Reefer Madness is the gold standard of Depression-era anti-drug hysteria. In the years since its debut, it has become an unintentional cult classic. Combining a grade-schooler’s understanding of marijuana with delightfully unhinged performances, it casts pot as a demon weed with all the power of crystal meth, PCP, and Wolverine when he has amnesia. Other movies tried to do the same thing, and though they are not classics, they fail just as spectacularly, like this week’s Yakmala entry, 1935’s The Cocaine Fiends a.k.a. The Pace That Kills.
Tagline: The white dust from hell!
More Accurate Tagline: The white dust from Walgreens!
Guilty Party: Normally when it comes to this section, I blame the film’s director. Sometimes I blame the writer, occasionally the producer, possibly a lead actor, if it’s obvious who greenlit the film in question. For The Cocaine Fiends I’m forced to go farther afield and blame William Randolph Hearst and the British East India Company. The former gets the blame for using yellow journalism to kick off the same hysteria that birthed these films (solely to protect his personal fortune in timber) and the latter for addicting all of China to opium to get at the sweet, sweet tea they were hiding. Thanks, you rich fuckwads. You screwed up the scope of history for the sake of a buck.
Synopsis: The film wastes no time in laying out its thesis, namely that cocaine is bad. It does so with a misspelled and poorly-formatted opening crawl begging for “an aroused and educated public awareness.” I suggest stroking the public’s awareness until it grows turgid, but to stop before it loses control and sprays educational pamphlets all over everything.
A couple gangsters want to get to a nearby town to start selling the Bolivian marching powder they have in the back of their car. The fuzz is after them, so one guy, Nick the Pusher, gets out with the product and hides in a diner while the driver keeps going. I have no idea how they manage the drop without the cops seeing. Nick flirts with Jane, who appears to be the only employee in this diner. He says she belongs in the city and he knows a fella who could put her in a show right away! She has a headache, and what luck, he has the grandest headache medicine in the world! He teaches her how to snort it, just like a good father showing his son how to get a squirmy nightcrawler on a hook, or how to shoot up between the toes so no one notices the needle tracks. He promises to come back and see her.
Through the magic of smash cuts, he’s doing just that, trying to get her to come to town with him. He gives her more booger sugar and she agrees to marry him. She’ll stay with friends of his until the wedding, since living together would be indecent. Turns out, these “friends” are just this one older lady who holds Jane prisoner. Nick fills Jane full of drugs, takes her out every now and again, and will eventually kick her to the curb when she’s all used up. Jane asks for some headache powder. The older woman laughs, and informs her that it’s actually dope, cocaine, the kid-catcher. And just… wow. I guess that last one meant something before perverts were invented.
Meanwhile, Nick keeps Jane controlled with, um, kid-catcher, and finally gives her that stage show she was promised, at a dive called the Dead Rat Cafe. One day, while Nick drops off some headache powder at a drive-in restaurant (to be distributed by carhop and Sergeant Pepper lookalike Fanny), Jane recognizes the other carhop working there: It’s Eddie, her brother come to the big city to look for his runaway sister. Another character, wealthy socialite Dorothy, is introduced here, and she has the hots for Eddie. Fanny asks Eddie on a date, but he’s too tired. Kid-catcher to the rescue! Oh, man. He’d just be the worst pulp hero ever.
Eddie and Jane run into each other that night at the club. Jane pretends not to know him, and sends him packing with her catchphrase: “Beat it, you!” Dorothy, also at the Dead Rat that night, gets scolded later at home by her wealthy father for hanging out with a bad element. Eddie and Fanny sink further into the drug scene and get fired for being hopheads. A time jump later, and Fanny has a part time job and Eddie is sleeping in the park. He moves in, which is so scandalous, even Nick the Pusher refused to do it.
Eddie, hooked bad, begs for dope. Fanny, though broke, goes out and gets it somehow. The movie never really says. Fanny later runs into Dorothy outside the Dead Rat Cafe, and Dorothy gives the woman some money. Fanny comes home and gives Eddie the money, asking if they might quit the dope. Eddie refuses and leaves. Fanny stares at the stove, and it is later revealed that she killed herself.
Meanwhile, at the Dead Rat Cafe, there’s a diversion and Nick kidnaps Dorothy. He leaves her in the same place he initially took Jane. Jane, suddenly remembering she was in the movie, finds Eddie in a racist, old-timey opium den. Jane tells him he’s only a first stage hophead, and he can still go home if he has a little money.
Desperate for cash, Jane goes to the rape house to extort some cash from Nick. Instead, she finds Dorothy, who is there for “the boss” who likes cute little blondes. So that’s nice. Anyway, Jane calls the cops, but Nick shows up first. She kills Nick, and then the boss shows up. Turns out it’s Dorothy’s dad! So, that was going to be an awkward sex slave gift. Well, you know. More awkward than most.
Still, all’s well that ends well! Dorothy gets herself a cop husband. Who knows what happens to Jane and Eddie? Wasn’t like they were the main characters or anything.
Life-Changing Subtext: Drugs ruin women, but men have a shot at redemption.
Defining Quote: Eddie, subtly explaining his problem to Fanny: “I’ve gotta have dope! I’m a hophead! I’d sell my soul for just one shot!”
Standout Performance: Lois January as Jane is so recognizable as a trope in ‘30s acting to have slipped into unfortunate and hilarious self-parody. And she has a catchphrase! “Beat it, you!”
What’s Wrong: An anti-drug cheapie from the Depression probably wasn’t going to be good no matter what, but some basic understanding of what cocaine is might have been nice. I’m not asking them to predict the ‘80s or anything, but don’t confuse it with opium.
Flash of Competence: The plot twist with Dorothy’s dad has just enough noirish insanity to be appealing.
Best Scenes: In the film’s single bid to provide some kind of temporal context, we periodically cut back to Jane and Eddie’s widowed mom. The scene is always the weird tubby mailman telling her there’s no mail for her. The best part is the performance of the mailman, who infuses every line with a leer, so that the act of getting a letter from one’s estranged offspring comes off feeling smutty.
This is apropos of nothing, but this line is amazing: “Dames don’t tip like men. They pay off in smiles!”
Transcendent Moment: There’s nothing quite so funny as the junkie breakdown in the climax of any anti-drug entertainment. From the escalating insanity of the party in Reefer Madness to Jessie Spano singing “I’m so exciiiited!” it’s tough to match the hilarity of such earnest material employed for melodramatic means. In this case, Eddie begs for coke (in the film’s Defining Quote), before slipping into wheedling. It’s implied Fanny goes out and whores herself out for the drug, but you know what might have been effective in scaring people? Someone shown whoring themselves for drugs!
The Cocaine Fiends is a relic of a more innocent time. A more hilarious one, too.
For another film from this same collection, check out my review of the Melville-penned Omoo-Omoo the Shark God!