© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette
Puff, puff, puff and if you smoke yourself to death
Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate
That you hate to make him wait
But you just gotta have another cigarette.
— From “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette” (1947)
by Tex Williams and Merle Haggard
I inherited about a dozen LP albums from Mother. One of them is “This is Glenn Miller”, released in 1956 by RCA Victor. The record is slightly scratchy, but not too bad. The cover has been repaired with Scotch® tape. All of that is understandable and acceptable, considering the album’s age.
What is not acceptable is the photograph on the cover: it shows Glenn Miller walking, at night with no visible scenery, toward the camera. Hidden overhead is the source of the circle of light that allows our view of the man. He is wearing an overcoat and thick gloves, and carrying in his left hand a small bag or case which presumably contains his overnight toiletries or a small musical instrument. In his right hand, which covers the lower half of his face, is a cigarette from which he is drawing a lungful of smoke. We just have to take the album title’s word for it that this really is Glenn Miller.
And there is that posed studio photo of Errol Flynn on the cover of his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which my regular readers might recall seeing on the blog post about Flynn I published last January 23rd. Flynn is sitting there, well-dressed, well-coiffured, with his left hand resting nigh his torso, a cigarette between his fingers. Couldn’t the fellow even do a studio portrait shoot, to autograph for his fans, without hoisting a stick of nicotine as a prop?
I tell you, folks, I get exasperated when I see such uncouth photos. It is not because I am a crusader against smoking; I don’t care if other people smoke, as long as they don’t do it around me. Also, I played around with puffing back in my youth. On a couple of occasions in my pre-teens I even bought small pouches of tobacco and papers (kids could do that back then!) so that my friend and I could play cowboys and “roll our own”. As a teenager I smoked cigarettes a few times until I realized that, not inhaling them, I got no pleasure from them and was smoking only for show. And, as a still fairly young adult, I would get a hankering during the fall to try a pipe—to keep my hand warm and sniff the smell of Cherry Blend, which I liked, although others did not—until I became annoyed with the mess the tobacco residue was making in my coat pockets and the pipe began to stink; scraping it helped only a little. Can’t recall when I finally eschewed tobacco for good, but it was more than three decades ago.
But back to my central theme. A few years ago, while watching old 1930s and 1940s movies on TCM, I began to notice how frequently the films’ characters “lit up”; and I wondered why. What do the actions involved in lighting a cigarette, cigar or pipe contribute to the storyline? None that I could imagine.
Do the tobacco companies own a lot of stock in film studios? I wondered. A humorous sidebar is pertinent here. One old film I enjoyed was Topper (1937), which starred Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as a married couple of ghosts who haunt Topper’s home, and Roland Young as the title character. A TV situation comedy series with the same title and characters, starring Leo G. Carroll as Topper, and Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys as the ghostly couple, was on the air from 1953 to 1955. Intrigued enough by some now forgotten motive, I read the Wikipedia articles on both the film and the TV show. A very curious paragraph in the article on the TV show revealed that the show’s sponsor, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, stipulated in their contract that the three main characters would be shown—at the beginning of every episode—seated at a table smoking Camels. Also, commercials during the episodes would be integrated into the narratives, just as Carnation concentrated milk commercials were integrated into the “Burns and Allen Show”.
But the tobacco industry’s investment apparently was not reserved to movies and musical productions. I have already referred to the book cover photo of Errol Flynn dangling a cigarette. If you can locate some old novels or poetry volumes in your attic or at your local library, you will likely find portraits of the authors on the backs of the jackets; and chances are good they will have cigarettes between their lips or fingers. And if the author or poet had any pretensions to academic notoriety he will be sporting a pipe. Such photo portraits of the late British mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell usually do have a pipe bowl prominently displayed in his hand. I used to admire ol’ Bertie, but he lost some of my admiration when I read a quote attributed to him about how he had smoked a pipe all his adult life and never suffered any ill health due to the habit. And this guy was a logician?
Smoking is not allowed in many public places these days. That helps. I remember when tobacco smoke was almost inescapable, particularly in places were alcoholic beverages were also consumed. I recall waking up in the mornings after nights of drinking in Dallas pubs and being unable tolerate my shirt or coat because they reeked with the foul stench of stale tobacco smoke.
But I want to return to my wonderment at all the incidental references in the media to tobacco consumption. Were all those images paid placement ads? Were they intended to entice the movie star’s fans or the authors’ readers into emulating their heroes even in the small matter of puffing up nicotine?
I am sadly bemused to recall the last days of movie stars Yul Brynner and Robert Mitchum and how they spent their last breaths urging their fans not to trod down that tobacco road that had led them to their own cancerous deaths. Same held true, most ironically, of the famous “Marlboro Man”.