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Article:

Smokescreen:
Bette Davis and the Cigarette

by Angus E. Crane, 1997

Has any actor in history done more for the tobacco industry than Bette Davis? asks a Davis biographer.  Whether this query refers to Davis' personal consumption of cigarettes or her screen image is not clear.  In either case, Davis and the cigarette seem inseparable confederates in the public mind.  Henry Fonda relied upon that public perception to quip in a roast of Davis: "I've been close to Bette Davis for thirty-eight years and I have the cigarette burns to prove it."

That Bette Davis and the cigarette should be wedded as one is a curious affair since Davis smokes on screen in nor more than one-fourth of her 101 movies.  She never endorsed or affiliated herself with a particular cigarette brand.  Although Davis sought the approval of Jack Warner to appear in a series of advertisements for Chesterfield, he would not authorize Warner Bros.  biggest female star to compromise her stature by hawking any product.  Davis, more than any other public figure, is allied with the cigarette, yet an intelligible explanation is not readily apparent.

This article demonstrates that Davis and the cigarette are everlastingly entwined, not because audiences saw her smoking in so many of her films, but because 1) Davis' commitment to screen realism dictated her portrayal of a smoker in an authentic fashion by smoking throughout an entire picture; 2) a number of memorable Davis flicks employ cigarettes as a key plot element; and 3) Davis' distinctive and stylistic use of a cigarette to bestow a unique and individualized essence on her screen creations leave an unforgettable impression on audiences.  

THE BIRTH OF A SMOKER

In 1931, the advent of sound had placed the film industry in desperate need of actors who could speak.  A talent scout for Universal Pictures, in search of actors with stage experience, signed Davis, who had recently met with success on Broadway, to a contract with Universal Studios.

Hollywood's standard stars, however, had faces that simply dazzled audiences.  Accustomed to rhapsodic features, Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, was livid when he saw Davis and learned she had been extended a contract.  "Who has done this to me?" he shouted.  She has about as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville," who was a gangly, unattractive character actor.  "Who would want to end up with Davis in the final reel," Laemmle demanded of studio executives.

Laemmle's rage and consternation could not, however, alter the fact that Davis had a contract, so the studio scrambled for appropriate projects for their new "starlet."  Unfortunately, Universal failed to see Davis' potential, and she became known around the studio as the "little brown wren."

Time proved Universal's hasty judgment grossly inaccurate, but Davis was painfully aware that a young movie star should exude sensuality.  The facts could not be altered: Her virginity and austere New England upbringing did not endow her with a cosmopolitan or sexual aura.

In desperation, Davis turned to her most ardent supporter and trusted advisor her mother for guidance.  Mrs. Davis, keenly sensitive to Bette's lack of sex appeal by Hollywood standards, recommended that Bette start smoking.  She assured Bette that a cigarette would lend an air of sophistication and worldliness that Bette did not otherwise possess.  Davis heeded her mother's advice and picked up her first cigarette.  An innocent effort to compensate for a supposed deficiency established her trademark the Bette Davis signature a cigarette.  

BETTE DAVIS REALISM

Davis' gift for creating genuine and believable characters on screen places her among filmdom's greatest actresses.  Often frustrated with Hollywood's preference for glamour over reality, Davis vigorously fought for realistic images in her movies.  In Marked Woman, Davis' character receives a severe facial wound in retaliation for betraying the mob.  In the hospital scenes, here face was so delicately and "tastefully" bandages that it looked more like an extension to one those convoluted, fussy hats common in the 1930's, not a medical remedy.  Davis refused to tolerate such a fantasy and stormed off the set to consult with her doctor.  She described the knife wound her character receives, and the doctor bandaged her accordingly, Davis returned to the studio and insisted that the authentic bandages appear in Marked Woman.  She, of course, prevailed.

Similar devotion to realism was displayed in determining whether a character should smoke.  Many of Davis' better known roles, Jezebel, The Little Foxes, All This and Heaven Too, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Of Human Bondage, The Old Maid, and The Corn is Green, are period pieces in which a female character would not smoke.  In other famous parts, such as The Letter, Watch on the Rhine, The Petrified Forest, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Hush, Hush . . . Sweet Charlotte, Davis choose not to smoke because tobacco use would have been inconsistent with her characterization.

When a Davis character smoked, however, Davis portrayed the screen personality as a real smoker.  She scoffed at scripts that called for a character to smoke one cigarette at a key dramatic moment.  Davis felt such theatrical posturing was contrived and unacceptable to intelligent audiences.  She reasoned that if a character smoked at all, she would be a regular smoker, and therefore, she should smoke throughout the movie.

