Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Exploitation Movies: Marihuana (1936)

The late 1930s produced a cornucopia of grindhouse exploitation films (aka "sexploitation" movies), usually disguised as "educational" movies that were ostensible cautionary tales about one social problem or another.

Marihuana [sic], directed by cheesy schlock director and "King of the Celluloid Gypsies" Dwain Esper, is nowhere near as unintentionally hilarious as Reefer Madness, but it does have its fun-to-watch moments.

Full movie:

There is of course the obligatory warning scroll -- the so-called "square-up" disclaimer -- about the Narcotic Menace where we learn the FACT that marijuana, "the Hashish of the Orent, is commonly distributed as a doped cigarette" and that "its most terrifying effect is that it fires the user to extremely cruelty and license".  Really.

The plot centers on a "teenage" girl named Burma (played by 23-year-old Harley Wood), supposedly from one of those "good homes" that are always in the background of these characters -- it can happen anywhere! Burma is the younger sister of Elaine, and the intensity of the sibling rivalry is off the rails. It is nothing but obvious that Mother loves Elaine more, so Burma has to do what she can to make up for that lack of parental affection.

She's out jitterbugging with her boyfriend, Dick, and some other "kids" in a bar when an older man, Tony, sidles up to their table and smoothly introduces himself with the oily air of a skeezy used car salesman. It's already established before he even approaches them that he is a dope pusher, dealing drugs right there in the nightclub. In real life, of course, these kids would run away from a guy like this as quick as they could. Not this gang, though. They want to have a "weenie roast" on the beach the coming weekend, and Tony, his pencil-thin mustache quivering in anticipation, offers the free use of his beach house.

Cut to the beach party at the house, everyone starts smoking Tony's weed and literally from the very first (non-inhaled!) puff they all get the giggles. While this party could have taken place anywhere, it's set on the beach so one of the girls can suggest that they go skinny-dipping The next thing you know a squealing bevy of naked twenty-five-year-old teenagers is dashing into the water.

During the course of this party, Burma's boyfriend has his way with her, right there in the sand. One of the girls -- the immediately-disposable one (who would be wearing the red shirt in a Star Trek episode) -- doesn't come back from the water but no one notices that she's gone (damn dope!) for quite a while. Then they suddenly remember her but it's too late and they find her body washed up on the beach. Dead.

Tony convinces the kids to say nothing about being in his house, the cops buy the story, the local newspaper tut-tuts over the drowning and just when you think everything is going to be okay, Burma turns up with a didn't-see-that-coming pregnancy from her tryst with Dick in the sand.

The boyfriend says he will marry her, but because he doesn't have a job or any money (despite the fact that he is tooling around town in a late-model roadster) he goes to Tony for help. Tony of course is glad to "help" and sends the boyfriend out to help unload bales of dope from a boat at the docks. The police are watching the boat, an action-packed running gun battle ensues, and the boyfriend is, surprise, killed by the police.

In her last act as the "good girl", Burma confronts Tony and threatens to go to the police. Tony is way too smooth for that to happen, so he convinces Burma not only to not go to the cops, but that he will send her away some place to have her baby so she doesn't bring the shame of an illegitimate child onto her family, especially her older sister who is marrying into a society family.

Fast-forward to Burma in a hospital bed, apparently having just given birth, and Tony shows up to tell her that he's arranged for a wealthy couple to adopt the baby and give it a good home. Burma has reservations, but finally agrees to this arrangement, and the next time we see her several years later she's had a personality transplant. She is now a brassy, aggressive, hardened -- and addicted herself -- dope dealer who goes by the gangster nickname "Blondie", delivering the stuff for Tony and his sidekick.

When she accidentally sees her sister and her hoity-toity rich husband with their daughter, she lands on the final solution to even the score with Elaine. She will kidnap the little girl and extort $50,000 in ransom from her sister, who will pay because she won't want it known that Blondie, a dope-pushing kidnapper, is her sister.

We don't see the actual kidnapping, but we see Burma trying unsuccessfully to bond with the little girl -- who looks like an alternate-reality Shirley Temple -- while they are waiting for the ransom to be paid.

Now that we are the end of the movie the pace picks up: In rapid-fire order we learn that -- again, surprise -- the little girl is actually Burma's child given up for adoption. Adopted by her own sister! Burma rushes home for that mother-and-child-reunion that we already know is not going to go well On the way she still finds time to stop and shoot up, and then she collapses into overdose heaven the moment she sees the child.

Lessons learned: Marijuana is the gateway drug into heroin and cocaine, oily men with pencil-thin mustaches are not to be trusted, and just one puff(!) will get you addicted. Then it's one ugly crime-infested downward spiral into death.

Also released as Marihuana: The Devil's Weed!; Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell!

Further exploration:
Marihuana on the IMDB.
Dwain Esper: King of the Celluloid Gypsies -- short documentary about Esper on YouTube.
Exploitation Film on Wikipedia.