Anyone who grew up with television in the 1960s will remember that cigarette commercials were as commonplace as ads for automobiles, antacids and laundry detergent.
They were part of the media landscape, complete with attractive actors, jingles and slogans that, in their day, could compete with the California Raisins for viewer recognition: "Winston Tastes Good," "Come to Where the Flavor Is," "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco," ad infinitum.These slogans and many more are on parade in MPI Home Video's "Smoke That Cigarette!" (53 minutes, $59.95), a compilation of tobacco sales pitches, testimonials, warnings and other artifacts from the '40s, '50s and '60s, when smoking still had society's stamp of approval.
Now that fitness is in and smoking is out, Madison Avenue's manipulations seem hilariously transparent. The repeated images of smiling young faces wreathed in cigarette smoke, with their perfect teeth and clear eyes, are so at odds with the current stereotype of the smoker that laughter is our initial response.
A clever framing device turns the tables on the cigarette makers. Somehow the producers turned up a 1940s promotional reel featuring Johnny, the Philip Morris page ("Call for Philip Morris"), in which he plugs his cigarettes while introducing a movie theater's bill. But in this new context, he's not introducing entertainment, but vignettes that reflect poorly on his own product. In one sly juxtaposition, newsreel footage of researchers worrying about a smoking-related epidemic of lung cancer is followed by Johnny's cheery boasting that "nose and throat doctors recommend" Philip Morris as being less irritating.
Also amusing are the celebrity endorsements. Just as today's rock stars earnestly hype beer, soft drinks and gasoline, so too did TV performers once blow smoke for their tobacco sponsors. Familiar faces here include Phil Silvers and Ed Wynn for Camels; Bob Cummings and Fred and Wilma Flintstone (honest!) for Winston; Lucy and Ricky for Philip Morris; Jack Benny for Lucky Strike, and Steve McQueen for Viceroy.
Since "Smoke" contains no narration, the age and source of much of the material is a matter of guesswork, and performers aren't identified unless the original film happens to bear a subtitle. This reliance on the viewer to fill in the blanks weakens the program.
For example, when actor William Talman appears in an anti-smoking public-service message, acknowledging that he's suffering from cancer after a lifetime of smoking, the poignancy is lessened if you don't remember him as Raymond Burr's adversary in "Perry Mason."
The grim twist of actors endorsing the very product that probably had a role in their deaths is driven home with a sledgehammer in an old commercial in which we visit the "Camel Gallery of Happy Smokers," a series of star portraits hung on a wall as if in a museum. The first celebrity portrait shown by Camel's proud pitchman is that of John Wayne. Another ironic presence: Humphrey Bogart appearing in a Jack Benny TV skit that plays off Benny's sponsor, Lucky Strike.
These pointed reminders that cigarettes ultimately are nothing to laugh at reach a sobering climax in some medical film and photos of a man who refused to undergo an operation for cancer of the mouth. As the months pass, we see what happens to his jaw and lower face as the tumor spreads inexorably and finally takes his life.