Now that Hollywood has decreed that smoking in movies is as bad – and in fact perhaps worse – than gratuitous sex and violence, it’s not a great surprise that folk are reminiscing about the role smoking has played in the movies. This Slate sideshow doesn’t break much new ground – and, lamentably, declares smoking "deplorable – but it’s worth watching for the super video clips from the Golden Age of Gold Leaf.
It’s worth mentioning, however, in rather more detail than the slideshow does just why smoking and the cinema became inextricably linked. Sure, smoking was a more mainstream activity and, sure, clouds of cigarette smoke look kinds cool in black and white, but there was a practical reason too that goes a little beyond just observing that cigarettes can be useful props: they solve one of the great problems actors face (on stage or screen) – what do you do with your hands? Take this classic Bogart image for instance: it simply won’t work as well if he has both hands in his pockets or were his right arm just hanging by his side. The cigarette is vital.
Smoking gives actors something to do with their hands that is a) natural and therefore b) isn’t going to get in the way. There are other advantages to tobacco too: want to inject some movement into a scene in which the characters would otherwise just be talking to one another? Have one of them light a cigarette; or have one of them cross the room to fetch their cigarettes or whatever: at a stroke you have natural and purposeful movement that does nothing to distract from or undermine the action.
And then there’s sex. Or at least the suggestion of it. Leaving aside the obvious symbolism of it all, smoking provides a practical way for a director to get his characters physically close to one another in a way that a) is natural and unforced and b) made for a close-up. (See Bogart and Bacall below.)
And that’s before you even consider the usefulness of cigarettes or pipes to an actor in terms of establishing character, mannerisms, pacing and timing…
Cigarettes aren’t just delicious (and cool) then, they’re important artistic tools too. Puff on that next time you find yourself thinking that they just don’t make movies the way they used to…