“An old juvenile court judge named McKesson, who keeps referring to himself as “we” and “us,” decides he wants to find out about drugs. The judge says this to the camera, but the words he mouths bear absolutely no relation to the words on the soundtrack. He drives to a house where he meets “Phyllis,” a teenager who tells us (also out-of-synch) that when you smoke marijuana “everything speeds up to 100 miles an hour!” She meets “Chuck” (who is a “hype” and a “peddler”) and starts wearing lipstick, becomes a junkie, loses her looks, goes through withdrawl (some good histrionics here) and reforms. Judge McKesson then tells us that the Russians are promoting drug traffic in the United States to “undermine national morale,” and that the only way we can stop the spread of drug use is by using “good sense.” The film concludes with a newspaper headline — “America’s Teen Age Dope ‘Fad’ Ending!” Another unique Sid Davis production.
“This is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Howard. They just got their teenage daughter back after a six-month nightmare that even Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t have improved upon.” With that we plunge deep into the underside of Los Angeles youth culture in the early fifties. In many of his films, Sid Davis explored the perils awaiting children and adolescents in the great city of Los Angeles, full of “hypes,” “peddlers” and “dangerous strangers.” This time, with the disapproving figure of Judge William B. McKesson as our guide, we follow Phyllis Howard on her journey to hell and back.
There are ecstatic moments on Phyllis’s journey, like her drive up into the mountains when she smokes reefer and “everything speeds up to a hundred miles per hour.” There are also hellish moments, like her cold turkey withdrawal behind bars in the county jail. The film mixes documentary realism (shot on the streets of Hollywood and downtown L.A.) with sensational narration. “Some say the Reds are promoting dope traffic in the United States to undermine national morale,” says the judge/narrator. “They did it in China a few years back. It’s certainly true that the increased use of narcotics plays right into their hands.”
Well before most other educational film producers, Davis made films about sensitive subjects like drug abuse and child molestation. This made him a genuine pioneer, as he had to navigate territory without a body of previous work to emulate. It also meant that he had constantly to address issues of disbelief and denial. As Judge McKesson asks at the end of the film, “Well, that’s Phyllis’s story. In the United States of America, 20th century. Unbelievable, isn’t it, that such things can happen?”
From the producer’s description:
“All over the United States, committees of parents and educators are meeting to determine what can be done to combat the greatest menace ever to peril the welfare of American youth: Narcotic addiction. All agree that something besides stricter enforcement of the drug laws is needed. That ‘something’ is Education. Teen-age boys and girls must be educated to the shocking consequences of ‘playing around’ with narcotics!
“It has been proved over and over again that there is no more effective medium of education than the motion picture. The first step in an educational program to fight drug addiction is an effective educational film.
“The Terrible Truth documents the tragic story of one teen-age girl, typical of youthful addicts. Starting with an occasional marijuana cigarette, she is induced to experiment with a ‘fix’ of heroin. In a few days, she is [a] hopeless ‘hype,’ ends up with a criminal record and a blighted future. Local and national government studies are cited to show that almost 100 per cent of youthful addicts eventually turn to crime to get money to satisfy their ‘habit.’
“It is the responsibility of every community, large or small, to protect its youth against this tragic, appalling menace. Whether a city or town has already experienced the disaster of teen-age drug usage, or whether it has so far escaped being touched, the problem is the same: To educate boys and girls against narcotic usage before it is too late, before more lives and futures are forfeit. No community is safe, so long as the ‘fad’ is allowed to exist anywhere.” (https://archive.org/details/Terrible1951)