Dwain Esper’s cautionary tale “Narcotic” (1933) was a sensationalized, sleazy drug scare cult hit

By on July 24, 2018

Dwain Esper’s cautionary tale Narcotic (1933) was a sensationalized, sleazy drug scare cult hit about drug addiction, and it’s just one great vintage exploitation films we’re offering up on Night Flight Plus in our Something Weird collection.

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Esper was a pioneer in the business of producing, directing and distributing consistently rudely offensive, jaw-dropping exploitation films.

After originally working as a “carnival barker” and dabbling successfully in real estate, he acquired a small film studio in Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” located on the corner of Seward Street.

Esper worked alongside his devoted wife, creative partner and writer/producer Hildegarde Stadie, who also had a carnival background.

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Esper — who operated outside the Hollywood studio system — found that Depression-era audiences didn’t mind spending a few coins to see sleazy flicks like Narcotic, Maniac (1934), Marihuana (1936), and Sex Madness (1938).

He also distributed films like Night Flight fave Reefer Madness — although he re-titled it Tell Your Children – and Tod Browning’s Freaks, which he called Nature’s Mistakes.

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Esper’s first film as a director, Modern Motherhood, featured scenes denouncing promiscuity and venereal disease and had inserts of actual childbirth footage.

It was released in April 1934, a month after he’d already begun screening his second film, Narcotic.

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Clocking in at just over an hour, Narcotic concerns the downfall of a once-respectable small-town physician, Dr. William G. Davis (Harry Cording).

Dr. Davis’s life travels in a tragic downward trajectory simply because he decides to smoke opium with an Asian friend, Gee Wu, as a “diversion” from his stressful job.

Obviously a white actor in “Oriental” make-up, with fake slant eyes and opium den accoutrement, Gee Wu offers up smart Charlie Chan-style observations, pointing out that “[Westerners] are overwhelmed with progress and speed which might make any diversion become a vice.”

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By the last reel, theater audiences were being told that, due to the mental laxity of the Western mind, imbibing drugs of any kind only leads to drug addiction.

Narcotic also features scenes involving “newer” drugs like heroin and marijuana — presented as even more dangerous and addictive than opium — which we see being served up on a tray at a drug party to fancy, upper-crust dope fiends.

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Narcotic begins with a “square-up,” a written scrawl about the social or moral issue the film planned to address, followed by a letter addressed to “Dwain”:

“Dwain: It’s four o’clock. Dawn is here, the devil’s trumpets are bellowing ‘You can take it out of the body, but you can’t get it out of the mind,’ … but I have found a way.”

We learn this strange missive is actually the Doc’s suicide note.

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Narcotic then proceeds to tell us how the doctor decided to patent a medicine, a cure-all for opium addiction called “Tiger Fat.”

Dr. Davis is then injured by a drugged-up cabbie in a hit-and-run accident, and during his recovery becomes addicted to heroin.

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At one point, his wife and Gee Wu visit a “federal narcotic agent,” who tells them:

“The daring or wayward type start using [heroin] to satisfy their craving for adventure. While the moral coward takes the drug to get the courage which he otherwise does not possess. In either case, it soon subordinates the will… Hope for a cure lies in the individual. It cannot be accomplished by re-drugging. The only cure is the will to be cured.”

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By the film’s end, the now “quack” doctor is living alone in a rundown apartment, destitute and wild-eyed with unkempt hair and missing teeth, shaking uncontrollably.

The once-respectable doctor’s final choices have come down to a small glass vial of white powder labelled “Heroin,” and a gun.

He chooses the latter, turning it on himself to end his misery.

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Read more about Dwain and Hildegarde Esper and Narcotic below.

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Hildegarde Stadie once said that the central plot of Narcotic was based on her opium-smoking uncle:

“I had someone in our family who was a doctor who got hooked on drugs so I had a little first-hand knowledge. I wrote a couple of scripts using background of theirs. And they didn’t care, they were glad to see me making something of it.”

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Narcotic was mainly shown in grungy adults-only small city theaters, and not in hospitals, churches, prisons or somewhere that made more sense, considering Esper’s claim that his film was meant to “educate” the public about drug addiction.

In 1934, Esper traveled with Narcotic around the country as a road show attraction, decorating theater lobbies with items like the mummified remains of Elmer McCurdy, killed by lawmen in 1911, which he used to show how drug use damaged the body.

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The film’s posters and publicity stills however, focused more on how the doctor’s drug addiction caused great harm to “the women who worshipped him,” emphasizing the connection between drug use and illicit sexual pleasure, another vice.

One planted newspaper article — “Dope Makes Strange Creatures of Beautiful Women” — began:

“The happy, normal laughter of physically adorable girls gives way to the hysterical outbursts of dope-maddened, sexually-perverted women under the sinister influence of drugs, as disclosed in the amazing ‘dope party’ scene from the new talking picture Narcotic.”

Another article claimed that white women’s fascination with needle drugs had caused “the downfall of women… since the beginning of time.”

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Esper eventually retired, and he and Hildegarde lived the rest of their lives in Los Angeles as wealthy socialites until their deaths in 1982 (Dwain, age 89) and 1993 (Hildegarde, 98).

Watch Dwain Esper’s Narcotic and other sensational and sleazy exploitation cult classics in our Something Weird collection on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.