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Smoke screens

By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 18, 2008

Hey — I’ll have what she’s having. But other than the uncontrollable laughter, the rest of Reefer Madness fails to measure up to the hype. True, it offers crazy piano playing, hot jitterbugging, an off-screen drug-addled tryst, an attempted rape, an accidental shooting, and a trip to the loony bin, but when I saw it decades after it opened, it was about as exciting and funny as my first (or was it my thousandth?) hit of hashish while listening to “Stairway to Heaven.” Audiences of the 1930s agreed, and along with other such films as Assassin of Youth (1937), it failed to catch on.

Until, that is, 1971, when Keith Stroup of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws bought the print and turned it into a popular midnight movie. Laugh at the cornball melodrama all you want, latter-day stoners, but maybe it worked after all. Hardly any more marijuana movies were made for decades, and apparently nobody smoked the stuff except for jazz musicians, beatniks, and Norman Mailer.

Where there's smoke, there's fire: The '60s
What was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. Even before the ’60s instituted pot as a cultural phenomenon, a few movies showed the way. As early as 1955, High School Confidential depicted “weedheads” as representatives of teenaged rebellion — and perdition. In 1958, Orson Welles’s masterpiece Touch of Evil presented a preview of the War on Drugs to come. Welles plays crapulous Hank Quinlan, head of a border-town police department, who works covertly with the local Mexican drug dealer to maintain the status quo. They ally to counter such threats as Charlton Heston’s crusading anti-drug DA. The dealer kidnaps the DA’s Anglo wife (Janet Leigh) to frame her for drug use and murder, getting her stoned and locking her up nude in a motel room with a bunch of leather-clad dope heads, led by, of all people, Mercedes McCambridge.

(Here is where the sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter kicks in.)

More to the point, these two films established the two functions marijuana would soon come to serve — both in movies and society as a whole: subversion and repression. Dropouts and revolutionaries would seek to overthrow the establishment by smoking pot; the establishment would oblige them by tossing their asses in jail on drug charges. Eventually, the establishment would realize that it didn’t even need to arrest them — the drug itself renders the populace indifferent to political change or incapable of achieving it.

As it turned out, most of the pot smoking in the ’60s took place in the real world, not in the movies. In the few films in which pot figured, the narrative usually worked thusly: a dilettantish fugitive from the “straight” world is initiated into the counterculture, smokes a few joints, has his (and it is almost always a he) heart broken by a hippie girl, and returns to bourgeois comfort sadder but wiser. In Paul Mazursky’s charming but innocuous I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), Peter Sellers plays a prim lawyer who falls for a flower child, smokes some herb, and learns his lesson. A few years later, Milos Forman’s first (and seldom seen) American film Taking Off (1971) offered a darker take on a similar theme, as middle-class parents pursue their dropout teenage daughter and get a taste of what she’s been up to in a hilarious scene in which they join other parents in a seminar on how to smoke a joint.

For the most part, though, the ’60s movies skipped the intermediary drug and went straight for the hard stuff — usually psychedelics, such as LSD, mescaline, and magic mushrooms. In Psych Out (1968), Jack Nicholson plays a character called “Stoney” who helps a deaf teenage runaway look for her brother in Haight-Ashbury. She finds instead bad trips and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. In Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), which Jack Nicholson wrote, Peter Fonda plays a square ad executive who drops acid and contemplates . . . an orange. Groovy! But bummer ending. Then Nicholson and Fonda join up with the inevitable Dennis Hopper to smoke dope, drop acid, and sell skag as they ride their choppers in search of America in Easy Rider (1969). Good luck, guys.

By the end of the decade, dope seems a detour en route to saving the world. Or a highway to hell. The smoke-filled Eden of Woodstock (1970) gives way to the infernal violence of Gimme Shelter (1970) and the even-more-terrifying insanity of that ultimate drug movie, Performance (1970).

Maybe the Reefer Madness people weren’t that crazy after all.

Why do you think they call them dopes?
Prior to the mid ’70s, one of the key effects of “marihuana’s” effects (as listed in the prologue to Reefer Madness, anyway) had been missing: sudden, violent, and uncontrollable laughter. Hence the success of Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, the first of four increasingly inane but classic stoner movies they would roll out over the next five years. Not only did they mellow out the earnestness of previous drug movies with dumbass buffoonery, but they drew up the template for most stoner movies to come. To wit, the Stoner Movie Template:

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  Topics: Features , Illegal Drugs , Marijuana , Tommy Chong ,  More more >
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