Dwain Esper’s “Marihuana”: Posters With Roots in Hell

What Are They?

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Update 2 to Window Card Section.

Update 1 primarily to the Rainbow posters, Window Cards and Conclusions sections below.

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One of the most coveted of all exploitation film movie posters, Dwain Esper’s “Marihuana, Weed With Roots in Hell,” is perplexing to many collectors because of the seemingly endless variations of artwork that are available. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising, since after its initial release in 1936, “Marihuana” has been in nearly continuous roadshow screenings up through the 1970s, albeit most actively from 1936 through 1945, the silver age of exploitation films, as horny GIs flocked to theaters looking for escapist thrills.

The lack of pressbooks, or at least pressbooks that I’ve seen, further exacerbates the confusion. To that end, several years ago I started accumulating photos of one sheets and window cards in an effort to try to piece together the sequence of artwork that the posters followed in order to determine which came first. Certainly there are downsides to this method of “authenticating,” the obvious being that I was not able to physically examine each variation, since poverty prevented me from winning every poster offered. However, taking a page from art historians, I examined each variation and used each of them to determine a probable sequence that each printing followed.

To date, I have come across 3 versions of the one sheet, and 4 versions of the window card. I have seen one 3 sheet, but so far have never seen an insert or 22x28”. That’s not to say they don’t exist, I just haven’t seen them. There are also a handful of silk banners that were made for the original release that have survived. Once examined, there is a definite “sequence” that each poster seems to follow that, I believe, reveals their order of creation, and in fact, mirror the regional release pattern the film seemed to use.

One Sheets

Let’s start with the one sheet.

Here’s what I consider to be the first, I call it the “Pacific Show Print” (PSP) version, based on the printer’s information at the bottom of the poster:

PSP One Sheet

Second, there is the “Midwest” version, which features updated hair styles:

Midwest One Sheet

And finally, is what I call the “Rainbow” version, based on the printer’s color bars in the left border:

Rainbow One Sheet

These names are strictly my invention just to help me keep them straight and are based on no particular insight or knowledge. Unfortunately, for lack of better terms, I’ve chosen to continue to use them throughout this discussion.

The first question that obviously arises is how do you determine which one came first? I’ll be looking at several sections in agonizing detail and comparing them with the only things that could possibly be from the original pressbook, and that is the original newspaper ads. The smoke from the lady in the lower right’s cigarette, the items on the table, the clothing and hair-styles of the couple at the table, the marihuana cigarettes coming from the hand, and finally the text boxes all help to reveal their timing.

I think it would also be helpful to understand how the film was distributed. There was never a traditional studio type release where it went out at the same time to each tier of theaters, the film was essentially “four-walled,” that is, Dwain or his lackeys would roll into town with a copy of the print, take over a theater for a time, often stretching into weeks if the rubes were still showing up, and promote the heck out of the film. I’ve documented at least two major early waves of release, the first being in 1936, and a second pass coming in 1938. These were almost certainly Esper releases, as these were west coast screenings that would be serviced from his base here on the coast. After this initial thrust in the summer of 1936, it appears that Dwain used a regional release that presages the same general geographic territories that would be used by George Hirliman for his "Burning Question" (aka "Reefer Madness") three years later. At least one of these releases, which produced the "Midwest" version of the posters, also took place in 1936, only much later in the year.

Now let’s look at some of that original newspaper advertising.

Here is the ad from what is certainly the first release, taken from the July 7, 1936 Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review:

Here’s another version of the same ad from the Eugene Register Guard, August 3, 1936:

Note the main difference between the two is the “Weird Orgies” section has been replaced with info about the second feature. You’ll also note that the ad has been inverted from the poster art.

I don’t think it requires a degree in art history to note the striking similarities to the images on the Pacific Show Print poster, even to the point of suggesting that it was done by the same artist. But to reinforce the point, we’ll put them side by side (and reverse the ad so it has the same orientation as the posters).

First Release Ad

PSP One Sheet

Midwest One Sheet

Rainbow One Sheet

Examining the text boxes, it becomes clear that the PSP style perfectly mirrors the ad with the boxes surrounding the “Daring…” and “Shame…” tags. The Rainbow style has lost the boxes, and switched “Shame, Horror…” with “Horror, Shame…” and uses a cursive font. The Midwest style has returned to the original text sequence and all caps font, but has also dropped the surrounding boxes.

