“We Have The Stars”: There Used To Be A Lot of Cigarettes In Movies

Once loaded with meaning, now almost meaningless

Once, cigarettes played a role far beyond giving the actors something to do with their hands while in the scene and with their mouths when they weren’t speaking.

In a few movies, especially from an age that is now the stuff of TCM, cigarette smoking came loaded with meanings, both stated and behind a vaporous veil that managed to whisper past the Hays Code in a way that knowing audiences would understand.

Consider, for example, Now, Voyager from 1942. Bette Davis plays a young woman with a wealthy, domineering mother. Davis’ character goes to a sanitarium where therapy helps. She takes a South American cruise (were it made today, more likely the Caribbean), where she romantically entangles with a married man, played by Paul Henreid.

In a pivotal scene, Henreid puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them, and gives one to Davis’ character. She says, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

But they were, in effect, to be star-crossed lovers. And when they flicked their cigarettes away with trails of burning embers, they returned back to their former lives, their romance was now as substantial as smoke.

To Have and Have Not (1944) was Lauren Bacall’s film debut. It was the movie where the 19-year-old met the 44-year-old Humphrey Bogart. Her character slinks into Bogart’s character’s room and asks for a light. . . and they lit more than a cigarette, both plot-wise and when the shooting stopped.

Bogart was married (in real life) at the time. He and Bacall married in 1945. And they were to burn several more butts in short order in The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948).

Bogart, incidentally, died at age 57 from esophageal cancer. That was when the marriage to Bacall ended.

Not only did these films portray meaning-ladened cigarette smoking, but they were highly literate: the title Now, Voyager comes from a poem by Walt Whitman. To Have and Have Not is based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner has a screenwriting credit for the movie.

These movies came out during a period that we sometimes refer to as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” Or, if we look at it from another context: Smoke and Literacy. That said, Whitman didn’t smoke. Hemingway was not a big smoker, life in Cuba notwithstanding. And Faulkner did smoke a lot—a pipe, which tends to be more academic than sexy.

Pushing forward to a somewhat more contemporaneous film, we generally remember the interrogating scene in Basic Instinct (1992) for Sharon Stone’s slow leg uncross. But what is pivotal to the character of Catherine Tramell is when she lights up a cigarette—and the police tell her she can’t do that because it is a smoke-free building. She brushes that away like some errant ash. She is not a woman to be trifled with.

In 1998 the attorneys general of 46 states, five U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and the four largest cigarette manufacturers in the U.S. reached he Master Settlement Agreement. In addition to the cigarette companies having to pay billions of dollars, the agreement had it that there were restrictions on advertising, youth targeting, and product placement—including in movies.

According to figures released by Gallup in November, 2022, the percentage of U.S. adults who smoke cigarettes is at an all-time low: 11%. The main driver of the decline: young adults, those between 18 and 29. From 2001 to 2003 35% of them smoked. It is now 12%. The cohort with the highest percentage is 50 to 64 years old, at 18%. The lowest—and one could have some ungenerous speculation as to what explains this—is the 65+ cohort, at 8%.

Cigarettes, as a prop, have certainly not gone away. Gallup analysts speculate that you can explain some of the reduction in cigarette smoking by the comparatively young by a switch to vaping. Somehow a vape pen and a demi-cloud of smoke doesn’t provide the same style points that James Dean scored with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Still, people used to wear hats—as in fedoras, not inverted ballcaps—in movies, something that has completely gone away with the exception of period pieces. We don’t really miss this headgear.

And we don’t really miss cigarettes.

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Stephen Macaulay

Stephen Macaulay writes about the music industry for Glorious Noise (www.gloriousnoise.com).He began his career in Rockford, Illinois, a place about which Warren Zevon once told a crowd, “How can you miss with a name like Rockford?”

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