Retro Review: Succumbing to REEFER MADNESS; Be Sure to Inhale the 1936 Cult Propaganda Classic at The Plaza

Posted on: Feb 11th, 2013 By:

REEFER MADNESS (1936); Dir: Louis Gasnier; Starring Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig; Starts Friday, February 15.; The Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

REEFER MADNESS is invading your town. Your children could be next….or yours…. or YOURS.

REEFER MADNESS is one of those films that cast a huge shadow for reasons that have nothing to do with quality: the plot of the movie is pretty standard for a 1930s hand-wringer, the cast is clumsy, and the production values are Ed Wood-cheap. Still, the film’s campy charm and incredibly sincere doofiness has helped elevate it to true cult status. REEFER MADNESS was cult before cult was cool.

The plot is suitably scandalous. Bill (Kenneth Craig) and Mary (Dorothy Short) are teenagers in love. They play tennis together, take walks together, and even discuss Shakespeare while sipping hot chocolate on Mary’s idyllic patio. But when a sinister drug dealer lures Bill into the corrupt wonderland of an apartment run by Mae (Thelma White), just one puff of “marihuana” is enough to send Bill down into a spiral of sex and murder that dooms the sweet, chaste Mary as well. The film’s cautionary tale is spun by a stern high school principal demanding parents warn their children about the dangers of smoking reefer—a drug more dangerous than opium, heroin or any other narcotic known to mankind!

This is all fairly standard propaganda, but REEFER MADNESS stands apart by virtue of its total, dedicated dunderheadedness. What the hell are these kids smoking? To hear the film tell it, smoking marijuana causes fits of maniacal laughter followed by hallucinations, temporary insanity, rabid sexual urges and even permanent psychosis. But, despite apparently being laced with Joker gas, marijuana was then and remains today a cornerstone of the counterculture. People know the plant, we know what it does, and it definitely looks like a different weed in REEFER MADNESS. Few things cheer up the underground as when the mainstream gets it so terrifically wrong.

The origins of REEFER MADNESS are hazy. A church group supposedly funded the film to promote marijuana awareness, but there seems to be no real record of which church paid the money or how they acquired a budget hefty enough to hire a bunch of Hollywood B-movie players. A rumor claims the film was really bankrolled by the federal government as part of Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst’s anti-marijuana campaign, but there’s more speculation than evidence to support this. The film seems to have appeared in a puff of truly excellent smoke, cashed in by filling a few programming slots under titles like TELL YOUR CHILDREN and THE BURNING QUESTION, and then faded into obscurity.

Enter Bob Shaye, a young entrepreneur in late-1960s New York City. After getting a good laugh at a screening of REEFER MADNESS, he realized that one could get mighty rich screening a hilarious anti-weed polemic on college campuses. And get rich he did. Shaye’s newly-founded production company, New Line Cinema, made millions screening the public domain film, and the cult of REEFER MADNESS has been growing ever since. Today, a fan can find REEFER MADNESS posters, merchandise and colorized versions of the film. In 1998, Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy (of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 fame) created the musical version, REEFER MADNESS!, which later received its own film adaptation.

Since the original REEFER MADNESS is in the public domain, there are oodles of ways to see it. You could see it alone right now on your couch if you chose to, but why would you do that? REEFER MADNESS is a group project. Like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), THE ROOM (2003) or the up-and-comer MIAMI CONNECTION (1987, and also back at the Plaza this week), most of the joy of REEFER MADNESS comes from hearing a crowd full of people in the know laugh their heads off at whatever unbelievable scene they just saw. You should definitely see REEFER MADNESS with a crowd at the Plaza, but if you do, please remember that marijuana is a scandalous, dangerous drug and unfit for public consumption. What you do in Mae’s apartment, or your own, is completely up to you.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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A Sexy Silent Scandal at The Strand Theatre: Daring to Reopen Louise Brooks’ PANDORA’S BOX

Posted on: Nov 21st, 2012 By:

