Title: Marihuaha
Year: 1936
Running time: 58 minutes
Country of origin: USA


Marihuana is the earliest known anti-marijuana propaganda film. It predated the much greater-known Reefer Madness by nearly a year. (Shockingly, the production values employed by Reefer Madness are vastly superior.) It was directed (in the loosest sense of the word) by Dwain Esper, the 1930s master of hateful shock films. He made a number of other "anti-" movies before his retirement in the late 1940s which villified various substances and/or sex (usually concentrating on one or the other, but occasionally both, always relying on the ham-fisted, brute strength of disinformation). Marihuana is no different; the characters are stupid and one-dimensional, the dialogue is pat and smarmy, the "lesson" is full of holes and the acting is very reminiscent of community theatre.

The film was apparently shot on extremely low-quality film with low-quality equipment, as it has the look and feel of one of those 3-minute archive films of cows grazing, or something equally mundane, from the 1890s, only with sound. The cameras used to shoot this film appear to have had a frame capacity of no more than 4 or 5 frames per second (by way of comparison, all post-1950 movies run at either 29.97 FPS for NTSC or 25 FPS for PAL and SECAM), so you get the feeling that everything is moving through space at a preternatural speed, with half-second-long gaps interrupting all movement.


The story starts out in a rickety dancehall, where everyone is drinking and having a good time. We observe what seems like about fifteen hours of the patrons going to or returning from the bar, drunk people doing exaggerated drunk people things (like falling over), a man putting a hot dog (with bun) into his mug of beer, and a couple of shifty-looking older gentlemen furtively watching everyone, one of whom has a pencil moustache, which is how we know he's a villain. After ten more hours of people dancing and drunkenly blurting out hopelessly naïve colloquialisms, they decide to have a "weenie roast" the following Saturday. Presumably, they'll be over their feigned hangovers by then.

After the bar scene, we're introduced to our protagonist, "Burma," and her drunk boyfriend, "Dick." They're driving along a hilly road and decide to pull over for some lovin'. After five seconds of closed-mouth kissing, Burma decides that things are getting too hot and heavy, and steadfastly refuses to have sex with Dick until after they're married. Dick is, of course, let down, as Burma walks away in a huff. This is where the appalling film quality is as its worst—watching Burma walk down the road in a white dress at nighttime is like watching a flipbook, only impossibly slower. Eventually Dick catches up to her in his car and drives her home, where she tries to sneak in (through the front door—how cunning!) and is caught by her socialite mother, who unsurprisingly quizzes Burma about why she was out so late, and about how Dick is shiftless, not a good man, and why can't she be more like her sister, etc., etc.

We then cut to the "weenie roast," where everyone is again drunk and giggly and acting so far over-the-top that they're caught in the barbed wire. The shifty older guys from the previous bar scene are there, and as a rousing dance number comes on and preoccupies everyone, one of them ("Tony") smugly removes a pack of cigarettes from the group's table and replaces it with... something. After the group has finished dancing, they return to the table and light up.

"These cigarettes taste funny!" says Joanne, the resident bimbo.

After a couple of drags on these "funny" cigarettes (which are, of course, marijuana), the group decides to head to the beach house. Tony and his sidekick, a Greek man named "Nicki," join them. We know Nicki is a villain because he speaks with a Greek accent, which means he's not American. Straightaway we cut to a scene with all the female characters stripping off their clothes because they couldn't find any bathing suits. Yes, there is actual nudity in this 1930s movie! There are a few second-long shots of breasts (taken from the side), and then the girls go screaming out into the night to swim in the ocean. After not too long a time, the guys (Dick and his no doubt shiftless friends) find the empty dressing room, so they decide to investigate, but not before some truly odd comments concerning the girls' discarded clothing.

"I'm gonna fill these up!" says one of Dick's shiftless male friends, holding up a gigantic pair of panties. (Um, OK. I'm unsure of what he meant by that, but it sure seems like a baffling thing to say about implied sexual activity. Does he intend to shit in them?)


