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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
in love, but unable to consummate their passion due to
Henreid's family obligations,
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
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
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
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.
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
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