You Know, For Kids!
On the contrary, what would some of our favorite family films be without tobacco? If you took away all of the clever jokes or memorable moments related to tobacco use, would our favorite movies of the past have brought the same laughter or endearing characters into our hearts? Probably.
I won’t even talk about the big dogs like Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, or other popular films like Casablanca (1942), Gone With the Wind (1939), or the thousands of classic movies that warmly portray tobacco because many of these pictures were way before my time.
Massively popular films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) featured smoking back in the real world, like before Dorothy even started down that yellow brick road. I think it was Dorothy’s uncle who smokes a pipe in the sepia-colored segment… If this character was a role model to Dorothy then he was a surely a role model to other young viewers, tobacco pipe and all.
But let’s look at some classic films that my family loved… Take a more recent simple family film such as Uncle Buck (1989) where John Candy smokes cigars throughout the movie and even mentions his hilarious “five year plan” to change things up…
JOHN CANDY: Hey, I stopped smoking cigarettes.
WOMAN: Oh, good.
JOHN CANDY: Isn’t that something? I’m on to cigars now. Yeah, I’m on to a five-year plan. I eliminated cigarettes, then I go to cigars, then I go to pipes, then I go to chewing tobacco, then I’m on to that nicotine gum.
I’m guessing it might be very hard to imagine how a hilarious family movie like Uncle Buck would have fared without the various jokes related to John Candy’s tobacco use. Later in the film, John Candy even scurries into a children’s school bathroom to exhale a big puff of cigar smoke. Luckily, he thinks twice before blindly chucking his lit cigar into the toilet stalls which are all occupied by young children. In the end, John Candy ends up being a tremendous role model for the children inside (and outside) of this film regardless of his tobacco use… But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Big Tobacco can’t get better publicity than having one of America’s most beloved funnymen using their product whilst also being a great role model for kids.
I only mention Uncle Buck because it was a movie that my family always loved and now when I watch it, all I seem to notice is the blatant tobacco use scattered throughout. Let’s look at another film my family has always loved…
In the first scene of another “innocent” family movie called Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Robin Williams actually takes a bold stand against tobacco use and walks out of a studio voiceover session because he doesn’t want to subject innocent children around the world to a cartoon that features smoking. He’s a pretty great role model, right? And yet, near the end of the movie, Robin Williams immediately decides to subject his own three children to tobacco by suddenly demanding to sit in the smoking section of a restaurant in order to keep from blowing his cover. This is an extremely subtle arc which is basically invisible to viewers when it comes back around… But when you isolate these two moments, you cannot deny that it sends a pretty clear message: Smoking ain’t so bad after all, kids!
What about another popular coming of age film such as Stand By Me (1986). Would the teenage gang members appear as cool & edgy without smoking or having a pack of cigarettes rolled up in their shirt sleeves? Would the four main characters — thirteen year old boys, mind you — seem as eager to grow up without the famous after dinner cigarette scene? Try to imagine how many other young kids may have been influenced to light up for the first time after watching these child stars casually smoking around a campfire in this extremely inspiring film.
An interesting study by Dartmouth researchers determined that movie characters who smoke — regardless of whether they are actually heros or villans — can equally influence teens to try smoking. [ Citation: Adolescent Smoking: Who Matters More, Good Guys or Bad Guys? from Pediatrics Journal, July 2009 ]
Personally, I think I like the approach taken by The Sandlot (1993) much better. After several of the kids in the movie try Big Chief brand chewing tobacco and go on a whirly carnival ride, they all vommit up disgusting brown juice and learn a valuable lesson. But wait, was the lesson not to swallow the juice or not to use chewing tobacco in the first place? Either way, this particular scene probably had a positive effect on children… but trust me that is extremely rare in Hollywood. And don’t forget, in some backwards or reverse psychology kind of way, even these types of messages & appearances can still compel children to try tobacco for the first time.
