Monday 12 May 2008

Marihuana (1936)

While I've long been an exploitation film fan, one of the most glaring omissions in my cinematic background is Reefer Madness, an unintentionally hilarious cult classic that takes a high handed waltz through many of the high entries on the moral class's hate list: not least drugs and jazz. Reefer Madness (originally Tell Your Children and also known as Dope Addict, Doped Youth, Love Madness and The Burning Question) was directed by Louis J Gasnier, but this was the only such entry in his filmography, which was coming to an end after a career that dated back to Max Linder comedies in 1905.

The biggest name associated with such exploitation films was producer and director Dwain Esper, and while this one was made the same year as Reefer Madness in 1936, it wasn't his first take on the subject. His nine films as a director began in 1932 with The Seventh Commandment, whose tagline was 'A Warning to the Younger Generation!' and progressed through Narcotic in 1933 to Modern Motherhood, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband and Sex Madness. The only one I'd seen before this was the astounding Maniac, which is a bizarre peach of a precode exploitation film.

While Maniac is a stunningly bad film it was also a stunningly interesting one, full of fascinating acting, writing and expressionistic filmmaking, Marihuana begins as a bore but soon finds its way into full out exploitation mode where it's anything but. It's not as interesting as Maniac but it's still magnetic viewing, all for the wrong reasons. The key character is Burma Roberts, who appears to be a good girl with a fiance, even though she's apparently in high school, but she gets caught up in a downward spiral after unwittingly going to a party designed to get people hooked on dope. This is the sort of dope that instantly turns Burma's friends into giggling and squealing young fillies who strip naked and flounce around in the sea, where one drowns, and Burma into a sex maniac who promptly gets pregnant on the beach.

Burma has an argument with her parents who favour her sister, tells her fiance about her pregnancy to force him into an early marriage, but it forces him instead into a job for a drug dealer and an early grave courtesy of a police bullet during a raid. With Dick gone, she ends up working for the same gangster as a drug pusher. Eager to prove her worth by becoming richer than her sister, who has married into high society, she becomes the cool as ice Blondie who uses marihuana as a gateway drug to boost sales of cocaine and heroin, and quickly progresses into kidnapping her sister's kid for ransom.

The film is hilarious for a number of reasons: a gangster with a lampshade on his head prancing around to entertain his kidnap victim, young ladies looking pristine moments after their wild naked and drug induced romp through the sea, a hilariously bad police torture scene, the way Burma's morals leap around like a jack rabbit and for an amazing final death scene choreographed like an opera. There are also reasons that don't tie to what we see on the screen.

Esper's chief collaborator on these movies was his wife, credited as Hildegarde Stadie, who wrote five of the nine films he directed. I find it hilarious that their own lives were examples that went against what their films preached. Their movies made their money by telling the public that things like drugs were evils that would inevitably lead to catastrophe which they happily displayed on screen. The 'educational' purpose of these films was the Esper's schtick and they milked it for all it was worth on the carnival circuit, exhibiting their movies in tents for a couple of days before skipping town before the state censorship boards turned up.

Watch Esper's movies like this one and you'll learn that one try at marihuana means you'll quickly become a drug pushing kidnapper with a heart of ice and a short life long enough only to take those of others first. Marihuana isn't really the point, it's merely another launching point, just like other 'social evils' like premarital sex which naturally leads to syphilis or the white slave trade. Yet if smoking one joint can cause all this, what would happen if your pre-teen years were spent on public stages, fully naked and draped in a python, all to sell snake oil called Tiger Fat for your uncle?

It sounds precisely like something the Espers would put in one of their films, and they may well have done in Narcotic which I haven't seen, but it's actually what Hildegarde Stadie did in real life. So what downward spiral did she end up in? A happy and wholesome life, a 62 year marriage and two children. Not much seems to be known about the Espers after they retired from the movie business but I'd be fascinated to read a biography. What snippets I can find tend to disagree with each other and do little but boost my interest in a couple whose work is as fascinating as it's unique.

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