Roger Ebert hates smoking — except in movies. And he really objects to the kind of revisionism that has produced one of Bette Davis’ iconic images from “All About Eve” for a new postage stamp but left out her ever-present cigarette.
Ebert’s parents died from smoking-related diseases. He does not permit smoking in his home. But he cannot resist the romanticism of cigarette smoking in movies, especially classic movies.
Two of the most wonderful props in film noir were cigarettes and hats. They added interest to a close up or a two-shot. “Casablanca” without cigarettes would seem to be standing around looking for something to do. These days men don’t smoke and don’t wear hats. When they lower their heads, their eyes aren’t shaded. Cinematographers have lost invaluable compositional tools. The coil of smoke rising around the face of a beautiful women added allure and mystery. Remember Marlene Dietrich. She was smoking when she said, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
Everybody smoked cigarettes in the movies. Even Katharine Hepburn. Even Loretta Young. Ronald Reagan posed for Chesterfield ads. On the radio, it wasn’t “The Jack Benny Program,” it was “The Lucky Strike Program with Jack Benny,” although in that PBS documentary you only see him smoking cigars. Robert Mitchum smoked so much, he told me, that when the camera was rolling on “Out of the Past,” Kirk Douglas offered him a pack and asked, “Cigarette?” And Mitchum, realizing he’d carried a cigarette into the scene, held up his fingers and replied, “Smoking.” His improvisation saved the take. They kept it in the movie.
My favorite smoking scene is Lauren Bacall’s first on-screen moment in “To Have and Have Not” — she was an instant star with her first line: “Anybody got a match?”
Ebert acknowledges that in today’s world it almost seems absurd to have a character smoking anywhere but standing outside a building on a brief break. Even James Bond no longer smokes. And we no longer need the lighting of a cigarette and the softly rising smoke to demonstrate gallantry and symbolize romance and seduction. in this era of overshares and TMI, perhaps it isn’t the cigarettes we miss so much as the metaphors.