PANDORA’S BOX (1929); Dir: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; Starring Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer; with live organ accompaniment by Ron Carter; Sun. Nov. 25 3:00 p.m.; The Strand Theatre

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Ever since The Earl Smith Strand Theatre found new life on the Square in Marietta, the theater’s event schedule has cast a wide net. In between the usual live events and mainstream film titles, The Strand quietly stands as one of the last venues in Atlanta to regularly seek out and book classic silent films, a callback to its roots as an old movie house. (The Strand’s first ever show was the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, TOP HAT.) Except that by the time The Strand opened, the talkies had already taken hold, so the decision to run silent pictures in an increasingly-noisy age of media strikes me as more than nostalgia. It’s incredibly brave.

And so, fittingly, The Strand has found a brave picture to screen. There are few silents more daring than PANDORA’S BOX (1929), playing Sunday afternoon Nov. 25 at 3 p.m.—even braver!—accompanied by a full organ score. PANDORA’S BOX doesn’t fit the mold of the typical silent melodrama. Louise Brooks stars as Lulu, a young woman whose ambition is eclipsed only by her voracious sexual appetite. She uses sex as a weapon to get what she wants, or who she wants, and the film largely deals with an escalating series of consequences, from murder, to imprisonment, and finally… well, I won’t spoil it, but Lulu’s story crosses with a famous historical figure, and her final reward is a spot in historical infamy.

PANDORA’S BOX is directed by the great Austrian director G.W. Pabst, whose list of leading ladies includes such names as Greta Garbo and Leni Riefenstahl, but he cast no lady as magnetic or iconic as Brooks, whose distinctive flapper style and bobbed haircut are more famous today than her name. Brooks was an American actress who rubbed elbows with names like William Randolph Hearst, but who grew dissatisfied with the American system and fled to Europe, where audiences came out in droves to see her magnetism and sexuality portrayed on screen. Lulu is a part born for Brooks and, although the film met with a fair amount of pushback from concerned censors, eventually made Brooks an international star. Today, her name is inseparable from the film’s title.

I mentioned censors, but it’s important to note that PANDORA’S BOX was a pre-code picture. In fact, the film came to America in December 1929, only three months before the adoption of the Hays Code that put a lid on the titillation and sexual experimentation of the earliest studio pictures. (Even in the ’20s, people knew the truth about film audiences—sex sells tickets.) PANDORA’S BOX contains a litany of elements that would soon disappear from American cinemas, such as frank sexuality and a disrespect for marriage. Just a decade later, Lulu’s actions would have classified her as a femme fatale, and she’d certainly snare a young hero or two to their doom. Here, the reality is a bit more complicated, and although it’s true that Lulu faces retribution for her loose morals, it’s hard to ignore the allure of her behavior, which is what the Hays Code was trying to snuff out in the first place.

Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz and Louise Brooks (center) as Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX (1929), directed by G.W. Pabst. Credit: UCLA Film and Television Archive

PANDORA’S BOX is also a landmark film in queer cinema, as it does contain (if briefly) one of the first ever screen representations of a lesbian. Played by Alice Roberts, the Countess Geschwitz enters the film dressed in men’s clothes—a tuxedo—and fawns over Lulu, suggesting that the two have a sexual past. Within a year, even such a minor reference to homosexuality would be strictly outlawed on American screens.

PANDORA’S BOX is widely available online, but as with all films, especially from this era, it belongs on the screen (and trust me when I say that a live organ makes all the difference in the world). The film arrived at the end of the golden period of silent films, the end of the pre-code movies, and even puts a symbolic coda on the decade of decadence that was the 1920s. It stands proud as a threshold between two very different eras of cinema. But its sexuality, its spectacle and the compelling nature of its tragic antihero also remind us of another, sometimes-forgotten fact: what excites and thrills us today is the same as it ever was. We didn’t change—the pictures did.

For more about The Strand’s efforts to screen silents as they should be with live organ scores, read our Kool Kat interview with organist Ron Carter, who will be accompanying PANDORA’s BOX here

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