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Hollywood and Smoking: A Brief History

July 23, 2010  |  3:00pm
Hollywood and Smoking: A Brief History

This story is a part of our Mad Men Takeover. Season four of the series premieres on AMC this Sunday, July 25.

Hollywood has had something of a torrid affair with smoking ever since the likes of classic stars such as Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Audrey Hepburn graced the silver screen. Celebrities like them would send puffs of smoke into the air, and they somehow made filling your lungs with grey chemicals appealing and attractive. Since then, though, the depiction of smoking in film and television has seen several boosts of support and, conversely, almost militaristic omissions from the big screen.

Cigarette makers have long had a history of getting placement for their product in Hollywood, but thanks to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, that’s no longer the case. Regardless, smoking is still often depicted, blatantly or not, in film and TV. Years ago, the Harvard School of Public Health began focusing their efforts on getting cigarette smoking off the silver screen, with some noticeable results. For example, Emma Thompson’s character in the 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction smokes cigarettes, but producer Lindsay Doran made it a point for her character to hack and cough as a result of her smoking, depicting it as unappealing. Producers likewise had a hand in the lack of smoking in another film out the same year, The Devil Wears Prada.

Tobacco laws still vary by state, and cigarette smoking inevitably still makes its on-screen appearances, but it’s not as widespread as it once was. Nowadays, period pieces in the vein of Mad Men, like 2008’s Frost/Nixon or Revolutionary Road, feature smoking as a historical representation of the times.

Since 2007, the Motion Picture Association of America has considered the depictions of smoking (both cigarettes and marijuana) in films when it develops their ratings. For example, last year’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a rather mild film, received a PG rating at least partly because Mr. Fox smokes cigarettes. In many films released in our time, smoking often lacks the sex appeal and glamour it once did. Before the adverse effects smoking had on peoples’ health were made popular, though, people used to smoke, and heavily. Below, then, without condoning the act of smoking cigarettes, we take a brief glimpse at Hollywood’s former relationship with smoking through its early history, before the Truth campaign and the popularization of the realities of what cigarette smoking does to one’s health.

Marlene Dietrich
This German actress’s exotic, glamorous looks meant that just about anything she did—including smoking—looked equally appealing. Watch her sing while dressed as a man, and while smoking, of course, in the clip from Josef Von Sternberg’s 1930 film, Morocco, below.

Fritz Lang
The Austrian auteur’s movies during the Weimar years, like 1922’s silent film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and its sequel (with sound), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, featured smoking heavily. The smoke added to the mystery and hinted at dark, thematic undercurrents in these film noirs. Below, watch the undeniably creepy trailer for 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Brando’s overt sex appeal in this 1951 dramatic classic is undeniable, but he’s not the only character that smokes cigarettes in the film. Blanche, Stella’s sister, nearly always has a cigarette at her lips. Below, A. O. Scott of The New York Times explores the film’s impact on Hollywood acting.

The Marlboro Man
Remember this cowboy? He was rugged, he was handsome, and boy did he look good with a cigarette tucked between his fingers. Popularized in the 1950s, the commercials’ stars—Wayne McLaren, David McLean and Dick Hammer—all eventually died of lung cancer. Below, a YouTube user puts together footage from these popular cowboy-themed advertisements.

Rebel Without A Cause
James Dean was the ultimate in bad-boy cool. This 1955 film, directed by Nicholas Ray, rarely depicts Dean without a cigarette. Even advertisements and movie posters for the film rarely showed Dean without one between his lips or fingers. Smoking cigarettes, while common then, was also associated with a wild, rebellious side. Click here to watch Dean smoke throughout the “Chicken” scene from Rebel Without A Cause.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s
This 1961 film starred the flawless Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, and Hepburn was constantly shown with a chic, long, black cigarette holder in tow. The movie posters, now a timeless representation of classic Hollywood glamour, always include Hepburn with the iconic oversized holder. Below is the original trailer for the film.

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