Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Non-smoking Guns and Western "B" Movies

It’s an interesting irony that despite the iconic image of The Marlboro Man of the cigarette ads of the 1950s and 1960s, there was very little smoking going on in the old Hollywood western B movies. Certainly none, I think, by the heroes of the films.

This is in contrast to an era when if it talked on screen, it smoked. All the heroes did. Smoking was supposed to be glamorous and sophisticated, rugged and sexy. Cowboys, I suppose, were not supposed to be either glamorous or sophisticated. If they were, they couldn’t be rugged, too.

Also, the western B movies of the day were nothing like the gritty anti-heroes of the “spaghetti westerns” of a later era. The B movies were for kids. Those kids might start smoking on the sly at 14, but at the age of 10 were still encouraged to live good clean lives, which included shooting straight, playing fair, and not smoking. Except for maybe a peace pipe. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers might go that far, but that’s it.

The teens were given a new message when they were old enough to realize it: smoking was what adults did and most teens desperately wanted to be adults. The tobacco industry and the film industry didn’t really have to go after the teens. The teens came to them. It was a more subliminal message, all that film noir lighting up, than those bullying radio ads of the day that insisted “9 out of 10 doctors” preferring Lucky Strike Cigarettes, but just as effective. Maybe more so. Humphrey Bogart was unwittingly a greater pitchman than the fabled radio ad’s “panel of smoking experts.”

The kids, even when they became teens, didn’t really leave the western movies behind, however. It was just the opposite: the westerns grew up and left the kids behind.

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