In the 1930s, American culture was at a crossroads. In the middle of the Great Depression with a failing economy, still reeling from both World War I and Prohibition, crime was on the rise. Organized crime and gangs were a part of the media zeitgeist, as Al Capone, Chicago mobs and other big-city trades peddled drugs, alcohol, and sex. The presence of these vices, and their increased prevalence in American culture, demonstrated the need (or at least the desire) to combat them through preventative measures and cautionary tales to make sure the youth of America did not get lured into these same criminal activities. As drugs and prostitution were on the rise, people focused on those vices; as they were new and alluring, exploitation films of the time shared that focus.
Exploitation films, as a genre, are defined as typically lurid, gritty, underground movies that used excess of sex, drugs and violence to entice and stimulate viewers. These films were typically distributed in an underground manner as well, being released in theaters that were unaffiliated with major chains or the film regulatory bodies of the time – these were known as bump-and-grind theaters1The exploitation films of the 1930s prior to World War II reflected the values of abstinence, moderation and obedience to family and authority in America, while remaining controversial within the equally conservative film codes of that era. They typically depicted negative portrayals of young, innocent teens being corrupted and destroyed by illicit drugs and premarital sex, among other vices. Notable examples of these types of cautionary tales included Reefer Madness (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937), The Pace That Kills (1935), and Marihuana (1936), all of which demonstrate the conservative ideals of society, yet fell outside the norm of the Hays code and other film regulatory bodies.
At the time of the 1930s, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) had just released its new Production Code, which attempted to crack down on the distribution and release of these so-called ” exploitation films.” Because of the influence of European cinema and the presence of exploitation films in America, the Hays Office attempted to get rid of them through strict enforcement of the MPPDA code; ” exploitation films played a significant role in the formulation and maintenance of self-regulatory policy” 2. In essence, the overall purpose of the Hays Code was to allow for self-regulation of the movie industry, as it offered an organization that could prevent lurid or inappropriate content from being shown to minors or the American public, were it to be deemed unsuitable. The ‘movie czar,’ Will Hays, had the goal of restoring Hollywood’s image from places of immorality to a safe and honest place to take your family for entertainment.
Exploitation films often failed to get the seal of approval from the Hays Code, typically because of the excesses that they portrayed in their depictions of sex and drug use. The film Is your Daughter Safe? was soundly rejected due to its own depiction of nudity and sexual content, the Hays Code campaigning against these kinds of sex hygiene films, and other cautionary tales that could be viewed or used for exploitation purposes3. Despite ostensibly warning about the dangers of ” immoral” behavior, these films were fought tooth and nail to avoid major release, as their very depiction of sex and drug use itself was condemned as an implicit endorsement of the activities.
Reefer Madness is likely the most famous example of the cautionary films of the 1930s; originally released as an earnest film about the dangers of marijuana, it was re-cut by Darwin Esper and released on the exploitation film circuit. The film follows a middle-aged couple, Mae (Thelma White) and Jack (Carleton Young), who start selling marijuana to teenagers, as well as an ensemble cast of teenagers who present marijuana use in an extremely sensationalized way. The character of Ralph (Dave O’Brien), a psychotic former college student who helps sell marijuana to the kids, is the quintessential pot user according to the film, and presents the end result of continued marijuana use as a cautionary tale to the audience. Ralph attempts to rape young Mary (Dorothy Short), forces Blanche (Lillian Miles) to play piano music faster and faster to keep him sane, and kills Jack when he feels threatened.
In essence, the portrayal of marijuana was deliberately exaggerated in order to provide a sensationalized and fear-mongering attitude toward illicit drug use; in the film, various people using pot manage to run over pedestrians with their cars, attempt rape and premarital sex, and slowly enter dramatic psychosis. The film’s message is made clear in bookend sequences by Dr. Alfred Carroll, who begins and ends the film with overt warnings about the ” accuracy” of the film’s depiction of marijuana, and ending the film with sensational, demonstrative gestures about how ” the next tragedy may be that of your daughter’sof YOURS!” pointing at the camera, and at the audience by extension. The words ” TELL YOUR CHILDREN” are then shown, hammering home the cautionary aspect of the film.