The guys hustle outside and find the girls streaking around the beach. One insightful fellow suddenly yells "Where's Joanne?!" They start searching for her. The still-naked girls eventually find her, washed up on the beach, having drowned after getting stoned. The evil marijuana dealer, Tony, offers to cover it up for them, as long as they don't say anything. This leads everyone to fall on hard times as they deal with their loss. Dick, who didn't have a job to begin with, promises to provide for Burma when they get married, and then promptly asks her to marry him. So they get married. By this time you won't care one way or another what they do because they're such godawfully stupid and boring characters, but I'll go on with the plot synopsis anyway. Dick takes a job working at the docks for Tony, helping to unload drug shipments from boats. Suddenly, one fine afternoon, a policeman catches a fleeting glimpse of Dick carrying a burlap bundle full of... something. Immediately, he gives chase, so Dick and his stevedore cohorts drop their bundles and make a break for it. The policeman manages to shoot and kill them all. (I'd like to find out whether he got away with the "probable cause" bit after seeing some people carrying burlap sacks, then opening fire on them.)

Burma, of course, is devistated—after she and Dick got married, she got pregnant. Oh no! How will she care for the impending baby if she doesn't have a man to provide for her?! The horror! I dare not even contemplate it. However, we're shown what happens anyway. We cut to several months later, after she's had the baby. Tony and Nicki convince her to give it up for adoption so she can devote herself to selling drugs for them. She ponders the decision for about a tenth of a second and then agrees. We see a montage of cut scenes of Burma selling pot, cocaine, heroin, and other unspecified substances. After a while she's become a totally heartless bitch, and waltzes around in a fur coat and enough jewelry to make Mr. T green with envy. She visits a housewife and sells her a small packet of heroin, which she is $5 short of paying for, so Burma extorts the woman's wedding ring. Being a heroin addict means that you have no sense of sentimentality, apparently. After she has her prized weekly stash, she immediately starts to cook up. Her husband comes home after Burma leaves and asks why she's acting so funny, where her wedding ring is, etc. She gives the typical "Why, I must've lost it!" response and then that's the end of her involvement in the movie.

Cut back to Tony's headquarters, where Burma walks in and shoots up herself. She then comes up with a plan to kidnap the young heiress that her high society sister has adopted in the interim to get some phat ransom money to finance their operation.

"But Blondie, you know what the wrap is for a snatch job," cautions Nicki.

"That's the beauty of it. There won't be any wrap. Would a well-heeled society dame tell the whole world it's her own sister who stole her kid?" Ah, the language of pseudo-film noir.


As though you couldn't see this coming from a mile away, the child heiress ends up being the very same little girl that Burma gave up for adoption so she could become a drug dealer. We find this out when she goes to collect the ransom money from the girl's father, that is, her brother in law. They seem to have adopted the little girl from a "troubled mother" when she was a newborn. Upon learning this revelation, Burma goes back to Tony's headquarters and overdoses on heroin (as if she couldn't see this plot point coming a mile away on her own), after which the coppers bust in and arrest Tony and Nicki. You dirty rat!

At the end of the movie, it seems like you've been sitting there watching it for at least the past sixty years. Its pacing couldn't beat a quadriplegic in a motorcross race. It's the most tedious, trite, and uninformed movie to come out of pre-WWII America, even worse than The Birth of a Nation. It makes Reefer Madness look like The Godfather. Its huge and uninformed bias against drugs of any kind makes Fox News look like Out! Magazine in comparison.


Fortunately, someone at Alpha Video dug up this septic tank of a propaganda film and put it on DVD, which is how I saw it. The promise of nudity, however brief, in a pre-1960s film was too good to pass up, and I thought the heavily skewed, über-conservative worldview of the general public of the time would be good for a laugh. In the end, it was—if you can stand to sit through a movie worse than even the most horrific offerings of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The fact that the producers used the now-archaic "marihuana" spelling also made me giggle a bit. However, it was still the worst movie I've ever seen, although at 58 minutes it's not really feature-length, but it's definitely not a documentary or a serial. Check it out if you're a cinematic masochist like me.

Produced and directed by
Dwain Esper

Writing credits
Rex Elgin
Hildegarde Stadie (screenplay)

Credited cast
Harlene Wood as Burma Roberts
Hugh McArthur as Tony Montello
Paul Ellis as Nickolas 'Nicki' Romero
Gloria Browne as Gloria, the heiress
Dorothy Dehn as Joanne
Richard Erskine as Dick
Juanita Fletcher as Burma's mother
Hal Taggart as Morgan Stuart

(The rest of the cast is uncredited.)

I apologise profusely if your parents or grandparents were in this movie.

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