|Clark Gable and Constance Bennett|
from After Office Hours (1935)
One thing that often strikes me when I watch American movies is the American idea of solving a problem. The first alternative that comes to them is: Alcohol. Tell me: Why do the Americans always need a drink when they can't find anything else to say? Why do they always go straight to the nearest bar to solve their sometimes rather insubstantial problems? Why do they always interrupt each other just to add: "Can I get you a drink?" and then a resounding silence follows, and the other part seems almost relieved and answers: "Yes, please; a gin on the rocks!"? And why do they always have one or more drinks cupboards in their homes? Is it an absolute necessity? Is it something we must take seriously when they are depressed and go to the bars, washing down “a few” drinks and talk about lovesickness with a bartender who reminds you more of an unemployed (and definitely underpaid) psychiatrist?
|Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart|
from Casablanca (1942)
Well, it is probably a matter for the American film-makers that drinks and emotions belong together as Bonnie & Clyde; unseparable. But why? Is it really just typical American cinema - just like all the westerns, the American Dream theme and tough guys with big guns are typical style a la American?
Being a non-smoker myself, I do not generally approve of smoking, but I have always find it fascinating in films and in the media. I do not believe it doesn't have any influence or symbolic meaning at all when smoking appears in the media, because kids do tend to copy their idols (sometimes in the most absurd ways) and if their cool idols smoke... Well, there is a pattern, don't you think?
Of course, back in those days (that is, the golden age of cinema) everybody smoked, the stars as well as the "common" people, and cancer wasn't really a subject you connected with smoking, anyway - at least not on the silverscreen or in the media. Practically all the film stars did commercials for cigarettes/tobacco back then. The awareness of the link between cancer and smoking was revealed much later and it was not until the late 1960s that an actor in Hollywood (and the first to do so), William Talman, made an anti-smoking commercial - just a few weeks before he himself died of lung cancer (!) ... That says quite a lot, doesn't it? I'd recommend to take a look at this interesting link to see more.
Still, as I mentioned, smoking cigarettes in the old black-and-white movies back then wasn't seen as something fatal and gross or as something simple and insignificant (at least it never came across that way), because when they did smoke - oh boy, it was the way they did it! Always in those smouldering, tantalizing, understated moments shrouded in mystery and looks filled with sexual power or tension (also a perfect way to skip the unnecessary talk and dodge the censorship of the time). Behind that ascending smoke a face could show everything and nothing of the owner's veiled desires and wishes and it gave both the counterpart and the viewer a good deal of time to read this mysterious face. I have always found these moments in film utterly intriguing and I seriously don't know what movies or perhaps especially film noir would have been without those little white sticks with the glowing ends.
To really give you an idea of what I mean, I'll show you one of the famous scenes from "To Have or Have Not" (1944) where Lauren Bacall lits a cigarette in a very sexy, subtle way while Bogie watches her with some very meaning looks. It's as always wonderfully direct without really being direct - because, hey, it's just a ciggy... Right? Take a look and see for yourself: