Marihuana (1936)

Marihuana_(1936)‘I’m the doll who should be sporting the rocks.’

A well-to-do society girl resents her family’s concentration on the fortunes of her older sister and starts running around with a fast crowd. At a weekend house party, she is introduced to the ‘Weed of Evil’ and her life disintegrates into habitual hard drug use and the world of organised crime.

Ex-carny and shady businessman Dwain Esper was arguably history’s first exploitation filmmaker. Typically, his films focused on drug use, prostitution and other social ills, often depicting these vices in an almost documentary fashion. Bypassing the usual outlets, Esper took his cheap and cheerful pictures on the road himself, exhibiting in halls and burlesque clubs and taking money on the door. He sidestepped problems with obscenity laws by arguing that the films were educational. To prove his point, they often included cautionary captions and the protagonists always came to a bad end.

This film was pretty much a re-run of the earlier ‘Narcotic’ (1933), also written by Esper’s wife, a former snake dancer. This time around, instead of a promising young doctor getting hooked, it’s high spirited teenager, Burma, who starts looking for kicks in all the wrong places. As we join the action, she’s dancing the night away in a disreputable juke joint downtown. We know it’s disreputable because people are drinking and some of them look rather intoxicated. There are some slurred words and laughing and snogging. Someone even falls over. This is bad. Burma and her friends get targeted by two older guys, who are wearing their hats indoors, a sure sign of the criminal type. They invite Burma and her naïve companions to a house party the following week. On the way home that night, Burma’s boyfriend gets a bit frisky in the car! The cad!

Marihuana (1936)

Taking drugs make all your clothes fall off…

Next weekend, the house party gets out of hand with all sorts of hi-jinks. There’s snogging, rolling around on the floor, more snogging and a fight with soda siphons!  Our dodgy hosts get out the ‘special cigarettes’ and, before you know it, all the girls have stripped off and gone skinny-dipping in the sea. We see actual breasts (disgraceful!) and one of them quite rightly pays the price for such brazen behaviour when she drowns (the wages of sin, eh?)

Later on, we find out that the frisky boyfriend has got Burma in the family way. Apparently, it happened at the house party (I must have blinked and missed that part) and he has to get a job with the drug pushers so he can pay the bills and marry her. But things go wrong and it’s all downhill from there for our feisty (and rather dim) heroine.

By 1936, Esper had made a few films so he’d learnt some of the rudiments of the process. This is actually a great pity as it was the rough edges and technical incompetence that made such efforts as the delirious ‘Maniac’ (1934) so incredibly entertaining. The only signs of such failings here are the obviously tiny budget and some of the supporting cast, who are very stilted. The story is obvious and predictable but does serve to highlight some of the interesting social attitudes of the time. Burma rebels because her mother spends all her time concentrating on getting an older sister ‘safely married’ (her words). Obviously, this is because women can’t be trusted on their own without a man.

Amazingly for a Dwain Esper project, the finished film does have one notable strength and it comes in the lead performance of Harley Wood. Yes, her early scenes of intoxication are pretty laughable, but, once past that, she charts Burma’s transformation from teenage tearaway to hardened criminal with a level of skill that belongs in a far better arena than this. In real life, she was actually a professional songwriter and her acting career never came to more than bits in a few low budget westerns and crime pictures. The most famous film she graced was Oscar winning ‘My Man Godfrey’ (1936) with William Powell and Carole Lombard. She played ‘Socialite.’

Esper gave up making films about drugs after this one. He switched to the evils of sex instead!


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