Marihuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell/Marihuana (1936) **½
Dwaine Esper, like most roadshow exploitationeers of the 30’s and 40’s, was a master of slipping things under the radar. The main trick, of course, was to sell sleaze under the twin disguises of education and public service, but in at least one instance, Esper strikingly subverted not only the censorship authorities of his day, but also the conventions of the genre within which he was operating, and presumably the expectations of his intended audience as well. It isn’t that Marihuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell skimped on the lurid sensationalism (in fact, it offers significantly more luridness that such famous contemporaries as Reefer Madness and The Cocaine Fiends), but rather than it sneaks in an unexpected degree of honesty about its subject, even while paying lip-service to the usual shrill pot-panic line. For despite its title, and although it is at pains to include the standard hysterical opening crawl and mocked-up newspaper headlines linking its protagonist’s slide into depravity to her marijuana use, the action and dialogue of the film just as explicitly paint pot-smoking as a trivial factor, putting the real blame on a combination of family neglect and much more genuinely dangerous drugs. It also treats the mechanics of the drug trade in a far more credible manner than any other contemporary exploitation movie I’ve seen, emphasizing its nature as a business, illegal though it may be. Watching it, you get the impression that Esper might actually have known a thing or two about how all this stuff really worked.
That neglectful family I mentioned is a well-heeled clan by the name of Roberts, although just how neglectful they are is very much a matter of perspective. The elder daughter, Elaine (Dorothy Dehn), is doted on by her parents, and from the way Mom (Juanita Fletcher) carries on, you’d think Elaine’s impending marriage to another society scion named Morgan Stewart (Polygamy’s Richard Erskine) were the only thing that mattered in the entire world. Among the things that implicitly don’t matter is Elaine’s little sister, Burma (Harley Wood), and the younger girl has responded to the systemic slight in the time-honored manner of attention-starved teenagers everywhere— by courting trouble as assiduously as her imagination and circumstances will permit. Her boyfriend, Dick Collier (Hugh McArthur), despite both high aspirations and what look like reasonable prospects of eventually realizing them, comes from a much poorer family than Burma’s, and seems unlikely ever to be accepted anywhere near as warmly by her parents as Morgan. Burma routinely uses imaginary study dates with a friend as alibis to cover extended bar-crawls with Dick and his somewhat disreputable associates. (That would have been perfectly legal, too, in 1936, when most states set their drinking ages at eighteen or even sixteen.) On one such occasion, she has her first meeting with Tony Santello (La Voluntad del Muerto’s Paul Ellis) and Nicky Romero (Pat Carlyle), two men who are fated to transform her life completely. Tony and Nicky (both of them a good fifteen years older than Burma and her friends are supposed to be— but inevitably ten years or less older than the actors playing the teenagers) overhear Burma and another girl lamenting the fact that their boyfriends’ wallets have run dry after only two rounds of drinks, and they send a waiter over to refill the kids’ glasses at their table. Dick gratefully invites Tony to join them, and when the conversation turns to the question of a venue for the party the teens would like to throw on Saturday, the older man volunteers his own house. Obviously this guy is up to something, but Dick, Burma, and the rest of the teens are too naïve to recognize or worry about that.
It turns out to be quite a shindig. Tony lives in a great, big place right on the beach, and the kids with whom he was drinking the other night manage to round up a sufficiently large mob of teens to fill it up quite cozily despite its size. Furthermore, the house is well stocked with both beer and whiskey, and Tony turns out to be even more magnanimous with his own booze than he was with the bar’s. By the time all the hotdogs that were the official excuse for the gathering have been consumed, everybody— with the notable exception of Tony and Nicky— is comfortably blitzed. That’s when Tony stealthily retrieves a bundle of home-rolled cigarettes from their hiding place behind a loose hearthstone, and lays them out on the counter with all the liquor; the two adults then withdraw discreetly to the second floor. The drunkest of the girls— who seems to have at least some idea what the non-standard smokes really are— lights up, and begins handing out joints to all of her friends. Before you know it, the girls are all splashing around naked in the surf (and being chased up and down the beach by their still fully clothed— as in, ties and everything— boyfriends), while Dick and Burma enjoy a good boff under Tony’s back porch. The fun is brought to a crashing halt, though, when a girl named Joan swims out farther than she’s capable of handling in her impaired state, and drowns. Playing once again upon the teens’ naivety, Tony convinces them all that they have more to fear from exposure of the night’s events than he does, and talks them into letting him deal with Joan. According to the next morning’s newspapers, Joan’s body merely washed up on Tony’s property; the girl had presumably stuck around to swim for a bit following the weenie roast further down the beach the preceding afternoon.
