Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Assassin of Youth (BCM Productions, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Assassin of Youth, third and probably least well-known of the bizarre trio of anti-marijuana movies that emerged in the mid-1930’s as part of the campaign of Harry J. Anslinger, basically America’s first “drug czar,” to make the Killer Weed illegal (and thereby preserve the jobs of all the Prohibition enforcement agents after the whole madness of trying to make alcohol illegal finally ended). The most famous of the trio is, of course, Reefer Madness (though that was a 1940’s reissue title and it was originally released as Tell Your Children and The Burning Question), though perhaps the weirdest of the bunch is Dwain Esper’s Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, with its topless women (obviously these things weren’t shown in conventional theatres that had to adhere to the Production Code — usually entrepreneurs would travel with a projector and a print and set up in any venue that would have them) and weird death scene for the heroine, who literally sheds marijuana cigarettes as she’s expiring.

Assassin of Youth was produced by Leo J. McCarthy, directed by former D. W. Griffith actor Elmer Clifton and co-written by both of them, and it’s a bit more coherent plot-wise than the other two — perhaps merely because it dredges deeper into the bank of movie clichés, this time featuring a cub reporter, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardner), who’s assigned by his irascible editor (if there’s a 1930’s movie that features a newspaper editor who isn’t irascible, I’d like to know what it is) to investigate the case of Elizabeth Barry, small-town grandmother who was killed when she was run over by a car driven by marijuana-crazed youth. It turns out Elizabeth left a will leaving her entire fortune to her granddaughter Joan (Luana Walters, top-billed) but only if Joan remains a woman of good moral character. The next in line for the inheritance is Joan’s cousin Linda Clayton (Fay McKenzie), who’s already fallen far off the straight and narrow: she’s secretly married to Jack Howard (Michael Owen) — the reason for the secrecy is so Jack can set out to seduce any young woman whose ruination they decide would be profitable for Linda’s drug-dealing business.

Accordingly they set out to ruin Joan — if they can’t get her to sin for real, they figure they can at least give her a bad reputation that will ruin her in the eyes of Judge George Herbert (Henry Roquemore), who has jurisdiction over Elizabeth’s will — and the campaign starts when they get Joan to go with them and their friends to a “weenie-roast” by the town lake. Joan slips and falls into the lake (we don’t actually see this happen so we’re uncertain whether she just fell or Jack pushed her), gets her clothes wet, and Linda hangs them to dry so close to the fire they burn up (once again, we don’t see this so we can’t be sure whether this was accidental or intentional) and Joan has to go home in a coat borrowed from one of the men at the party and nothing under it. This catches the attention of town gossip Henrietta Frisbie (Fern Emmett), who drives a motor scooter (I didn’t know they had motor scooters in 1937!) instead of a bicycle but otherwise looks so much like Margaret Hamilton in the Kansas scenes of The Wizard of Oz it’s hard to believe that Wizard was actually made two years later.

Meanwhile, Art has bluffed his way into a job as a soda jerk at the drugstore owned by Henry “Pop” Brady (Earl Dwire) — Judge Herbert hangs out there and the two old men have been playing checkers, and cheating, for decades — where all the drug-crazed youth of the town also come for more salubrious refreshments. Art’s editor shows him a film-within-a-film of a lecturer talking about the evils of marijuana (this essentially serves the same function as the framing lecturer in Reefer Madness, cloaking all this decadence under the guise of “education”), and Art returns to the small town determined to uncover the suppliers who are giving Linda her merchandise. Then we learn that Joan has a sister, Marjorie (Dorothy Short, who was in Reefer Madness as well — poor girl), who’s already done so much pot she’s on the thin edge of insanity, which she proves by nearly knifing a supposed rival for her boyfriend’s affections at yet another one of the surprisingly boring “wild” parties at which most of the film takes place. Then again, maybe it’s not that surprising at all: part of the strategy behind these movies seems to have been to discourage people from slipping into the demi-monde by making the demi-monde seem hopelessly dull and simply not worth bothering with.

Jack and Linda continue their campaign to ruin Joan by feeding her drugged food and drink (there are at least two references in the dialogue to “something stronger” than marijuana, but there’s no mention of what the “something stronger” is and it’s impossible to tally the effects of whatever it is as depicted with those of any known non-fictional drug), and Art’s attempt to use Joan to entrap Linda and her suppliers goes haywire big time when Jack and Linda feed her a drugged snack, she passes out in Jack’s bed and she’s told the next day that they had sex. By sheer mischance (or authorial fiat), all this happens on the eve of the hearing over Elizabeth Barry’s will, and Joan refuses to testify; Judge Herbert is about to rule that she doesn’t get the money when Art arrives in the nick of time with the evidence against Linda and exonerates Joan, whom he plans to marry — though there’s an interesting ambiguity whether they’re going to move to the big city while Art continues his newspaper career or settle for life in the quieter small-town environment Joan has always known.

Assassin of Youth is probably the best-made of the trio — it was shot at Grand National Studios (as I suspect Reefer Madness was as well) and has a perfectly acceptable production “finish,” but virtually no one in it can actually act; Luana Walters ended up in some of the Bela Lugosi Monograms but no one else seemed to have much of a subsequent career, and it’s easy to see why. This film lacks the sheer bizarreness of Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell or the genuine pathos of Thelma White’s performance in Reefer Madness, though on its own it’s an interesting enough look into how the anti-pot mania that still grips so many Americans was born.