The figures in both the PSP and Rainbow styles are nearly identical to each other, as well as to the ad. However, they are considerably different in the Midwest style, as the man now has a receded hairline, and the woman has updated her hair style as well, in addition to losing some sleeve on her dress. The man injects the woman with the deadly reefer at a downward angle instead of the upward motion in the original.

The table accoutrements are also similar between the PSP, Rainbow, and original ad. The bottles, bowl, needle, and pipe are all nearly identical. Once again, the Midwest version has taken the spirit of what has gone before but completely changed the items displayed, in both makeup and locations.

The swirling lines behind the lady seem to be suggested by her chair in the original ad, and are nearly identical on the PSP and Rainbow versions. The Midwest version has clarified them as chairs for both the lady and the man.

Now let’s examine the bottom portions:

First Release Ad

PSP One Sheet

Midwest One Sheet

Rainbow One Sheet

As should be obvious and unsurprising, there is a difference between the layouts of the posters and the ad. The ad has been squeezed in order to fit into standard newspaper column sizes. However, the graphic elements remain consistent with each other with some exceptions.

The PSP poster is once again in complete agreement with the ad. The text is in the correct boxes and font style; there is smoke coming from the lady’s cigarette; and the devil’s hand has the correct reefers in the correct locations.

The Rainbow version is very similar to the PSP but differs in two significant ways. The text in the boxes has changed to an italic, cursive-type font style; and the lady no longer has smoke coming from her cigarette.

The Midwest version differs in major ways from both the PSP and Rainbow styles. The “Weed With Roots In Hell” sub-title has lost its box; the smoking lady has a different hair and robe styles and also no longer has smoke coming from her ciggy; the “Weird Orgies” text has lost its box and is significantly smaller; and the “Smoke…” and “What happens…” boxes have been altered as well. The “joints” from the devil’s hand are also positioned differently.

The Circumstantial:

There are a couple of other circumstantial points I think are worth noting, even if they can hardly be considered “evidence.”

On a copy of the Rainbow one sheet, there was “Sonney, 149 Hyde Street, San Francisco” penciled in on the back, apparently as a “return to” type thing. This refers to Dan Sonney's older brother, Ed, who ran Sonney's Pictures from that address from 1941 to 1957, (tip o' the hat to Dr. R. Kiss for this great info!). I'm unfamiliar with what Ed Sonney’s exact relationship with Dwain was exactly during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. I have suspected that once Dwain started slowing down in the 1940s the Sonneys took up the slack (and his films) to keep them going. To me, this suggests that the Rainbow version is indeed a later printing, particularly if it is a part of the "Long Hair" window card poster campaign. While it's certainly possible that Ed Sonney was using existing posters, I think it makes a fairly compelling argument that these are more likely from the '40s some time, even into the '50s.

The second point concerns the banners.

PSP Banner

It’s clear that these used the artwork from the Pacific Show Print version. The text boxes, smoke from the lady, as well as the couple at the top are nearly identical to the ad slicks and one sheet, although obviously done as a copy for this larger format. This suggests to me that these are also a part of the original release material. Dwain used elaborate lobby displays when he was in town, and it seems ludicrous to me to think that he would have waited for his later releases before creating these banners.

Finally, for completeness, it’s worth mentioning the 3 sheet I have seen:

Midwest Three Sheet

This seems to be the big brother for the Midwest one sheet, and given all that I’ve presented above, does not seem to be from the original west coast release and was part of the midwestern campaign. Happily, it does suggest that somewhere out there, original 3 sheets were produced for both the PSP and Rainbow era posters. It should go without saying that if anybody has one do get in touch.

Window Cards:

I have come across four different versions of the Window Card, as seen below:

PSP Window Card

Midwest Blonde Window Card

Midwest Redhead Window Card

Long Hair Window Card

Midwest Brunette Repro Window Card

Midwest Brunette Repro Window Card Detail

Again, it appears that the PSP (Pacific Show Print) version is the first of the bunch. Although there are definite differences between the WC and the one sheet, I think it’s safe to say that the same artist did both versions (as well as the banner and possibly the ad art). There is an unavoidable consistency between all versions of this artwork that makes it unlikely that it was created at any time other than the original release.

The next four versions are where things get interesting, and suggest that at least some of these posters were created for regional releases and one is a ‘60s reproduction (or possibly a reissue of some sort).