Speaking of children, even several of Walt Disney’s animated classics contain tobacco use and it is well known that Walt Disney himself smoked several packs a day — and ol’ Walt is one of the most beloved figures of all time. Take another look at those “innocent” children’s movies like 101 Dalmations, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio and you’ll see exactly what I mean. For kids wanting to act grown up, the messages that these films send out to impressionable young viewers are quite clear. Remember Cruela de Ville, the wicked woman from 101 Dalmations, puffing away on her cigarette? She smoked and schemed while the beautifully animated clouds of cigarette smoke were softly billowing through the air. And don’t forget little child-like Pinnocchio wanting to act grown up by puffing away on a cigar… The not so subtle message in Pinnochio is: You can’t become a grown up just by smoking. You really have to be grown up, uh, then you can smoke.
When you take a little time to look closer at tobacco use in entertainment, these kind of subtle yet influential messages are everywhere. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the Coen brothers in a minute!) Tobacco use in its many forms is ultimately embedded into childrens’ brains through the help of entertainment media such as feature films, television programs, and video games. Many studies show that adolescents typically start on their way to becoming a lifelong smoker before the age of 18  so you can only guess how many movies that glorify smoking a typical teenager has viewed by that age.
[ image of someone smoking from Saving Private Ryan ]
For example, the especially powerful film Saving Private Ryan (1998) does a tremendous job of encouraging young people to smoke — many of the tobacco related messages were woven in with such subtlety it could only be the master class of Professor Spielberg. But on the contrary, take away every frame related to tobacco in this movie and you wouldn’t miss a thing or change the viewer impact a bit. By the way, this violent Oscar-winning film was indeed seen by millions and billions of people around the world, young and old alike. Teenage boys watching this movie who might have been hoping to witness a bit of history were instead treated to very subconscious messages that equated using tobacco with courage or manhood. Again, props such as cigarettes might have truly seemed like authentic texture for the setting & time period, but any moral elements related to smoking were completely drowned out by the hellish aspects of war.
In case you think I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, here’s a few choice moments from Saving Private Ryan…
For instance, in the very beginning of the movie when most guys on the boats are trembling, vommiting, or mentally preparing for battle, actor Tom Hanks takes a swig of water from his canteen but actor Tom Seizemore calmly readies himself by sticking some chewing tobacco into his lip. The way the camera moves during this scene, it’s probably easy to miss because there is so much else going on for you to absorb. Trust me, Spielbergio knows exactly what he’s doing. Anyways, after a violent landing on the beaches of Normandy and all out hell on earth, Tom Hanks gets a little shaken and soggy but Tom Seizemore steps up like a badass. Before heroically leading the infantry men through the enemy wall, Seizemore even pulls out his tobacco dip and throws it on the ground; obviously the hard part is over now. The message here: Water is okay for some cats, but tobacco is what really gives you courage in overwhelming situations.
There is another very subtle and extremely important character arc being depicted in Saving Private Ryan which is probably invisible to most people and that’s the story of young translator boy. Young translator boy, in the beginning, was very innocent, level-headed, and didn’t smoke cigarettes. He was a very book-smart individual and he craved the brotherhood that many grunts in combat were experiencing. Throughout the film, young translator boy just wanted to grow up and be part of the gang but he never reached for a cigarette. Then one day young translator boy had to grow up real fast by watching his buddies die face down in the mud. After that, well, young translator boy obviously felt he was mature enough to finally have himself some cigarettes. Messages here include: When you’re ready to be a man, try our brand!
On a side note, it seems to be common knowledge these days that tobacco companies did in fact ship thousands of cartons of cigarettes to allied troops during WWII. Was this an act of kindness or selfishness? Since giving free cigarettes to troops under high stress ultimately created many lifelong habitual smokers when returning from war, I’m betting that kindness wasn’t Big Tobacco’s primary concern. I’ve even heard that some of the individual packs of cigarettes were supplied to soldiers sealed up inside the exact same style tins as their food rations. Aside from keeping the cigarettes dry, even this subtle technique was sending a message to soldiers. I noticed that the movie Saving Private Ryan doesn’t go into that much detail about tobacco products being present in wartime, but just enough to get some kind of subtle advertising messages across to young people around the world.