Joan’s death is not the only serious consequence of the party at Tony’s place. Burma misses her period a month later, and tells Dick that they will have to get married at once. Dick is up for it, but he has neither money nor a job, having intended to put off entering the workforce until after college. Burma shrewdly suggests that he approach Tony for a loan, hinting without putting it in so many words that the unexpected pregnancy is as much the dope-peddler’s problem as it is theirs— after all, they were at his beach house, high on his weed, when they got Burma knocked up. Tony seems to agree with that assessment, for although he professes to have no cash to spare just now, he does offer Dick a job. Santello has some merchandise coming in at the docks in a couple of days, and he needs a few men to pick it up for him. What Tony neglects to mention is that he also has business rivals. A bunch of them are there to greet Dick and the rest of the pickup crew at pierside, packing all kinds of heat. The gangsters open fire on the unprepared mules, and while Dick’s injuries are not immediately fatal, he bleeds out well before an opportunity to sneak by the gunmen presents itself. In a grimly ironic twist, the shooting occurs on the very same morning as Elaine and Morgan’s wedding.
We’ve already seen reason to believe that Burma is quite a bit tougher and more streetwise than she looks, so it isn’t too big a surprise when she arranges a confrontation with Tony a short while later. And although she proclaims her intention of turning Santello in to the police, the very fact that she’s telling him about it suggests that it’s not justice, but blackmail, that the girl has on her mind. In any case, Tony quickly slips into negotiation mode, offering to send Burma away somewhere to have her baby in secret in exchange for her silence about his role in everything that has gone sour in Burma’s life recently. As Tony explains, there are lots of rich but impatient couples eager to adopt, but unwilling to wait in line for the privilege. Tony and Nicky will see to it that Burma’s kid finds a good home, and that no social disgrace will fall upon the Roberts family due to her behavior. Burma not only accepts Tony’s bargain, but eventually takes him as her lover; he, in turn, makes her a partner to all his illegal doings— not just his pot sales, but the heroin and cocaine, too. Over time, she acquires a taste not only for hard drugs, but for the easy and copious money that crime brings her, and she eventually proves herself so good at breaking the law that she supplants Tony as the mastermind of the operation. Then one day, a random encounter with her sister inspires her with a scheme to pull in enough cash that even the heroin revenue will look like small change in comparison, and to take up an old grudge while she’s at it. She and her accomplices are going to kidnap Elaine’s preschool-age daughter and hold her for ransom.
You see what I mean about Marihuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell being far removed from the standard 30’s drug-panic movie? The title notwithstanding, marijuana is at most a sideline here, figuring in the rowdy party that sets up everybody’s downfall, but then vanishing almost completely from the main story. That party, meanwhile, is played less for absurdly exaggerated pot shenanigans (although it certainly has plenty of those) than for sheer misjudgement on the part of the teenage characters. I won’t go so far as to call what happens at Tony’s house realistic, but it is not completely beyond the bounds of plausibility in the manner of so many other contemporary dopesploitation flicks. Get a bunch of eighteen-year-olds together with a bunch of alcohol, a bunch of weed, and no meaningful supervision, and there is indeed some chance that they’ll have impromptu skinny-dipping parties, get each other pregnant, or get themselves killed— even if it’s statistically very unlikely that they’ll do all of those things at once. It’s also worth noting that nobody involved is instantly transformed into a pot-addled menace to society. It takes Burma years to become “the Ice Queen of the Snow Peddlers,” and heroin is plainly her drug of choice by that point, anyway. What makes this doubly interesting is the cynical way in which Esper continues to talk up the marijuana angle, no matter how irrelevant to the plot it becomes. Burma’s rise to the status of underworld royalty is depicted by a montage of drugs and money changing hands while newspaper headlines rant and rave, but although those headlines invariably refer to the marijuana trade specifically, the packages Burma hands over to her customers plainly contain something else of higher price, potency, and destructiveness. Additionally, Burma’s death (what— like you didn’t see that coming?) is unmistakably of a smack overdose (she shoots up not two minutes earlier), but the final shot is of her lying inert amid a drift of reefers! It’s like Esper is winking at the savvier members of the audience, slyly acknowledging the absurdity of the 30’s pot scare even as he cashes in on it for all it’s worth. While it has very little to offer from any normal artistic perspective, Marihuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell earns my startled respect for its creator’s clearly signposted duplicity.