Warning: This film suggests that Marijuana will improve your musical taste, make you more successful with women, a better dancer and expand your circle of friends.
Well, maybe not intentionally… But the Tell Your Children, AKA Reefer Madness, does such a bad job at being an anti-drug propaganda piece that it might as well say that on the cover.
I’ve been wanting to review this one for a while. It falls in two of my interests, crime films and bad films. Tell Your Children alternates between an overly earnest PTA speaker speaking of the dangers of the demon weed and the story of several young couples who lead innocent teenagers into a life of sin and debauchery via reefer (marijuana) cigarettes and their own decline into drug addiction and debauchery.
Help, I’m talking and I can’t shut up!
Dangerous drug dealers.
Jack and Mae, drug dealers and dope fiends in their lair of vice!
The film tries it’s best to imply a slippery slope from foolish partying and bad dancing, to misdemeanor arrest, mugshots, addiction, death and murder. All from partaking of the Demon Weed. It does so in such a ham handed manner that the result is hysterically funny. Not just to modern audiences, teenagers in the 1940s (My parents’ generation) found it equally hysterical.
Regular den of murderers here.
Chicks dig musicians!
Dope fiend, or just a dope?
Oh yeah baby, that’s the good Oregano!
Watch out everyone, Ethel got into the cooking sherry again!
The back story of this film is actually more interesting than the film itself. There are several possible origins, the most widely accepted one is that it was produced by a church group between 1936 and 1938 as a message film, warning against the evils of the devil herb, marijuana. At that point it was known as Tell Your Children. Picked up by notorious schlock exploitation producer Dwain Esper, additional scenes were cut in to spice up the film for audiences. It was released in different regions of the country under different names. Doped Youth, Reefer Madness and The Burning Question being a few of the more popular.
Tell Your Children was a frequent feature at roadshows and drive-ins through the 1950s. Whether the film was ever intended as a real anti-drug propaganda piece or if it always was always intended to be an exploitation film is still something of a debate among film enthusiasts. Evading the 1930s era production code restrictions by masquerading as a “message” film was a popular tactic among low budget filmmakers and this type of film could be very profitable if properly marketed.
The film was rediscovered in the early 1970s. At this point it was realized that the film was not properly copyrighted and therefore public domain. It was released to uproarious laughter by Marijuana legalization activists. and eventually became frequent late night TV fare.
It has inspired homages, remakes and at least one musical. A special edition was released April 20, 2004 (4-20-2004) featuring subliminal gags and a spectacularly unrealistic colorized print with multi-colored marijuana smoke.
Bad film fans consider this one to be one of the best “bad” films ever made. Predating Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Robot Monster by 2 decades. Film critic Leonard Maltin has called it “the granddaddy of all ‘Worst’ movies.”
Verdict: Split Decision 1 gavel out of 5 for production, 4 out of 5 for entertainment.
Heavy handed messaging, bad production values and hysterical exaggerations make this film a complete flop as an anti-drug message, but an uproariously fun example of a film so bad, it’s entertaining. The film is out of copyright and available for streaming and download from the internet archive or youtube.