Thursday, May 15, 2008

Esper's "Marihuana": 1930's Anti-Drug Propaganda

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Marihuana (that’s how it was spelled in 1936), also known as Weed with Roots in Hell, Pitfalls of Youth and Sinister Weed, was directed by Dwain Esper, maker of some of the 1930's weirdest films, including "Narcotic" and "Maniac." (Another drug-exploitation movie made in 1936, by veteran director Elmer Clifton, was originally called Marihuana but the title was later changed to Assassin of Youth to avoid confusion with Esper’s film. Today the two are available packaged together on a single DVD.) I had seen Esper’s Marihuana in the early 1970’s when it turned up on a local station in the Bay Area that specialized in this sort of fare — and they managed to get it on the air even though it showed women’s breasts: the opening credits are superimposed over a series of paintings of naked women with smoke swirling around them, and later on there’s a scene where some of the characters go skinny-dipping and there are a couple of mammary flashes in a mirror as the women in this group walk by on their way to the beach.

The two scenes I remembered from the first time I’d seen this film were the skinny-dipping scene — especially the shots of people in the altogether heading out into the waves, photographed only from the back but still recognizable and a far cry from anything a mainstream producer worried about Production Code approval would have dared show in 1936 — and the finale, in which the nice girl turned bad-ass drug dealer dies and marijuana cigarettes come falling out of her as she expires. Marihuana — which I remembered under the Weed with Roots in Hell title — begins with this typically over-the-top written foreword:

"For centuries the world has been aware of the narcotic menace. We have complacently watched Asiatic countries attempt to rid themselves of DRUGS CURSE, and attributed their failure to lack of education.

"We consider ourselves enlightened, and think that we could never succumb to such a fate.

"But — did you know that — the use of Marihuana is steadily increasing among the youth of our country? Did you know that — the youthful criminal is our greatest problem today? And that — Marihuana gives the user false courage, thereby making crime alluring, smart?

"That is the price we are paying for our lack of interest in the narcotic situation. This story is drawn from an actual case history on file in the police records of one of our largest cities.

"Note: MARIHUANA, Hashish of the Orient, is commonly distributed as a doped cigarette. Its most terrifying effect is that it fires the user to extreme cruelty and — license!"

What follows is a pretty typical exploitation-movie plot centered around the uncertain adolescence of Burma Roberts (Harley Wood — that’s right, a girl named Harley, and she got to be in minor parts in good movies like My Man Godfrey and not-so-good but at least major-studio productions like Scandal at Scourie as well as starring in tripe like this), who’s living with her grandmother (Juanita Crosland) and her sister Elaine (Dorothy Dehn), who’s engaged to marry a rich man named Morgan Stewart (Richard Erskine).

Where Elaine’s and Burma’s mother is in all of this is a mystery — it’s typical of the sloppy attitude towards continuity Esper and his screenwriter, Hildegarde Stadie (who was also his wife and production assistant), shared with most of their confrères at the bottom of the movie industry totem pole then and later that we’re not sure whether Crosland’s character is the younger women’s mother or their grandmother — but it’s soon clear that whatever parental authorities exist in Burma’s life, they don’t give a damn what she does with herself as long as she doesn’t embarrass the Robertses and get Stewart’s parents to call off the marriage. (By coincidence, in 1987 there was a youth movie in the John Hughes vein called Morgan Ste"wart’s Coming Home, whose directors, Paul Aaron and Terry Winsor, declined credit and made it an “Alan Smithee” film.)

Burma fends off the marihuana-fueled advances of her boyfriend Dick (Hugh McArthur) and the two ultimately fall into the clutches of evil drug dealers Nicki Romero (Pat Carlyle) and Tony Santello (Paul Ellis). These no-goodniks (and just where was the Italian-American Defamation League when they were clearly needed?) invite Burma, Dick and the gang from the nearby roadhouse to their home for a night of skinny-dipping and drugs ranging from alcohol to marihuana to harder stuff, including a mysterious powder dropped into a glass of water which, when Burma drinks it, turns her into a raging nymphomaniac determined to get Paul to do the down ’n’ dirty with her. During the skinny-dipping one girl swims out too far and drowns. Nicki and Tony arrange for a cover-up and Burma learns she’s pregnant with Dick’s child (the old infallible pregnancy at a single contact gimmick again!). Dick agrees to marry her, and to make the money to support them he agrees to go to work as a drug runner for Nick and Tony — only on his first time out his crew is ambushed by police and Dick is killed.

