In a comment on our entry on Hollywood censorship of smoking, Lars Walker points out that "from an actor’s point of view–a cigarette gives you something to do with your hands." He’s quite right, and there’s more interesting cultural material to mine from this subject.
To wit . . .
The common belief is that cigarette smoking in movies became the norm when talkies started and actors didn’t know what do with themselves during long conversations that were necessitated by static cameras lodged in enormous, soundproof booths. There’s some plausibility in that, but if you watch silent films you’ll see that there’s plenty of cigarette smoking in them as well. Cigarette smoking increased rapidly after World War I, and largely because of the invention of the safety match, which is much easier to use than a taper!
In short, the movies had nothing to do with it.
My theory is that smoking has always been popular in the movies because the rising, curling, and ever-changing image of smoke coming from a cigarette makes boring conversation shots look much more interesting. It would be a pity to take that away from people just to prevent a few hundred thousand agonizing deaths from cancer each year.
But I jest, of course…..