Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Smoking in Movies

I had this post done and ready to go yesterday, however, an error popped up when I tried to save and everything I wrote had been deleted. So here is take two of this blog post. Apologies if it falls short of the original.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a comedic political drama from 1939 following the charismatic Jefferson Smith who tries to fight against the political corruption scandal that he is roped into. Throughout the film, Mr. Smith is depicted as a true American patriot and hero for the average Joe by the media yet in person, he speaks with a nervous demeanor due to the power present in his new “peers”. This demeanor therefore illustrates the trope of “victory for the little guy” in which a small town hero is forced to fight and win against an industrial or political war machine (or any other insurmountable odds portrayed by an immovable force of modern society). Although I would like to discuss this trope further, I felt it necessary to talk about two particular props within the film that frequent the foreground and background of many sequences. These two props, cigars and cigarettes passively waved around the film by many of the characters portrayed. I noticed that at least one or more characters were smoking in most sequences including but not limited to: Mr. Smith’s train ride to Washington, any scene involving food, as well as in all scenes taking place in an office (usually cigarettes were extinguished in ashtrays or an ashtray was in plain view of the camera). Before I go any further, I am not trying to say that the producers of this film are trying to brainwash viewers into smoking, but that either smoking truly was an extremely common habit for people to do in public or that the film industry saw smoking as such.

Given this film’s trope of “victory for the little guy” and the common use of smoking to accentuate the speaker’s words or hand gestures (looking specifically at the scene where Mr. Smith attacks journalists and is mocked by said journalists as well as the scene in which Mr. Smith is speaking with Ms. Saunders in her office about the boys camp he wants to start) one might assume that smoking is a big part of American culture. After all, it’s not just the politicians and journalists of the film that smoke big cigars and cigarettes as the hero of the film smokes a pipe in two or three scenes. If even the hero of the film smokes from time to time, it must be a fairly common practice among American patriots right? Even if smoking was an extremely common practice (especially before the introduction of the Surgeon General’s warning labels), I can’t imagine that everyone smokes a big stogie after every minor victory (looking more at the other senators and journalists than at Mr. Smith).

I understand that cigars and cigarettes were simply props for the film due to smoking being a common practice at the time. I understand that perhaps not all of the detrimental effects of smoking were well known by the general populace. What I do not understand is just why they are utilized so frequently throughout the film. Would have replacing a cigarette with a pencil or half empty cup of coffee been not have been able to create the same effect that said cigarette somehow managed to create? Although the cigarettes were alternated with cigars and pipes from time to time, it doesn’t prevent some of the characters from looking like nicotine addicts. My question to everyone is, what do you believe the director’s intentions were by frequently using smoking apparatuses as props rather than some other hand held, gesturing-object? Does this frequency greatly associate smoking with the film’s theme of being a true American patriot?

Jonathan Kalman