Heck even the red cross guy (played by actor Giovanni Ribisi), who was only there to provide medical care to the other soldiers, also smoked quite a few cigarettes in the film. One possible message here: Tobacco can’t be too bad if doctors & military officers use it. As I mentioned, Saving Private Ryan has many subtle tobacco-related messages like this all delicately woven into the film’s plot and time period with nearly the same brilliance as the Coen brothers. Many of the top-level directors such as the Coens or Spielbergio have the ability to embed tobacco products on such subconscious levels that you could watch the same movie a hundred times and never truly notice the things I’m talking about here.
“I’ll show you the life of the mind!” John Goodman screams out in Barton Fink (1991).
But that doesn’t mean audiences aren’t absorbing these subtle messages in some way. Unbranded tobacco products such as cigarettes are always quietly doing their part by constantly telegraphing many subtle cues to viewers, especially the younger more impressionable viewers with softer, spongier brains. Some of these tobacco instances might be called artistic but others are quite obviously intended to be subtle messages aimed directly at younger viewers. If Hollywood has anything to say about it, there will be no shortage of heros and glamorous people lighting up on the silver screen. When teenagers consider their own decision to smoke, who or what do you think these teens remember the most before picking up that first cigarette?
Ironically, “No Smoking” signs occasionally appear in films which contain heavy amounts of smoking. In the films of the Coen brothers you can see “No Smoking” signs in Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). In other movies like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984) the signs are seen clearly inside elevators as the heros travel skyward. Possibly inserted as a sick joke or a nod from the filmmakers, these warnings might seem like realistic texture but may still actually be encouraging some viewers to smoke by occasionally reminding them they cannot.
So now you know there probably is some kind of evil underground network of tobacco product placement agents at work in Hollywood today. And movies really do seem to take on all new meanings when you’re looking at them through the lens of unnecessary tobacco use. By looking closer at tobacco use onscreen, many of the subtle messages have become much clearer to me, that’s for sure. Needless to say, this whole thing has been an eye-opening experience. With a new lens for tobacco however, what I have seen in films — not only by the Coen brothers but hundreds of other mainstream filmmakers — has been a rude awakening to say the least. At the very least I also urge you, the viewers, to start looking much deeper at tobacco use in entertainment and its ultimate effect on you, your children, and others around you.
Go back and watch your favorite movies from the 80s or earlier with this new filter for tobacco and you’ll likely find some interesting messages that you just never noticed before. The sad truth is that tobacco has often played a very influential role in hundreds of our favorite Hollywood films, and sometimes when we didn’t even realize it in the first place. Either way, the tobacco use depicted in many of these classics could still be classified as extremely mild compared to many of the Coen brothers’ films. For example if you pulled out any classic 80s movie like say a Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — basically anything by another so-called “innocent” and popular director John Hughes — and actually compared the tobacco instances to a Coen brothers’ picture, the films would not even compare regarding the sheer number of tobacco incidents not to mention the craft & care in which the tobacco has been inserted. After looking at some of the Coens’ movies, the Hughes film seems truly innocent by comparison. I mean, you might be able to spot an occasional cigarette but trust me, it will be nothing like trying to capture each and every instance of tobacco within a Coen brothers’ film.
With several years between some of their film releases, the Coens obviously spend a great deal of time crafting each individual movie to suit their tobacco advertising needs. Often referred to as the “two-headed director,” the Coens indeed possess a genuine talent and passion for depicting their lucid visions — visions which just happen to include wacky memorable characters and endless amounts of cigarettes, cigars & other tobacco paraphernalia carefully embedded for nobody to see. I mean, what other mainstream directors would go to these great lengths just for tobacco? Uh, plenty of them.