film makers really thought about any of this stuff.

By contrast, for example, Birth of a Nation makes disturbing viewing for many modern viewers. People very understandably think it is horribly "racist" and shows a bad and worse yet patronizing view of black folk. Yet this is still a major piece of art. You can look at this film now 90 years later, and see some idea of how DW Griffith's mindset about these things looked. It's a remarkable window on his and other people's view of the world.

Whereas Reefer Madness was just palpably dishonest, a badly made political tract cast in the guise of art. It was edutainment before there was a word for it.

The thing is so remarkably impacted with badness of art and politics that it sometimes seems like more than it is. As a study in media hysteria, this movie is pretty fascinating- which almost starts to make it seem like a good movie, which it most certainly is not.

That becomes more clear in watching the 2005 Showtime original movie production of an off Broadway stage musical satire of Reefer Madness. The musical play and the filming of it are so exponentially much better than the original in every way as to defy description. And they managed to do it while retaining pretty much the whole plot of the original- and then some. It becomes a most excellent and uproarious satirical dissection of the mechanics of demagoguery.

The obvious model for their approach is the Rocky Horror Picture Show. As that movie parodied old monster movies, this parodies the paranoid drug propaganda which is still entirely relevant today. Using that as a basis of comparison, this Showtime movie comes up somewhat short in one important area: songs.

The actual songs qua songs from Reefer Madness are pretty good, but they're not great strictly on musical standards. The title song "Reefer Madness" in particular is fairly catchy, but none of this is going to make you forget "Sweet Transvestite" or "Eddie." The Reefer Madness songs have a lot more going on lyrically even, but I doubt most people would be as inclined to listen repeatedly to a soundtrack CD of this as generations who have grooved on the Rocky Horror soundtrack.

Pretty much every last thing else in the Showtime movie is totally spot on, though. Those songs were written as part of a musical stage production, and they very nicely support a whole floor show, carrying forth the arguments of the film and setting up some surprisingly good hoofing.

To that end, my personal favorite scene involves a fantasy Vegas show. The kids have broken into a church to steal money from the poor box to buy weed, when they get this crazy vision. Jesus literally climbs down off the cross to give the kids a song and dance routine about not doing drugs, "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy." "That's my face on the Shroud of Turin/ Do I need to check your urine?" Joan of Arc and the dancing girl angels are just killer. This is even far funnier in the execution than it sounds.

Following the structure of the original, this is presented as a film within a film. There's a federal agent showing a film at a school. The way it's laid out, it wouldn't be surprising to find that this character had been the model for the Rocky Horror narrator and his cautionary tale.

This new Reefer Madness does far more with the narrator character, though than either of these other films. They carefully put some specific arguments quickly and concisely in his mouth, specific quotes of dumb hysterical anti-drug propaganda being pushed by William Randolph Hearst, for example.

Far more interesting artistically, this Showtime narrator (Alan Cumming) shows up in half a dozen different roles in the drama. This is not just the actor, but the character. That is, he plays the part of the Satanic goat-man satyr, and then starts speaking the next part of the narration.

The more I think of it, the more this reminds me of Walter Huston's 1941 turn as the devil in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Throughout the film, Ol' Scratch kept turning up everywhere in multiple roles to nudge evil forward, grandly beating the big bass drum in the marching band come to greet Dan'l, or playing evil fiddle at the harvest dance. Likewise, this narrator shows up as the tool of demagoguery all through the film, climaxing in a turn as FDR. The very last closing shot of Satan pointing into the camera and laughing appears to be a nod to the 1941 film.

John Kassir- who made his name beating Sinbad on Star Search- plays Ralph Wiley, the guy who ends up being sent to the rubber room in the original. Here, he has a particularly uproarious scene in which he gets the munchies and kills and eats the hooker Sally. Yee, haw!

Scream queen Neve Campbell is probably the biggest name, who also deserves mention for some good hoofing. Indeed, there's surprisingly good dance choreography throughout. On this count, the Reefer Madness musical has it all over Rocky Horror.

In general, it looks like Showtime spent the money to really make the film all it could be. It looks like it was a much higher level production than Rocky Horror- much less the down and dirty 1936 cheapie. The editing and effects are thick and fast and effective, including an animated trip on a marijuana brownie.

The very best acting turn here among many good ones comes from Saturday Night Live alumni Ana Gasteyer as Mae Coleman, who is repeatedly beaten here for her little expressions of conscience. No living actress can sell this kind of sketch-comedy type material better than Ms Gasteyer, probably the best actress in the distinguished history of SNL. This was the guilt ridden dope house den mother who leaps out the window in the original.

In this version, though, they twist up a big new fattie of an ending, and light it right up. Mae kills her oppressor, and rips his heart out. Then, drenched in blood, she races out in the street to stop the presidential motorcade and drag FDR to the death chamber to save Jimmy from the electric chair with a last minute pardon.

The plot and the songs and the dancing pick this thing up and sails it right along. The basic structure is so strong that they're able to discreetly pick up a hundred damned different angles of social criticism without getting anything like bogged down or preachy. They definitely get at McCarthyism quite effectively in the surrounding school lecture subplot, for one thing.

They also get at the fakeness of movie romance by just slightly extrapolating on the Romeo and Juliet stuff that's in the original. Then that narrator shows up in scene suggesting that maybe all this tragedy could have been avoided if they had been teaching the Bible in school instead of wasting time on Shakespeare. Sweet.

They also got at some racial stuff of several different kinds quite effectively- and best of all- quickly. They invoked evil jazzbos Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington by name as evil drug pushers merely pretending to be real musicians, so as to seduce people with their drug influenced music into drug and sex frenzies. Thus, the white girl runs up to the big black jazzbo playing in the street and starts ripping off her clothes. They get the explanation, the name checks and the illustration all in under a minute. I bet the screenplay would read really well on the page, even without the song and dance and sets.

The precision of the execution here impresses me right to the end. The last lines cast as a rousing song lyric sum it all up nicely, "When danger is near, you can play to their fear, and the ends will justify the means." [Please forgive if I have paraphrased it a bit in trying to quote from memory.]

Now, those lines could have come off preachy, if the movie wasn't so frickin' funny. I don't think I went a full minute anywhere in nearly two hours without busting a gut. And I wasn't even smoking. This is the funniest movie I've seen since Team America.



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