Reefer Madness (originally released as Tell Your Children and sometimes titled as The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness) is a 1936 American propaganda exploitation film revolving around the melodramatic events that ensue when high school students are lured by pushers to try marijuana — from a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, and descent into madness. The film was directed by Louis J. Gasnier and starred a cast composed of mostly unknown bit actors.

Originally financed by a church group under the title Tell Your Children, the film was intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use.[1] However, soon after the film was shot, it was purchased by producer Dwain Esper, who re-cut the film for distribution on the exploitation film circuit.[1] The film did not gain an audience until it was rediscovered in the 1970s and gained new life as a piece of unintentional comedy among advocates of cannabis policy reform.[1][2] Today, it is in the public domain in the United States and is considered a cult film.[2] It inspired a musical satire, which premiered off-Broadway in 2001, a film based on the musical in 2005 and a number of puns.[3]


Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young) — a couple supposedly "living in sin," yet sleeping in separate beds as all married couples depicted in films of the era — sell marijuana. Mae prefers to sell marijuana to customers her own age, whereas Jack sells the plant to young teenagers. Ralph Wiley (Dave O'Brien), a psychotic ex-college student turned fellow dealer (and addict, according to the film), and Blanche (Lillian Miles) help Jack sell cannabis to young students. Young students Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig) and Jimmy Lane (Warren McCollum) are invited to Mae and Jack's apartment by Blanche and Ralph. Jimmy takes Bill to the party. There, Jack runs out of reefer. Jimmy, who has a car, drives him to pick up some more. Arriving at Jack's boss' "headquarters," he gets out and Jimmy asks him for a cigarette. Jack gives him a joint. Later, when Jack comes back down and gets into the car, Jimmy drives off dangerously, along the way running over a pedestrian with his car. A few days later, Jack tells Jimmy that the pedestrian died of his injuries. Jack agrees to keep Jimmy's name out of the case, providing he agrees to "forget he was ever in Mae's apartment". Jimmy does indeed escape the consequences of his crime — a rare occurrence in the film.

Bill begins an affair with Blanche. Mary (Dorothy Short), Jimmy's sister and Bill's girlfriend, goes to Mae's apartment looking for Jimmy, and accepts a joint from Ralph, thinking it to be a normal cigarette. When she refuses Ralph's advances, he tries to rape her. Bill comes out of the bedroom after having sex with Blanche, and hallucinates that Mary strips for Ralph. He attacks Ralph, and as the two are fighting, Jack tries to break it up by hitting Bill with the butt of his gun. The gun goes off and Mary is killed. In one of the camera shots taking place before it is revealed that Mary has been "shot in the back," the gun is aimed at the floor, one of the film's most revealing mistakes. Jack puts the gun in the hand of an unconscious Bill, and wakes him up. Bill sees the gun in his hand, and is led to believe that he has killed Mary. The group of dealers lies low for a while in Blanche's apartment while Bill's trial takes place. Ralph, losing his sanity, wants to tell the police who is actually responsible for the death of Mary. The film attributes Ralph's insanity to marijuana use.

Seeking advice from his boss, Jack is told to shoot Ralph so he keeps his mouth shut. Meanwhile, at the apartment, Blanche offers to play some piano music for Ralph to keep his mind off things. They are both very high, and Ralph tells her to play faster. She increases her playing speed to a downright cartoon-like speed in one of the film's most famous and over-the-top sequences. Jack shows up and Ralph immediately senses that Jack wants to kill him, so he kills Jack by beating him to death. The police arrest Ralph, Mae, and Blanche. Mae talks, and the criminal gang is rounded up. Blanche explains that Bill was innocent, and he is released. Blanche is then held as a material witness for the case against Ralph, but rather than testify against him, Blanche jumps out a window and falls to her death. Ralph is put in an asylum for the criminally insane "for the rest of his natural life." Mae's ultimate fate is unspecified.

The film's story is told in bracketing sequences at a lecture given at a PTA meeting by high school principal, Dr. Alfred Carroll. At the end of the film, he tells the parents he has been talking to that events similar to those he has described are likely to happen again, and then points to random parents in the audience and warns that "the next tragedy may be that of your daughter's... or your son's... or yours, or yours..." before pointing straight at the camera and saying emphatically "...or YOURS!" as the words "TELL YOUR CHILDREN" appear on the screen.


