Exhibit / September 27, 2017
Sid Davis produced nearly 200 “social guidance films” between 1950 and 1975, beginning with The Dangerous Stranger (1950), which gave us the quintessentially American maxim “Never take candy from strangers.” Davis worked as an extra and child actor in Hollywood until landing the gig of stand-in for actor-icon John Wayne, who befriended him—the two played chess together on set, Wayne at times standing in for his stand-in while Davis contemplated his next move. The 1949 molestation and murder of 6-year-old Linda Joyce Glucoft in a sleepy Los Angeles suburb horrified Davis, himself the father of a young daughter, and rattled the nation. The killer was a 67-year-old unemployed baker who lived across the street from his victim, and he had been arrested for molesting a different child six months earlier (child molestation was at the time a misdemeanor). The Duke bankrolled Davis, who started his own production business, each of his short films reportedly costing $1,000 or less. The films—warning against subjects as various as drug use, homosexuality, playing with scissors, vehicular speeding, urban gangs, casual sex, gossiping, dropping out—were sold to schools and police departments, and Davis made a bundle on what were often exaggerated or even non-existent threats.
Davis’ first film to focus on drugs was 1961’s Seduction of the Innocent, a title previously used for Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book decrying comic books as pernicious instruments of depravity and juvenile delinquency, and thus well-known to the paranoid adult public. The film follows Jeanette, who becomes a “slave” to increasingly “death-dealing” drugs taken “in the secrecy of a dirty room.” Earlier films like Tell Your Children (1936)—recut as exploitation film Reefer Madness in 1938—reacted to what the Herbert Hoover-commissioned Federal Bureau of Narcotics (est. 1930) claimed to be increasing marijuana use among youth, and Seduction sold the same slippery slope argument: “A year ago you would have been revulsed at the thought of heroin, but now it’s an easy step from marijuana to heroin.” The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively criminalized the drug, which resurfaced with a vengeance in the 1960s, alongside newcomer LSD, which was mass produced and mass distributed by Grateful Dead sound engineer and supplier Owsley Stanley after he found the recipe in the UC Berkeley library.
By 1970, when Keep Off the Grass was released, Nixon’s “war on drugs“—a deliberate assault on “the antiwar left and black people,” according to a former aide—was less than a year old, and the counterculture was in decline. However, the power young people had gained in the years since World War II, both as a political force and a marketing demographic, continued to grow. And that is precisely what Davis’ film—almost all of his films—attacks: the idea that young people can grow by experimenting and experiencing, that they can flourish independently of adults, that authority can and should be questioned.
Keep Off the Grass begins with a suburban mother vacuuming her teenage son’s room and inadvertently spilling his stash of marijuana on the floor. She is, of course, horrified beyond reason, and weeps as she listens to her plump, middle-aged husband lecture “Tom” about the dangers of the drug. Tom wants to know how “blowing pot” is worse than dad’s persistent smoking and drinking, and says that there’s no evidence marijuana is actually bad for you. Dad heads over to the household encyclopedias, which tell us that prolonged pot use “may result in a loss of ambition and self-respect, because of the induced ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude.” Dad then urges Tom to read a now historic issue of Life from October 1969, which features a cover story on marijuana. Tom dismisses the magazine as “establishment propaganda,” but takes it anyway to show to his pot mentor Mack. From here we follow Tom’s “education,” which starts at a “garden pot party” and progresses to a head shop (described as a “psychedelic-atessen” or “psyche-delicatessen”—I’m not exactly sure where to hyphenate), a stoner artist’s pad, the police station (after the stoner artist’s brother gets arrested for possession), another pot party (this one featuring decidedly amorous activity), and a pot-induced mugging. Whenever pot is present, generic sitar music accompanies the action.
During his journey to enlightened sobriety, Tom flashes back to the words (and smug face) of his father regarding the “cons” of grass: “inability to coordinate movement” (after a stoned girl knocks over a bong), “loss of self-respect” (after Tom gives some loose change to the deadbeats outside the head shop), “they only think they create better things” (after Tom sees the piss-poor painting of the stoner artist), and so on. As the stoner artist’s brother is arrested, “Tom is impressed with the calm efficiency of the officers… they never lose their cool,” despite the “verbal abuse” hurled at them by the onlooking potheads. A police officer at the station gently explains that pot inevitably leads to “harder stuff,” and voices the real lesson of Keep off the Grass: “A man who takes a drink after his day is done has worked. He has achieved. He has coped,” whereas the teenage user “deliberately” seeks to “tune out, cop out…”—the addled philosophy of “the left behind generation.” (“You are all a lost generation” is the quote that opens Hemingway’s first novel, 1926’s The Sun Also Rises, about post-World War I expatriates.)
The lesson ends as Tom, who has just finished tuning the family sedan back home, visibly confident in his decision not to become a “psychological cripple,” walks arm around shoulder with smug, golf-accoutred dad onto the lush suburban lawn, into which the camera pans—a final establishment victory.