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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"Cigarettes and Catholics" in film

Motion pictures are a barometer of the public mood. Examples are some of the films from the late 60s which reflect the mood and culture of that time. The Trip (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) come to mind.

Another distinctive era is the one I call the age of "cigarettes and Catholics." That era existed between about 1936 and 1959. It was a time when the actors smoked enough cigarettes to make you feel as though you had puffed a carton of Camel regulars by the time you walked out of the theater.

Cigarettes were used to create a mood. If a guy was walking to the electric chair, one of his last wishes was to have that final cig. If a soldier was dying in a war film, he was usually given a cig for a bit of comfort before he said his last words.

In today’s films, sex is usually open and no big deal. In the 1940s, cigarettes were frequently used to convey sex and romance. In this short clip from Now, Voyager(1942), you can see a good example of this as Paul Henreid lights two cigs at once, then hands one to Bette Davis. It’s pretty mild stuff now (no pun) but that scene has become a historical highlight of romance on film. On a sad note, Humphrey Bogart smoked his way through a lot of movies until their effects caught up with him at age 57. He made a living for many years though using a cigarette as a prop.

As far as the Catholic influence on films, it was strong through the Catholic Legion of Decency. The Legion started condemning and approving films for its flock in the early 1930s and did so until the late 70s. If they didn’t like a film, it was condemned with the dreaded "C" rating. Films included on their list were Some Like it Hot (1959) and Psycho (1960), two classics. Growing up in a heavily Catholic city, I knew a lot of people who actually subscribed to the condemned list.

In 1944, the Best Film Oscar went to Going My Way, a heavily Catholic film starring Bing Crosby as a priest. In 1943 Jennifer Jones won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in The Song of Bernadette, once again a Catholic film. Another approved Catholic influenced film was Boy’s Town (1938) starring Spencer Tracy who made a pretty good living playing priests.

I’m sure that during the cigarettes and Catholics era, the cigarette companies paid plenty to have their products saturating films. As far as Hollywod editing films to satisfy the Catholic interpretation of how people should live their lives, they probably figured that it was worth the trouble to satisfy the large Catholic audiences of those times.

Today, that era represents a time long gone. The movies were great and I still enjoy them but today we don’t have to worry about a particular religion telling us what we can and can’t see. As far as smoking, fortunately the movies never influenced me into that habit.

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Electric Monkey said...

In todays day and age you catch a cig in a theater. Unless it's the e-cig of course!

Jim McAllister said...

Electronic cigarettes? Will those satisfy hard core smokers?