Not many will remember but the original title of the infamous exploitation flick Reefer Madness was Tell Your Children!
In 1936 an ardent church group hired silent-film director Louis J. Gasnier to shoot a contrived lecture given by a fictional character, Dr. Alfred Carroll, on the imminent dangers of marijuana. “Dope Peddlers Caught In High School!” the headlines blared. “School-Parent Organizations Join Dope Fight” and an emergency lecture is scheduled at Truman High School that night! The subject?
Tell Your Children!
Gasnier had previously helped Paris-based Pathe Studios become a major player in the U.S. market with such landmark silent serials as The Perils of Pauline, but the advent of sound was not kind to the French-speaking auteur. He quickly descended to low-budget flicks that distributed freaky exploitation fare to a rural, thrill-hungry audience. These made-in-a-day-for-a-dollar movies shocked and titillated the hicks in the sticks under the thin disguise of a social fix. Tell Your Children would join ranks with Gasnier films like Sex Maniac, Dope Addict, Nature’s Mistakes, Human Wreckage, Sinister Harvest, and my two personal favorites (ladies, take note): How To Undress In Front of Your Husband and How To Take A Bath.
Gasnier’s Tell Your Children was virtually unwatchable, but it caught the attention of the notorious B-movie producer, Dwain Esper. Esper’s professional roots in the carnival sideshow ran so deep that he named his production company Roadside Attractions. The self-proclaimed “king of the celluloid gypsies” would blow into town one step ahead of the law with a tin can filled with terrible films that spliced a moral message with stock footage from lurid medical reels and clips of nudity, childbirth, abortion, venereal disease, drug use and birth defects. Esper would literally set up a tent show in the theater lobby that, depending on the film, would feature anything from a fake display of drug paraphernalia to wax model phalli presented in order to graphically illustrate the effects of syphilis along with the wages of sin. To promote his 1934 flick Narcotic Esper propped up the mummified corpse of a 19th Century gunslinger named Elmer McCurdy in the theater lobby and rechristened the dehydrated remains “Elmer The Dope Fiend”.
Esper was one of the “Forty Thieves” of exploitation, a core group of wildcat carnies turned producers and directors who worked the grindhouse circuit with their unspeakable celluloid smarm. He acquired Gasnier’s rough-cut Tell Your Children and inserted salacious scenes of his own devise featuring the wild-eyed iconic piano playing (“Faster!… Faster!…”) and pot-addled pulchritude at the precise moment of The Fall. Viewers were reminded to tell their children, and Reefer Madness was born.
The following year an article called “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth!” appeared in American Magazine, a prominent national publication targeted at middle-class women. Written by the well-known Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger and by a literally suicidal clown named Ryley Cooper, “Assassin” was the source for a second exploitation flick that was a sequel in spirit, if not in fact, to its precursor, Reefer Madness. There are significant differences. Madness was directed in turns by Gasnier and Esper while Assassin was directed solely by Elmer Clifton, another illustrious has-been from the silent movie era. Clifton collaborated with D.W. Griffith and appeared as an actor in Birth of A Nation before stepping behind the camera. His greatest accomplishment was that he discovered the legendary Clara Bow and cast her in her first real movie, Down To The Sea In Ships. But after the talkies took hold, Clifton, like Gasnier, fell into the low-budgets. In 1937 he directed Slaves In Bondage, a movie that claimed to be a cautionary tale about the evils of prostitution when it fact it was the first film to show the joys of spanking. On something of a low roll, Clifton directed and released Marihuana: Assassin of Youth that same year.
Assassin does not contain an iconic scene like the giggling marihuana-fueled maniac who implores the jazz pianist to “Play faster!” in Reefer Madness, and perhaps for that reason alone Assassin is less well known. (During many a midnight show on many a college campus in the 1970s, when the stuffy town scold, Henrietta Frisbie, played by veteran Hollywood B-movie actress Fern Emmet, first appeared on her little motor scooter in Madness, the fresh-baked boomer kids would sing-song the Wicked Witch theme from The Wizard of Oz (Dun Dun Dun Dun Dun Dunt!) because Fern was a dead-ringer for veteran A-List actress Margaret Hamilton who was and always will be the Wicked Witch of the West.
A young film distributor named Bob Shaye who also ran a small college-booking agency rediscovered Reefer Madness in the early 1970s. Shaye tipped off Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), to the existence of both films and told him that they had recently slid into the Public Domain. Keith bought prints from the Library of Congress for $297 and had both movies cut down to half-hour excerpt reels. The hysterical of another era became the hilarious anon. With Shaye’s small distribution company booking the college dates, Stroup toured the country speaking in favor of reform and showing the old films as modern comedies to increasing numbers of pot-smoking boomers. Today, Reefer Madness is considered a cult classic of enduring charm. The 1936 exploitation film is by now nothing less than an American cultural icon and widely available for free online. Keith Stroup’s brainchild NORML is the longest-enduring, most widely recognized brand name in marijuana law reform working at last in a brave new world where marijuana laws are being regularly reformed. And, following his early collaboration with Mr. Stroup and NORML, Bob Shaye recast his small film distribution company as New Line Cinema, the House that Freddy would build, the future home of The Lord of The Rings, and – maybe it was the weed – one of the most successful independent film studios in history.
To watch Reefer Madness click here: https://archive.org/details/