Nick and Tony crash the hospital room where Burma is about to give birth and get her to give up her baby, but the strain has totally cracked her moral sense and, when she emerges from under the anaesthetic, she’s become a hard-nosed, unscrupulous drug dealer with the ambition to make as much money as possible to outshine her sister and family-wealthy brother-in-law. She also changes her name to Myanmar Roberts (joke). Burma becomes especially good at moving her clients up from marihuana to what the script coyly refers to as “C and H” — that took me about 15 seconds to figure out — and there’s a pathetic (in both senses) scene in which a middle-aged housewife whom Burma has successfully turned into a heroin addict is $5 short for her latest fix; Burma sees her old engagement ring on her finger and demands it as the rest of the payment, and later the woman rather lamely tells her husband it was stolen — whereupon he quite naturally reports it as such to the police.

Meanwhile Burma has hit upon the ultimate sting — she’s going to kidnap the young daughter of Morgan and Elaine Stewart, confident that she can get away with it because her own sister won’t risk the embarrassment of turning her in — only she learns that, unable to have any kids of their own, Morgan and Elaine actually adopted Burma’s daughter, and when the police crash their hideout and kill Nick and Tony, Burma grabs a combination of substances, drinking one of those spiked drinks and injecting herself with a hot shot of something else, thereby committing suicide by drugs, literally dripping marihuana cigarettes from her body as she expires and the “End” credit comes up over the scene.

I’ll say one thing for Marihuana: it’s considerably better than the two previous Esper films we’ve seen, Narcotic and Maniac. The opening scene in the roadhouse is actually creatively directed and photographed (the cinematographer, Roland Price, was mostly a newsreel and documentary cameraman but was willing to take a studio job in between assignments to do the kind of al fresco outdoor filmmaking, with hidden cameras, that really turned him on). The sequence is lit brightly, we can actually see what’s going on (and hear most of the dialogue — given the cheap sound systems independent producers had to use in the 1930’s, being able to hear all of it would be expecting way too much), and there are even some creative camera angles, including a few crane shots — though overall this seems like yet another attempt by an exploitation filmmaker to discourage people from a decadent lifestyle by making it seem way too boring to bother with.

Alas, after shooting these scenes Esper must have blown his budgetary wad (as opposed to whatever other wads he may have been blowing in the other aspects of his and Ms. Stadie’s relationship), because the rest of the movie is familiar Esper: hideous close-ups, murky lighting, barely decipherable sound and a general aura of not just penny-pinching but mill-pinching. Harley Wood actually delivers something of a performance, albeit totally at the mercy of a typical Esper-Stadie script that calls for her to play a different emotion in nearly every scene with nary a clue as to how she’s supposed to transition from one to the next — at times in her degradation she evokes Bette Davis and suggests that a more sensitive director than Esper might have actually been able to get a creditable star performance out of her in a script allowing for one — but nobody else in the movie can act at all.

At least Esper restrains his use of stock footage this time out and manages to match what stock he does use to the new footage fairly well for someone at his (lack of) budget — and he blessedly restrains his temptation, freely indulged in in both Narcotic and Maniac, of cutting in stock shots of animals fighting (some of which looked like they were staged in and about the grounds of Edison’s “Black Maria” in the 1890’s) in between the scenes of humans fighting, apparently in an attempt to establish the symbolism that we’re all animals at heart (or at least to pad out his bizarre psychodramas to feature-film length). I used to think of Esper as the 1930’s Ed Wood — but now I think that’s being unfair to Wood, who for all his incompetence at least brought a crude energy to his films that makes them genuinely watchable and even entertaining. (The two worst Ed Wood movies I’ve ever seen, The Violent Years and Orgy of the Dead, were ones for which he merely wrote the scripts, and others directed.)

Esper and Wood share a penchant for exploitation subjects, a mania for cutting in stock footage (in Wood’s case even more than in Esper’s it was obviously to pad out the length of his movies — Wood had distributors to answer to while Mr. and Mrs. Esper, under the banner of “Roadshow Attractions, Inc,,” distributed their films themselves and often literally traveled with a projector, a print and a budget to rent a hall in which to show their product themselves) and even a cinematographer, “Big Bill” Thompson, who shot some of Esper’s films in the 1930’s and some of Wood’s in the 1950’s. But the more I see other people’s micro-budget exploitation movies (including Jerry Warren’s The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman — nobody who’d ever seen The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman could possibly still believe that Plan Nine from Outer Space was the worst film ever made) the better and better Ed Wood looks!