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News / Life / Entertainment

Marijuana in movies changes with culture

Pot depiction moves from demon weed to sight gag and beyond

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Published: January 12, 2020, 6:05am

CHICAGO — Now that cannabis and Illinois have made it legal, time has gone a little … haywire. It seems so long ago since Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong gave us the “Dave’s not here” routine. Forty-nine years later, it’s still 83 seconds of stupidly perfect stoner comedy, and without it, just about every commercially successful 21st century pothead odyssey, with side orders of violence and snacking — “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” “Pineapple Express,” dozens more — is unthinkable.

All that belongs to a distant epoch. Not the one our popular culture is figuring out what to do with now.

Does legalizing the forbidden take the funny out of it?

“It’s going to take some of it out,” argues Columbia College Chicago associate professor Ron Falzone, who teaches film and film history. “Part of comedy is dealing with the forbidden, and once something becomes legal it’s not the same. From a screenwriting perspective I wonder if the actions that characters (in a film, or TV show) take, if they’re using marijuana, will have to be more plausible. More people are going to know what marijuana is, and what it does, and doesn’t do.”

Falzone likens the Illinois cannabis legalization to the 1933 end of alcohol’s Prohibition era. “After Prohibition had turned the entire nation into criminals,” he says, even with the Depression raging “there was this period of elation in the movies.” He doesn’t expect a comparable pop-culture celebration regarding pot.

Neither does Tamika Spaulding, a recent graduate of the Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City. She agrees with Falzone: Legalization will “change the way it’s shown on screen.”

“Two things,” she says, “pop out to me when I think about how it’s usually dealt with: in a caper, like ‘Pineapple Express,’ or in a coming-of-age experimentation way.” The relatively uncharted territory, Spaulding says, lies in “being honest about the actual effects of marijuana. As a writer and director, it makes me think about marijuana as a storytelling device, and how to think about it differently.”

“There’s something interesting in how you can start to portray it on screen, as a part of an ordinary, everyday life.”

In the silent film era, marijuana (along with cocaine, heroin and other drugs) meant either criminality or hijinks or both, depending on the movies and on the political sentiment of the moment. The 1924 short “Notch Number One,” also known as “High on the Range,” delivered anti-marijuana propaganda in a Western setting. When an upright, clean-cut cowboy decides to experiment, it’s only a matter of time before he turns into a killer.

Other films, especially in the early sound era prior to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, turned marijuana into a gag — laughing gas in cigarette form. In the 1932 “Jewel Robbery,” William Powell is a suave burglar who disarms various authority figures by offering them his special cigarettes, “a pleasant, harmless smoke.” Bam! They’re giggling like maniacs in no time.

Depression-era audiences could’ve gotten high just watching some of the pre-Code musical numbers. In “The Big Broadcast” (1932), Cab Calloway hi-de-hoes his way through the song “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” borrowing the jazz underground phrase for smoking a “muggle,” or some “mezz,” aka cannabis. “It was down in Chinatown/All the cokies laid around/Some were high, and some were mighty low,” the lyrics went.

A year later, Calloway was back with an up-tempo ode to marijuana habitues, in the W.C. Fields comedy “International House” (1933). “What’s the matter with this cat here?” the bandleader asks his sidemen, while the bass player, plainly stoned, slaps out a crazy rhythm.

“He’s high!”

“Whaddya mean he’s high?”

“Fulla weed!”

“Fulla weed?!” And off they sail into a frantic comic ditty called “Reefer Man.” The song’s lyrics paint the man in question as a disoriented goofball half out of his mind. Just before the fade-out, however, Calloway is heard to utter: “Now pass that thing slightly, lightly and politely.”

One of the strangest of all pre-Code movies, “Murder at the Vanities” (1934), offers a musical interlude titled “Sweet Marihuana.” Against a backdrop of cactus and a chorus of Mexican guitars, vocalist Gertrude Michael wails: “Soothe me with your caress … help me in my distress, sweet marihuana.”

Bowing to boycott threats from, among others, the Catholic Legion of Decency, that same year Hollywood cleaned up its act. The Production Code, long sidestepped by the studios, went into enforcement. Meantime, with alcohol again legal, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics needed something to target.

Presto: reefer! Before long, wild-eyed anti-marijuana scare pictures such as “Reefer Madness” (1936) entered the marketplace. Decades later, that title once again became big business, although this time a punchline, when it recirculated in midnight screenings in the 1970s.

By that time the establishment culture had run headlong into the counterculture, and Hollywood didn’t know whether to follow the old blueprints or listen to the younger generation. Scare tactics, however, still made for effective melodrama. In the notorious 1967 “Dragnet” TV episode titled “The Big High,” a respectable-looking middle-class couple, not-so-secret dopers, leave their baby unattended in a rapidly filling bathtub. The child drowns.

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“The baby in the bathtub scene is not mine; Jack Webb did an uncredited rewrite to make his point,” screenwriter David H. Vowell, a veteran of ’60s and ’70s series television, told me the other day. “I objected at the time. And I still object. And this is the first time I’ve gone on the public record. But Jack was good to me. He had his finger on the pulse of law and order, and of law enforcement.” Vowell’s original script ended with the couple getting busted, and the child alive and well. Webb saw things differently.

Cheech & Chong saw things differently, too. By the time the comedy duo made it big with their self-titled 1971 debut album, the Jack Webbs of Hollywood had largely receded and the complex, contradictory pop culture swirl of New Hollywood spun forward.

Now marijuana was funny, or cool, or both. When Cheech & Chong tried their first movie, “Up in Smoke” (1978), it made tens of millions of dollars. And none of the most recent generation of stoner comedies would’ve been possible without it.

Things change. “I’m a Seth Rogen fan myself,” says Columbia College film professor Falzone, “but watching his movies over the past 10, 15 years, you can see a maturing process at work, just from the way he approaches storytelling. He doesn’t want to play the idiot the rest of his life.”

Then again, some things stay the same. Now, the children and grandchildren of anyone who saw “Reefer Madness” in the ’70s have found an unlikely love-to-hate-it successor. A recent Washington Post story by Maura Judkis details a novel phenomenon: The new and widely derided film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats” has become a mind-altering and mind-altered favorite for select audiences, either legally or illegally stoned.

The headline: “People are seeing ‘Cats’ while high out of their minds. These are their stories.”

As Falzone puts it: “There are movies about being high. And there are apparently still movies best appreciated when high.”