Davis faced opposition in her approach.  Movies are made up of different shots and takes; therefore, it is critical when a cigarette is smoked on film that the amount of cigarette burned is consistent in each take.  If attention to such detail is ignored, one frame may show a freshly lit cigarette and the very next frame the cigarette will have burned to the filter.  Not even Bette Davis could smoke a cigarette that fast.  Such technical difficulties discouraged film makes from having a character smoke throughout a film; they preferred isolated and easily controlled scenes.  Davis' insistence that her character smoke throughout a film annoyed directors, who found her fanatical allegiance to realism bothersome and time consuming.  Such battles were the basis for her reputation as a difficult actress.

Davis, however, relished the technical challenge presented by smoking on screen.  She was always cognizant how much of the cigarette should have burned for each take.  Davis kept numerous cigarettes burning at one time in various stages of ignition to safeguard accuracy in each shot.  Davis' array of smoldering cigarettes no doubt caused minor irritation to her co-workers, but Davis would have gladly done more that inflame her co-workers if it meant an honest performance.

The Davis technique did not go unnoticed.  A critic reviewing Another Man's Poison contended, in jest, that Davis consumed cartons of cigarettes in the film.  An obvious exaggeration, but when cinema fans are accustomed to seeing characters smoke one or two cigarettes throughout a movie, any actor portraying an authentic smoker in a two or three hour film will leave the audience with the singular impression that she is a smoker.

Davis' rejection of artificial ploys smoking a single cigarette per film and her devotion to realism was a strong influence in branding her a smoker.

THE MOVIES

Further entangling Bette Davis with tobacco are several features in the Davis film library where cigarettes play a significant role in plot development.  For example, an early Davis movie, Three on a Match, centers on the World War I adage that when three cigarettes are torched with one match, disaster strikes one of the smokers.  Not a Davis masterpiece, but even the title aligns Davis, one of the three smokers sharing a single match in the film, with a cigarette.

In Cabin in the Cotton, she plays the "bitchy" daughter of a southern planter, who brazenly walks into her father's store, opens a cabinet containing cigarettes, snitches a pack of smokes, dislodges a cigarette from the pack, and demands the sharecropper's son minding the store to light for her.  Clutching the cigarette pack in her fist with a cigarette extending from her slim fingers, she coos to the sharecropper's son, "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair."  As her flirtation with the sharecropper progresses, Davis' penchant for cigarettes justifies the increasing regularity of her visits to daddy's store, so the cigarette enables a budding romance to flourish.

In Dark Victory, Davis describes herself to Doctor George Brent as being "accustomed to a reasonable quantity of tobacco and alcohol."  The Davis character is afflicted with a rare disease.  The clue that uncovers the nature of her ailment is Davis' inability to light her cigarette her motor skills won't allow her to connect match to cigarette, which is further evidenced in her seriously burned fingers.  Thus, the cigarette leads to uncovering the conflict, Davis' impending death, upon which the story is founded.

One of Davis' more memorable screen entrances occurs in Fog Over Frisco.  The camera shows a large array of balloons.  The audience hears a balloon pop and a joyously giggling voice joins each pop with a "Bang!"  As the camera focuses on the popping balloons, Davis' smiling face emerges with a cigarette in hand the means by which she had popped all those balloons.  The burning ember is held like a delicate surgical tool and creates yet another vivid portrait of Bette Davis with a cigarette.

Davis observes in Winter Meeting that while she and her new found love share little in common, they at least both smoke.  The script provides the words, but it's Davis' delivery of the lines that conveys to the audience that both Davis and her lover enjoy smoking enough that it may just be sufficient grounds for a relationship.  Davis further embellishes her smoking legend in the rarely seen Scapegoat, where she plays Alec Guinness' morphine addicted, cigar smoking mother.  Anyone who has watched Bette Davis smoke a cigar does not forget it.

Perhaps her most popular film, Now, Voyager, is reeking with cigarette symbolism and imagery.  Davis' domineering mother does not allow her to smoke, so she is relegated to sneaking a puff in the privacy of her room camouflaging her ashtray and cigarettes with tissues.

After psycho-therapy has lifted her inhibitions, she is sent on a cruise to test her new found emotional freedom.  She meets Paul Henreid, an unhappily married man, who shares, among things, cigarettes with Davis.  When Henreid lights Davis' cigarette, he takes two cigarettes from his pack, lights both in his mouth, and then offers a lit cigarette to Davis.  Pure romance executed with such elegance and grace by Davis and Henreid that it creates movie magic.  While the routine had been used in movies before Now, Voyager, the style and finesse of the Now, Voyager version eclipse all others and its remains the classic.

As the movie concludes with Davis and Henreid in love, but unable to consummate their passion due to Henreid's family obligations, Henreid offers a compromise:  "Shall we just have a cigarette on it . . . May I sometimes come here?  And sometimes smoke a cigarette with you and sit in understanding silence?"  Henreid then performs what by this point is a familiar ritual and lights two cigarettes, sharing one with Davis.  She assures Henreid that "[w]e can always light our cigarettes from the same flame."  One critic sneered that Now, Voyager is the only motion picture where smoking a cigarette is equivalent to sexual intercourse.  To the less cynical, the gesture is full of romance and mystery, just what one expects from the movies.