I think both the Midwest “Blonde” and “Redhead” versions are unmistakably from the same period as the Midwest one sheet, sharing most of the art elements with it, the only significant differences between the two being the shading in the hair of the lady at the top and some of their clothes ‘draping’ details. I’d suggest that since the blonde most closely resembles the Midwest one sheet, it is the first of the two styles to be printed. More importantly, when we look at the theater information printed on the blonde WC, we find that it was destined for the Paramount Theater in Logansport, Indiana. There are two likely years these particular dates can be from, 1936 or 1942. When we examine the Logansport newspaper for 1936, lo and behold, this is what we find! Not only does it put the film there in December of '36, it is also using the same original ad slicks from the west coast screenings. I think this is fairly conclusive evidence that this is a regional variation of a first year of release printing. Unfortunately, no doubt due to patriotic paper drives, the newspaper is not available for 1942, but it would have to be one of the most striking coincidences in the history of film if it was shown then as well. The Redhead version could be a later printing, but I think it’s more likely that it’s yet another regional variation from the initial state’s rights release period. What is clear is that the blonde window card does date from late in 1936, and its close resemblance to the Midwest one sheet is sufficient in my opinion to be able to attribute that to 1936 as well.

Next is the Long Hair version. This is the one that I grapple the most with, as it has elements that are unique to all the “Marihuana” posters, but more similarities to the PSP than the other two Midwest variations. Obviously, the long wavy hair is decidedly “not 1930s,” or at least falls into the Veronica Lake, peek-a-boo hair styles popular in the later war years and well into the 1960s, as are the two piece dainty underthings worn by the formerly smoking lady at the bottom.

There is a “missing” WC counterpart to the Rainbow one sheet, and I'm starting to think that the Long Hair variation is it. It is different stylistically, yet there are some things that make me believe it could be the missing partner. It is much closer in general layout and font placement to the PSP than either of the Midwests. I think this could speak to the source material used for its creation. If an original PSP or ad art was available for the artist to use as a source for their re-creation, it would make sense that original elements would remain after updating the rest of the imagery for more contemporary audiences. Further, since the Rainbow one sheets also show these similarities to the original PSP art, it only strengthens the case that they belong together as part of a single campaign. I'd suggest that the "Sonney" notation mentioned earlier on a Rainbow one sheet lends credence to the notion that these were used in a later, post '36 or '37 release, likely in the ‘40s.

Thanks to the good work of fellow collector “Tastouzette,” we now know that the “Midwest Brunette” style is from 1967 as an untrimmed version finally has been unearthed. The vast majority of these that I have seen were trimmed and now the reason why is patently obvious, and that is that possibly unscrupulous sorts wanted to be rid of the ’67 “Morgan Love” printers credit in an effort to make them look older. There is a genuine possibility that this was for screenings of the film in the Summer of Love era, or an equal possibility that it was a knockoff to sell to hippies to decorate their so-called “crash pads,” the real reason remains unclear.

Conclusions:

As should be clear from above, I am convinced the Pacific Show Print versions are the true, original release posters. It is also now clear that at a minimum, the Midwest Blonde window card (and by extension, the Midwest one sheet) are also from late in 1936 as well. Based on nothing but intuition I suspect the Redhead WC is also from this early release period as well.

From there it gets muddier though. As mentioned, looking at the one sheets on their own, I’ve felt that the Rainbow version was next to be used, but now knowing that the Midwest posters were likely the next style available, and if one feels that the Long Hair WC *is* the contemporary of the Rainbow one sheet, there’s a compelling case to be made that the Rainbow is indeed a later printing than the Midwest style, which does have stylistic window card twins to accompany it. There’s a certain amount of logic in this view, as the Rainbow one sheet and Long Hair window card both seem to be (anecdotally at least) available in larger quantities, as would be expected from a later release. I’m not sure if that is the case, but it does seem possible. Regardless, I suspect each of these variations were done early on, within 15 years or so of the first ’36 screenings. There is also the possibility that the Redhead version is the WC for the Rainbow release period, but stylistically I think that’s a long shot.

Needless to say, I would welcome the thoughts and opinions of others in this matter, particularly if you have a version of these posters that I’ve not included (a Rainbow window card perhaps?!?) or have noticed a lapse in my logic or thinking. These are just my thoughts on the matter and are by no means authoritative or even conclusive, my hope is that they spark the conversation along so that we, as a hobby, can finally sort these posters out.

Do you have more information? Disagree? Please contact me.

Thanks for looking!

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