  • Dorothy Short as Mary Lane
  • Kenneth Craig as Bill Harper
  • Lillian Miles as Blanche
  • Dave O'Brien as Ralph Wiley
  • Thelma White as Mae Coleman
  • Carleton Young as Jack Perry
  • Warren McCollum as Jimmy Lane
  • Pat Royale as Agnes
  • Josef Forte as Dr. Alfred Carroll
  • James Ard as Officer Chuckman
  • Harry Harvey Jr. as Junior Harper


Tell Your Children was financed by a church group and intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use.[1][4] Soon after the film was shot, however, it was purchased by notorious exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper, who inserted salacious shots and applied the more scandalous title of Reefer Madness, before distributing it on the exploitation circuit.[1] Such education-exploitation films were common in the years following adoption of the stricter version of the Production Code in 1934. Other films included Esper's own Marihuana (1936) and Elmer Clifton's Assassin of Youth (1937), and the subject of cannabis was particularly popular in the hysteria surrounding Harry J. Anslinger |Anslinger's 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.

The film was then reissued under several titles in addition to Reefer Madness, including Dope Addict, Doped Youth, Love Madness, and The Burning Question.[1][4][2] The concept of after-market films in film distribution had not yet been developed, especially for films that existed outside the confines of the studio system, and were therefore considered "forbidden fruit". For this reason, neither Esper nor the original filmmakers bothered to protect the film's copyright, and it eventually fell into the public domain.[1]

In 1971, Reefer Madness was discovered in the Library of Congress archives by NORML founder Keith Stroup, who bought a print for $297, and made it the darling of pot smokers and college campuses. For this modern audience, the poor production values and overacting create an uproarious comedy. Distributing Reefer Madness to college campuses of the 1970s helped bankroll the burgeoning film company New Line Cinema.[1][2]

Reefer Madness is considered to be a cult classic and one of the best examples of a midnight movie. Its fans enjoy the film for the same unintentionally campy production values that made it a hit in the 1970s.[2] Sean Abley's stage adaptation, Reefer Madness, ran for a year in Chicago in 1992.[5] The film was spoofed in a musical of the same name, which was later made into a made-for-television film in 2005, which featured actors such as Alan Cumming, Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, and Ana Gasteyer.[6]

Release history[]

In 2004, 20th Century Fox, in collaboration with Legend Films, released a colorized version of the film on DVD.[7] The original release date was April 20, 2004, a reference to the drug slang term "420". Also during the film, the number "4" and then "20" is flashed very quickly (as a joke on subliminal messages), which is an effect added by Legend Films. The color version features intentionally unrealistic color schemes that add to the film's unintentionally campy humor. The smoke from the "marihuana" was made to appear green, blue, orange, and purple, each person's colored smoke representing their mood and the different "levels of 'addiction'".[4]

The DVD also included a short film called Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook, a new trailer for Reefer Madness, produced by Legend Films, and two audio commentaries, one discussing the color design and the other being a comedic commentary by Michael J. Nelson, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. Legend Films owns the copyright to the colorized version of Reefer Madness. While most have praised the new color version for its campy treatment of the cult film, some viewers claimed that the color choices would better suit a film about LSD than a film about cannabis.[8] A DivX file of the colorized version with the commentary embedded is available as part of Nelson's RiffTrax On Demand service.[9] In 2009, a newly-recorded commentary by Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, called the "Three Riffer Edition", was released by RiffTrax,[10] and was the feature of a Rifftrax live event on August 19, 2010.

The DVD release of the 2005 TV movie has the original film as a bonus feature.

See also[]

  • Reefer Madness (musical)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 The history of Reefer Madness. Archived from the original on 2005-10-28. Retrieved on 2006-11-07.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Peary, Danny (1981). Cult Movies. New York: Delacorte Press. pp. 203–205. ISBN 0-440-01626-6.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Peary" defined multiple times with different content
  3. Reefer Sadness
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Sandrew, Barry; Horvath, Rosemary (2004), "Commentary" (DVD), Reefer Madness, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, ISBN 0-2454310246-5 Template:Please check ISBN
  5. Playscripts.com information page for Reefer Madness by Sean Abley.
  6. Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  7. Amazon. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  8. Hoover, Travis Mackenzie, Reefer Madness (DVD review), Film Freak Central, http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/dvdreviews/reefermadness.htm, retrieved 2006-12-23 .
  9. Reefer Madness, RiffTrax, archived from the original on 2007-12-15, http://web.archive.org/web/20071215110948/http://shop.rifftrax.com/ondemand/reefer-madness-vod, retrieved 2007-12-21 .
  10. Reefer Madness. RiffTrax. Retrieved on 2009-01-24.
  • F.E.A.R 2: Reefer Madness poster in Halford's study (1/2/12)

External links[]

This page uses some content from Wikipedia. See this Wikipedia article: Reefer Madness. The list of authors there can be seen in the page history there. As with the Cannabis Wiki, the text of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.