These movie memories add to the legacy of Bette Davis and the cigarette.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL DAVIS PROP

The hallmark of a truly great actor is the ability to utilize a prop in such a way that it not only moves the story further along, but its handling also reveals the personality of the character.  Davis religiously used her most famous prop, the cigarette, to add flesh, depth and dimension to her characters.

The most fascinating aspect of watching Bette Davis smoke is to note the great variety with which she handles a cigarette.  Many a filmgoer has been mesmerized as Bette Davis jabbed and stabbed the air with a smoldering cigarette, snorted and cavorted in billows of smoke, and flicked and clicked ashes all over the screen.  Davis, however, had method in her smoking antics, and the careful observer may detect Davis' artistry at work as she defines and clarifies her characters through individualized smoking patterns.

For example, to convey the vicious, nastiness of an actress on the skids in Dangerous, Davis crushes her cigarette into an exquisitely prepared breakfast with such fury that one wonders whether it penetrated the china.  The hypocrisy of the beautiful Fanny Skeffington of Mr. Skeffington is effectively highlighted as Davis positions her elongated cigarette holder parallel to her meticulously coifed hair and politely exhales smoke in the opposite direction (always the lady) of her husband who has just found Davis in a nightclub with another man.

Davis, cigarette dangling from her fingers in a tempting, teasing manner, capture the essence of an enchantress as she sprawls before a blazing fire waiting to trap her man into her web in Beyond the Forest.  A tomboy quality is communicated as the aristocratic Davis in The Great Lie strikes a wooden match on a furniture surface, lights the cigarette in her mouth, and pulls the cigarette out of her mouth using her ring and little finger while her index  and thumb wave the match back and forth to extinguish the flame.  While this bit of action is oddly masculine, the gesture fits the character perfectly.

The most renowned Bette Davis film, All About Eve, is teeming with Davis' cigarette artistry.  Davis' handling of each cigarette mirrors the mood of the film. In the opening sequence, Davis is seen at theatrical awards dinner lighting a cigarette and exhaling a stream of smoke as she pushes away a waiter's hand who attempts to water her cocktail.  Her management of the cigarette is stagy, theatrical, actressey a perfect summation of Davis' character, Margo Channing.  When Davis is informed that the star struck Eve Harrington wishes to meet her, she displays her disdain for "autograph fiends" by spewing a billowing cloud of smoke upon her guests as if it were an insecticide designed to destroy all pests.  After a light night phone call with her boyfriend, Davis begins to suspect Eve of evil motives.  She returns the phone to its receiver and sit half way up in the bed, lights her cigarette and withdraws the cigarette less than an inch away from her lips and allows the smoke to slowly exit at an uncertain, hesitating pace, reflecting her growing anxiety and doubts.

Later as Davis confront her friends and associates about the treachery of Eve, she allows her arms to flail about as her cigarette dangerously flies around like a threatening bumble be.  When she finishes her tirade, she vigorously grinds the cigarette into the stage floor.  The intensity of her action enables the viewer to envision a large scorch mark on the boarding of the stage, not from the cigarette, but the frenzied grinning of Bette Davis  foot.

Is it any wonder the public remembers when Bette Davis smokes on screen?  Even though Davis smokes in a small percentage of her vast film catalogue, she did so with style a style diversified for each character.  An audience may not recognize the artistry of Davis' work, but viewers instinctively know that what they see is authentic and the motion and movements of Davis' cigarette somehow complement and enhance her screen character.

Davis was fully cognizant of her legend, and she obligingly accommodated the public's expectations.  She brashingly pulled out cigarettes on TV talk shows, disconcerting the likes of Johnny Carson, Phil Donahue, David Letterman and others.  She reassured everyone that "[I]f I did not smoke a cigarette they would not know who I was."  When interviewers asked the 81 year old star why she did not stop smoking, she replied with that familiar venom, "What! would be the point?"  Davis, an old-time patriot, condemned anti-smoking laws with a scathing assessment:  "America is no longer a free country."  Davis, however, freely smoked when and where ever she desired and found few with the courage or audacity to tell a screen goddess to put it out.  

CONCLUSION

Bette Davis, one of the greatest screen actresses and most memorable personalities of our day, lived her life with panache.  No wonder that what she said and did remains a vivid memory in our hearts and minds.  To assume, however, that we associate Davis with tobacco because she was always smoking requires the record to be set straight.  We remember Bette Davis smoking because she smoked, as she did everything, in an inimitable fashion.

1997 Angus E. Crane

(Send your comments on this article to the author, Angus Crane, at ACrane@NAIMA.ORG.)

Return to the Bette Davis main page.


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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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