Back in the 1930s, the American film industry regulated itself with the Motion Picture Production Code. The production code stated that, in films, crimes would always be punished, profanity would not be heard, bodies would remain clothed, and drug abuse would not be portrayed. The only way to get around these rules was to make sure that the film was “educational” and that it pretended to condemn the behavior shown on-screen. This was the birth of what would eventually become grindhouse cinema.
It’s always interesting to watch these early grindhouse films because, even with the inclusion of such forbidden elements as nudity, violence, and drugs, they all still seem oddly innocent. Yes, there’s always a scene or two of the lead actress undressed but the camera rarely lingers as if it’s aware that it’s somehow breaking the rules. Whenever one of these films dealt with drug addiction or white slavery, the depictions were often so heavy-handed and silly that it was obvious that nobody involved with the film had any first-hand knowledge of what they were showing. The end results were often undeniably fun.
I watched one of these films last night, 1935’s The Cocaine Fiends (also known as The Pace that Kills, which is a much better title). The Cocaine Fiends starts with a waitress named Jane (Lois January) who meets and falls in love with a mysterious fellow named Nick the Pusher (Noel Madison). For most people, I would think that Nick the Pusher’s name would be a dead give away to what he does for a living but Jane is from the country and, by this film’s logic, this makes her an idiot. Anyway, Jane goes to the city with Nick. Whenever Jane starts to get a headache, Nick gives her some headache powder. Jane snorts the powder and her headache goes away. Soon, she’s calling herself Lil and sleeping with strangers to get money so that Nick will keep giving her headache powder. Soon Jane/Lil discovers that she hasn’t been doing lines of headache powder at all! Nope, that white powder is cocaine!
(Now, I know you’re probably laughing at Jane but I have to be honest and admit that last year, I was at work when I got a terrible migraine. This woman who works in the same building as me took sympathy on me and gave me a little packet of white powder. I quickly got out my credit card and a dollar bill and cut myself a line. “Wait, what are you doing!?” she said as I held the tightly rolled dollar bill up to my nostril. “I’m going to do a line,” I said. “Oh no, honey,” she said, sweetly, “you don’t snort B.C. Headache Powder.” True story.)
Anyway, Jane’s brother, Eddie (Dean Benton), comes to the city looking for his sister and gets a job working as a carhop. At his job, he befriends Fanny (Sheila Bromley) who, seriously, is one of the greatest film characters ever. Seriously, I had a huge girlcrush on Fanny by the end of this film. Not only is she hot and independent but she also hides cocaine underneath her garter and says stuff like, “Tonight, I’m going to take you on a sleigh ride with some snowbirds.” Eddie has a crush on Fanny too and they end up hanging out at sordid nightclubs together. Unfortunately, Fanny also gets Eddie hooked on cocaine and soon, they both get fired. Eddie forgets about finding his sister while Fanny turns to prostitution to support her habit.
Meanwhile, Fanny’s friend Dorothy (Lois Lindsay) doesn’t use cocaine but she still ends up getting kidnapped by Nick anyway. Apparently, Dorothy’s father is rich. While Eddie spends his time at an opium den (a surprisingly effective sequence), Dorothy’s boyfriend Dan (Charles Delaney) recruits Lil (remember her?) to help him rescue Dorothy and hopefully reveal the secret identity of the shadowy figure in charge of the city’s dope trade…
Did I mention all of this happens in 61 minutes? Seriously, the Cocaine Fiends is one busy film. Now, to be honest, all of this plot doesn’t leave much room for anything resembling introspection or nuance but perhaps that’s appropriate for a film about cocaine. I do have to admit that the Cocaine Fiends isn’t as much fun as some other exploitation films from the roadshow era. Unlike a lot of those films, Cocaine Fiends actually does have at least a tenuous connection to reality in that, when abused, cocaine actually is a dangerous drug that can contribute to people doing some pretty dangerous things. Still, for those searching for sordid melodrama and committed overacting, they’ll find it a surplus of it here.
That said, like the best grindhouse films, the Cocaine Fiends occasionally offers up a moment or two of true insight. For me, what made this film more than just a camp oddity was its sympathetic portrayal of women trapped in a cold, male-dominated underground where being female means being a commodity. What sets The Cocaine Fiends apart from other films of that era (not to mention most films made today) was the fact that it didn’t attempt to present their tragic fate as some sort of karmic punishment or divine retribution for straying from what society deemed the proper feminine path. Most films continue to insist that women “ask for it.” Whatever other faults The Cocaine Fiends may have, it knows better than to think anyone asks to be violated, abused, and exploited.
To be honest, the main reason I occasionally watch a film like The Cocaine Fiends is because I’m a just a history nerd at heart. Watching a film like The Cocaine Fiends, made outside of the idealized worldview of the Hollywood Establishment, is probably about as close as I’m going to get to using a time machine to go back to the 30s and experience the culture firsthand. I love how Eddie, when Fanny offers to let him stay at her apartment, automatically responds with, “But we’re not married.” And then there’s the sequence in the “dangerous” night club which, as far as decorations, music, and proper attire are concerned, reminded me of my senior prom. It’s also where Eddie freaks out upon getting a bill for $9.97. Luckily, Fanny is there to loan him enough money to pay it.
Anyway, for those who have an hour to kill, here’s 1935’s The Cocaine Fiends…