Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Dark Side: Drugs in Precode

Like sex, nudity and violence, the Hays code tried to prevent film makers from showing obvious depictions of drug taking and selling and, as before, the warnings were ignored. There are several blatant examples where characters exploit or sell drugs in Precode films. Although, the subject was generally shown solemnly and as a means of destruction, some pictures exist where narcotics are positioned positively. It is interesting to note that while drugs were being discussed on screen, the substance was rife in the film community, claiming the lives of Mabel Normand, Wallace Reid, Jeanne Eagels and Chester Morris as well as many others.

Douglas Fairbanks: The Light-hearted Addict

The most interesting use of drugs in film is the 1916 film 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' staring the famous Douglas Fairbanks. The comedy picture shows Douglas as a Sherlock Holmes like detective solving crimes while being addicted to cocaine. In the pictures below it is obvious to see the product cocaine and the use of syringes.

Dancing, Singing, Drugs

Another example of positive drug taking is the odd mystery/ musical film 'Murder at the Vanities' (1934). In a musical number that was later banned when the code was enforced, Gertrude Michael sings about the pleasures of marijuana. The film also includes a number of nearly-nude women, making it truly Precode.

Gertrude Michael singing 'Mariguana'

Another picture from the infamous musical number

Eve without Adam

Drugs for Drama

More often narcotic taking was used as a source or drama and to show the person's downward spiral into sin. Three on a Match (1932) is an example of this with Ann Dvorak's character experimenting not only with drugs but alcohol, sex and excessive partying.

Or the drug-addicted Luis Alberni's character in Mad Genius (1931)


Drug dealing, in Mad Genius (1931)

And finally, the inclusion of a drug-addicted doctor (played by Conrad Nagel) in the depraved, shocking film Kongo (1932). In addition to narcotics, the film included images of sadism, violence, adultery, voodooism, alcoholism, rape and murder.
Conrad Nagel as the addicted doctor

Kongo (1932) madness

And the lovely Lupe Verez...


  1. Just a note but the use of cocaine in the first film is likely part of it's nod to Sherlock Holmes who in the earlier stories was himself an occasionally user of coke

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