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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Reefer Madness (1938)

(aka: Tell Your Children)



Reviews and Comments

"The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of American in alarmingly increasing numbers. 'Marihuana' is that drug -- a violent narcotic -- an unspeakable scourage -- The Real Public Enemy Number One!"

So begins the opening blurb of Reefer Madness, originally entitled Tell Your Children. Indeed, what follows is a story transparently designed to raise social awareness about marihuana [sic]. Its understanding of the drug are suspect, enough that the film has become something of a cult classic among those that find its claims laughable. This is almost counterproductive to its perfectly sound intentions. Marijuana is dangerous. It messes you up. Period. But Reefer Madness was made at a time when the public was less knowledgeable about drugs and less suspicious of propaganda. This explains the film's misconceptions, but it does not excuse them.

As a film, it's pretty poor, over the top and one-sided. There are a couple of moments of admirable filmmaking, however; I liked the editing and cinematography during an accidental shooting, for example, and again when a man is beaten while a drugged woman looks on laughing. Yes, it's over the top, but if one removes marijuana from the equation and mentally substitutes a drug that exhibits the symptoms depicted here, it would probably be effective. Most of the film, however, is painfully dull, cinematically and storywise.

The real value of the film is as historical documentation. Drugs were rarely the subject of movies, generally running contrary to the Hays Code (censorship office) in effect at the time. Here, then, is a rare record of societal attitudes and perceptions about drugs in the 1930s.