I always thought drug humor began with Cheech and Chong. I’m not talking about camp classics like “Reefer Madness” (1936) or “The Cocaine Fiends” (1935) but movies where getting high was used for comedic effect. Was I wrong!
Last night I watched a Harold Lloyd short from 1920 called “Get Out and Get Under” that contained a scene that had me gaping at the TV screen.
Harold is the owner of a new car, a car that is giving him all kinds of fits. There are some terrific sight gags involved with him struggling to operate his new car. At one point the car just dies, and won’t start, no matter how often Harold turns the crank to start the engine.
On the sidewalk Harold sees a man all jittery and jumpy and running his hands up and down his arms. We then see a close-up of the man taking a small package out of his pocket, which turns out to contain a syringe. The man turns his back on us, we see him inject himself with the syringe. He straightens up, is as happy as can be, and walks away with his head held high and full of life.
Harold gets a bright idea. He walks up to him and asks for a match. The man gives him a match while unknown to him, Harold is rummaging in his pocket to extract the drug kit. Harold thanks him, goes back to the car and injects the car engine with the drug. Instantly the car roars to life, and takes on a life of its own as it careens up and down streets, sidewalks and makes mincemeat of a Main Street parade.
It was quite astonishing to me, and proof positive that there are still lots of interesting bits of business to be found in old movies. Drug use was not as prevalent in the 1920s as it is today, so the situation could be mined for innocent humor. Still I wonder if Harold Lloyd would have re-thought the gag a few years later.
The director William Desmond Taylor was found shot dead in 1922 in a love triangle involving stars Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter: popular leading man Wallace Reid would die of morphine addiction; and comedian Fatty Arbuckle would be charged with manslaughter in 1921. Preachers and concerned citizen groups across the nation began decrying the loose morals of Hollywood’s citizens and their negative influence on the American public.
But in 1920 Hollywood was still a carefree town, where a joke about shooting up drugs was deemed fit for mass audience consumption. But these scandals would forever identify Hollywood, a perception it has not shaken to this day.