These types of over-the-top proclamations were the hallmark of exploitation cinema, as Reefer Madness was not exactly a true warning of the dangers of marijuana, but merely a lurid attempt to capitalize on the sensationalism of drug use. Dwain Esper used the film to capitalize on the curiosity of the public, who would want to know why the Hays Code expressly forbade these films. In this way, exploitation film producers used the Hays Code against them; the lurid and forbidden nature of the films, due to their lascivious content, would not deter young audiences from going to see them. Instead, they would be drawn to exploitation cinemas, stealing the audience from the studio system4.
The 1936 film Marihuana depicts yet another negative portrayal of the drug itself, with Burma (Harley Wood), a young virginal girl, finally trying marijuana at a beach party with her boyfriend. The next thing she knows, she has become pregnant; also, one of the other girls with whom she smoked drowns herself in the ocean. Eventually, like in Reefer Madness, Burma and her boyfriend eventually get recruited into the drug trade and have to make money through selling drugs on their own in order to be able to afford to get married. The murder of the boyfriend during a drug deal leaves Burma all by herself, giving up her baby for adoption so she can become a major drug pusher.
The film is remarkably similar to Reefer Madness in its subject matter, though its tale is a bit more intimate and straightforward, showing the slow progression from innocence to childless, drug-addled despair. By showing a disgusting, yet oddly alluring tale of crime, with Burma wearing a fine mink coat by the end of it, the film glamorizes while at the same time demonizing drugs and crime. The over-the-top manner with which that film and Reefer Madness portray marijuana is more akin to the generalized portrayal of mania that can be more interesting to watch on film, rather than the actual depressive effects of marijuana. Characters gyrate, yell, carry on and bounce about with far more energy and vigor than they did sober, which was an easier way to portray the evils of drugs, as it made you more unlike yourself than if you were merely more sedate.
In the 1937 exploitation film Assassin of Youth, we get yet another Reefer Madness clone (especially as it also stars Dorothy Short), where marijuana is shown as a tremendous evil that is directly responsible for death and destruction. This time, the ” immoral” nature of marijuana is presented through the same kinds of all-out parties and lurid behavior that the previous two films offered, with drug parties that quickly turn dangerous and which are financed and supplied by dangerous gangs. The protagonist, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardener), is a straight-laced journalist who, like Dr. Carroll in Reefer Madness, attempts to showcase the dangers of marijuana through his newspaper stories, all the while attempting to save Joan Barrie (Luana Walters) from falling into the same trap of drug use and death.
The Pace that Kills, a 1935 exploitation film, tackles a different drug than the other examples presented here (cocaine), but deals with mostly the same material, and handles it in a similar way. Once again, innocent teenagers and young women are lured into the ugly drug world, where their personality completely changes and they become complete psychopaths. As soon as Joan Bradford (Lois January) becomes high on cocaine, she is capable of all manner of lascivious and violent behavior. Turning into a ‘cocaine fiend,’ she and her brother become involved with a drug dealer and fall into trouble with the law. Unlike the psychotic behavior of those on marijuana in the other films, having the same reaction to cocaine is somewhat more realistic, but no less sensational and designed to draw in audiences to this mania.
These films reflect both the desperate attempts by film producers to show the ‘dangers’ of drugs like marijuana and cocaine, as well as things like premarital sex, in order to stave off the perceived increases in these activities among youngsters. However, due to provisions like the Hays Code expressly forbidding their distribution in major cinemas, the controversial nature of the films created substantial press and facilitated even more ‘buzz’ for their eventual underground release in exploitation cinemas. As these films both fetishized and demonized these values, it demonstrated America’s fascination with the newfound drug trade and the desire for the next generation to behave ‘appropriately.’ In order to usher in this new era of conservatism, organizations like the MPPDA inadvertently created the same morbid fascination with these vices that led to their continuation.
Clifton, Elmer (dir). Assassin of Youth. Perf. Luana Walters, Arthur Gardener, Dorothy Short.
BCM Roadshow Productions, 1937. Film.
Esper, Dwain (dir). Marihuana. Perf. Harley Wood, Hugh McArthur, Pat Carlyle. Roadshow
Attractions, 1936. Film.
Gasnier, Louis (dir). Reefer Madness. Perf. Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, Lillian Miles. New
Line Cinema, 1936. Film.
O’Connor, William (dir). The Pace That Kills. Perf. Lous January, Noel Madison, Sheila
Bromley. 1935. Film.
Schaefer, Eric. ” Resisting Refinenment: The Exploitation Film and Self Censorship.” Film
History vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 293-313. Autumn 1994. Print.