5 Drug Films From a Century Ago

By Keri Blakinger 06/06/16

The Fix travels back over 100 years to bring you some of the "cokey comedies" and discretionary tales about drugs that your great-grandparents enjoyed.

Image: 
Charlie Chaplin Mistakenly Does Cocaine in "Modern Times"
Photo via YouTube

For as long as people have been making movies, they’ve been making movies about drugs. We might think of films like Blow and Scarface as pictures with a distinctly modern interest in drug use—but the idea of the drug film is more than 100 years old. Here’s a look at some of the first contributions to the genre: 

A Pipe Dream

A Pipe Dream—made in 1905 by American Mutoscope and Biograph—is one of the earliest surviving drug films, made at a time when all films were short films. (The Story of the Kelly Gang—generally considered the first feature-length film—was released the following year.) 

In the early days of cinema, filmmakers were still discovering basic camera tricks, so special effects didn’t need to advance a plot or serve as a means to an end, but were sufficient as an end themselves—and A Pipe Dream is basically a short exploration of camera trickery.

The film’s title seems a slight misnomer because there’s no actual pipe in A Pipe Dream. Instead, the 45-second clip shows a woman puffing what looks like a joint. She stares intently at her hand until the smoke she’s exhaling coalesces into a miniature person on her palm. (Obviously she knows where to get the good stuff.)

When the film was released in 1905, drugs were still perfectly legal. There were certain negative depictions of certain drug users—particularly the sort who hung out in opium dens—but depictions of drug use did not carry the added implication of criminal conduct at the time. That would soon change as cocaine and heroin were federally regulated in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Act, but that didn’t do anything to diminish their standing on the silver screen. 

For His Son

Though D.W. Griffith is best known for his racist tour de force The Birth of a Nation, the pioneering filmmaker started his directorial efforts in 1908. Four years later, he oversaw the making of a film loosely based on the creation of Coca-Cola. 

Real-life John Pemberton began marketing a cocaine-laced non-alcoholic tonic drink in the 1880s. The Coca-Cola entrepreneur was himself a morphine addict and hoped that his new concoction would help treat morphine addiction. He died in 1888, but cocaine stayed in the formula until the early 1900s. 

In Griffith’s cinematic version, which Turner Classic Movies called “a perverse little melodrama,” an inventive soft drink maker spikes his product with coke to boost sales of his tonic, hilariously called Dopokoke. It’s a cautionary tale, though, and eventually the drink maker’s son starts shooting up and leaves his upper-class fiancée to elope with a fellow Dopokoke addict, his dad’s secretary.

Not surprisingly—for 1915—the film offers a stigmatizing, negative depiction of addiction. “Cocaine is depicted as compelling, leading weak-willed people into addiction, degradation, and death,” writes Susan Boyd in Hooked: Drug War Films in Britain, Canada, and the U.S. “The son is represented as weak and selfish, and the good physician is ultimately depicted as blinded by his need for money to help support his son.” 

Ultimately, the son and his wife get very sick and fight over their diminishing drug supply before the son dies mid-fight, clutching his chest. It’s a decidedly more serious take on addiction than many of the other silent-era drug films.

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish

The 1916 short starring Douglas Fairbanks is deeply strange from the start. It opens with the lead character, a detective named—no joke—Coke Ennyday sitting alone in a room next to a large metal pot labeled, “COCAINE.” Ennyday sports an insane bandolier of pre-loaded hypodermic needles. Behind him is a clock with just four times: dope, drinks, sleep, and eats. 

When Ennyday starts nodding off, he whips out a syringe from the bandolier and shoots up. 

This bizarre film is a Sherlock Holmes parody with a touch of the sort of weird hyperbole particular to early cinema. Instead of sporting a trendy checkered hat, the dude’s got mismatched checkered everything, including a checkered car in which he carries—of course—a random checkerboard. Instead of occasionally using drugs between solving crimes, the main character shoots up like every five seconds.

