A History of Drugs and Addiction in American Film
The first American-produced drug film, Opium Joint, a kinescope is produced by W. K. Laurie Dickson for Thomas Edison.
The Association of the Motion Picture Industry issues the industry’s first edict against depictions of drug use in movies. It advises against films based on “stories which make gambling and drunkenness attractive or of scenes which show the use of narcotics and other unnatural practices dangerous to social morality.”
Film star Wallace Reid dies at age 31 as a result of morphine addiction and heavy drinking. His widow, Florence Reid, crusades against drugs and helps produce the anti-drug melodramaHuman Wreckage, which becomes a hit and serves as the prototype for the modern exploitation film.
Hollywoodadopts the Motion Picture Production Code, which, in point three, stipulates that “illegal drug traffic must never be presented. Because of its evil consequences, the drug traffic should never be presented in any form. The existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences.”
Reefer Madness is released along with other films sensationalizing the evils of drug use. Some are destined to become cult classics in the ‘seventies.
The Motion Picture Production Code is modified to state, “The illegal drug must not be portrayed in such a way as to stimulate curiosity concerning the use of or traffic in such drugs; nor shall scenes be approved which show the use of illegal drugs, or their effects in detail.
Robert Mitchum is busted and jailed for marijuana possession. Instead of killing his career as expected, his popularity skyrockets.
The Man with the Golden Arm is released, the first A-picture treatment of drug use. Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak star. Despite direct Code violations, it is given a “B” rating and plays to wide audiences.
Pennsylvania’s Motion Picture Censorship Act is ruled unconstitutional, thereby disempowering the powerful State Censorship Board.
The Motion Picture Production Code is modified to allow treatments of drug addiction as long as they are “treated within the careful limits of good taste.”
High School Confidential is released to widespread criticism of the ambiguity of its “message” and claims that it glorified dope addiction.
The Tingler is released, credited as the first film to feature LSD. Vincent Price stars.
The Trip is released, becoming a hit and creating an uproar with conservatives. A glut of LSD films are released in its wake.
Reefer Madness, Confessions of an Opium Addict, and High School Confidential hit cult revival status due to antiquated scare tactics viewed as hilarious by a culture that has become more liberalized and accepting of drug use. Depiction of drug use and addiction subsequently becomes more commonplace in American film.
The issue of drug use, addiction, and alcoholism has long reflected our view of ourselves and society. Hollywood not only depicts our society, but influences it. The stories told in our movies, films, dvds, and videos portray characters that we relate to and perhaps emulate. Increasingly, not only the stories told in movies but also the lives of actors, actresses, directors, screenwriters and producers also impact us. We order the dvds and videos with our favorite actors and directors and bring these stories into our homes. Hollywood, with its increasing depiction of alcohol and drug abuse, has potentially made at-risk behaviors more acceptable at home as well as on the silver screen. These influential movies have become more so with the popularity of such services as Blockbuster, Netflix, and cable movies on-demand.