Saturday 24 May 2008

The Cocaine Fiends (1935)

Exploitation films about drugs always had an educational case to them to get round the censors. This one, a remake of a 1928 film called The Pace That Kills, and originally using that name, uses Jane Bradford as its public information warning, the point being something like country folks are idiots and city folks are evil. Or something like that. Jane is an innocent young thing who is happy minding her business in a country hotel when Nick the drug pusher breezes in. He appears to be a cop hiding from the bad guys and she helps him out, even though she starts to doubt when the bad guys pop in for a beer and she has a feeling that they're really the cops and Nick is the bad guy. But hey, he's cute (apparently) and he says nice things and he has these headache powders that make her feel fine.

So before long, she runs away with him to the city (which naturally is deliberately just 'the city' for maximum empathy), leaving her mother nothing but a promise that she'll write. Of course time slips by without a letter and 14 months later Jane Bradford is looking notably worse for wear due to a heavy dependency on cocaine, erm headache powders, and the big boss puts her to work at the Dead Rat. We're told that the Dead Rat is the last thing before the slums but, name notwithstanding, seems to be a lot better than it would seem with intriguingly bad entertainment, most played by real entertainers as themselves (who interestingly never did so again in other movies). The wallpaper is awesome too.

However quickly thrown into the mix are a couple of other couples to liven up the story: Fanny and Eddie, and Dorothy and Dan. Fanny is a stop on Nick's pushing run and Eddie works with her. Eddie is also Jane's brother, who came to the city to look for her in his spare time. Dan is a detective who knows precisely what Nick is and Dorothy is his girlfriend. The actors, just like the two leads, are people we haven't heard of but in some instances that's a little surprising as they are often a lot better than the material.

Lois Lindsay in particular, who plays Dorothy, has a very watchable face, making me wonder why she didn't land supporting femme fatale roles in Warner Brothers movies of the era. Then again, looking at her filmography at IMDb, she tended to play uncredited chorus girls in those movies, so maybe she just shines in this company. She certainly had a means to be noticed in Hollywood, given that she was a dancing instructor for Shirley Temple.

Another Lois, Lois January, plays Jane Bradford and Noel Madison plays Nick the pusher. January, apparently her real name, made a bunch of films but may have been most noticed as 'Woman Holding Cat in Emerald City' in The Wizard of Oz. Madison was another Warner Brothers regular but a long way down the credits. I was surprised to find I'd seen his first five films, including Sinners' Holiday, in which his debut as Buck Rogers (no, not that one) was more than a little overshadowed by someone else debuting in the same film: James Cagney.

The Cocaine Fiends aka The Pace That Kills is a melodrama of course, but it has some interest on a human front, probably more because of actors like Lois Lindsay and Sheila Manners/Bromley, who plays Fanny, than because of the talent of the filmmakers. What it doesn't have is the edge that someone like Dwain Esper brought to proceedings. Esper wasn't a good filmmaker, probably not even as good as William A O'Connor, who debuted with the original version of this, and went on to a long career as assistant director on B movie westerns. However Esper understood exploitation and that knowledge transcended skill to make films that were bizarrely watchable. O'Connor didn't have that, the last ten minutes notwithstanding, so while this is a better film than Maniac or Marihuana, it's nowhere near as watchable.

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