It is not an overstatement to say that there is more drug use shown in this 25-minute film than in the entire first season of Narcos, the incredibly popular Netflix series about coke-trafficking mastermind, Pablo Escobar. (Although this may not be the best comparison because Narcos focuses on drug dealers and not so much on drug users, so there’s actually not much drug use in the show at all…but still.) 

Get Out and Get Under

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This 1920 film featuring Harold Lloyd is not primarily a drug film, but drugs make a hilarious and bizarre appearance in it. The plot follows Lloyd’s character, who’s an actor just trying to get to the show so he doesn’t lose out on his part—and so his rival doesn’t hit on his girl.

En route, though, the car breaks down and he runs into all manner of comedic problems trying to get it working again. Eventually, just as he’s running out of options, he sees a drug addict furtively shooting up in a nearby doorway. He goes to bum a light off the guy and steals his works, which he then uses to shoot up the car. The hopped up vehicle then goes comically bouncing off down the road without its driver. (If only fixing cars were really that simple.) 

Modern Times

Even after the debut of sound movies, Charlie Chaplin stuck to silents for a few more years, so 1936’s masterpiece Modern Times has no sound—but cocaine-fueled slapstick comedy doesn’t require sound, it seems. 

The Depression Era film begin with Chaplin’s iconic character, The Tramp, working in a factory. One thing goes wrong after another, and eventually he’s mistaken for a Communist and thrown in the clink. While there, he accidentally ingests some blow and ends up becoming a hero as a result. 

In the jail mess hall, Chaplin’s character is seated next to a man who smuggled in some cocaine. When he sees the guards coming to search him, he dumps the blow in a salt shaker, which Chaplin then unwittingly pours all over his food. He ends up so high he’s twirling around as he walks and generally bouncing off the walls—so he accidentally avoids being locked in his cell. 

While out of his cell, though, he has the chance to stop a mass escape because—thanks to his insane energy and cocaine-induced Superman strength—he’s able to take on four dudes way bigger than he is and subdue them all, returning their weapons and keys to the guards. The magical white powder has made him a hero.

What’s craziest about this is that the film came out after the introduction of the so-called Hays Code, the censorship guidelines that dictated film content for nearly four decades starting in the early 1930s. The code generally frowned on drug activity, but apparently Chaplin’s slapstick drug use passed muster. 

Easy Street 

Although Modern Times could be Chaplin’s best-known on-screen drug use, it wasn’t his first or his edgiest. 

In 1917, The Tramp starred in Easy Street, a short silent film about a man who has a religious awakening and decides to become a cop and bring order to the Easy Street slum, where police aren’t doing a very good job of policing.

A needle-using drug addict is introduced in the last few minutes of the film, where he endangers a nice lady with his drug-fueled mania. He shoots up—seemingly through his shirt—and instantly starts chasing the woman around the room, because apparently that’s what this unnamed drug makes people do. 

Just minutes later, he shoots up again and this time he leaves the needle—improbably—sitting vertically, point-side up. 

Enter Chaplin. 

He, of course, sits right on top of the needle and—much like the coke in the salt shaker 20 years and many movies later—turns right into a superhero, beating the crap out of not only the drug addict, but also basically every dude on Easy Street. 

***

Because the majority of silent films and some early sound films have been lost to history, it’s hard to say exactly how many of these early drug films there were, or whether most of them were more like the bizarre exploits of Coke Ennyday or the cautionary tales of For His Son

“A few silent film scholars believe that these films are enough to constitute a subgenre—the ‘cokey comedy’ or ‘cokie comedies,’” Cary O’Dell wrote in an essay on RogerEbert.com, “and that they are, with their playful, casual reference to drug use, to 1910s and ‘20s what the pot-infused, Cheech and Chong-style movies of the ‘70s were to that later decade.” By some estimates, there were at least 200 films featuring drug use or drug users during the silent film era. 

So, for everyone today who boasted a Scarface poster in their college dorm room as a sign of coolness, you probably weren’t as edgy or trendsetting as you thought. In fact, your great-grandparents might have one-upped you about a hundred years ago. 

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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