Smoking in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” movie — there isn’t any … in 1963 setting

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Look, it’s the 1960s and NO ONE is smoking!

Got a pleasant surprise when I got my DVD of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” this week.

The movie is based on the old TV show and is set in 1963 … and yet, I can’t recall seeing any smoking  scenes in the whole movie. 1963 was the absolute height of the smoking era — the highest smoking rates in history — and yet there’s almost no smoking, if any, in this film. I didn’t even really think about it until after I was done watching it … and I was pleasantly surprised. I’d have to see it again to confirm the total lack of smoking, but let’s say, there was definitely a paucity of cigarettes in this 1963-period film. (My friend Nancy confirmed to me there is NO smoking in this film.)

For far too long, Hollywood has gone out of its way to glamorize smoking , without the tobacco industry paying the movie industry a dime for all that free advertising.  The only time the tobacco industry actually paid the movie industry for product placement was from about 1980 to 1998. Before that, it was all free and after 1998, it was all free — as far as anyone can prove.

This is particularly true of spy movies or a lot of other movies from the 1960s that absolutely glamorized smoking. A lot of people don’t realize this, but James Bond smoked a LOT in the early 60s movies. Cigarettes were a symbol of his virility, suaveness and sophistication.

Smoking is also featured a LOT on “Mad Men,” a show about an advertising agency in the early and mid 1960s. In fact, the agency handles advertising for cigarettes and one of the main characters of the show ends up dying from lung cancer.  Mad Men makes the statement that yes, smoking is glamorous, but that it’s an empty glamour with a heavy, heavy price.

Man from U.N.C.L.E. cigarette case toy, actually sold to kids.
Man from U.N.C.L.E. cigarette case toy, actually sold to kids.

I tried to see if the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show featured smoking. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest if it had considering the era and considering that smoking was common on TV back then. Heck, everyone knows the Flintstones even advertised cigarettes. However, I couldn’t find a single image online of any smoking on the Man from U.N.C.L.E. I did find an image of a Man from U.N.C.L.E. cigarette case communicator. They even sold it as a toy for kids.

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James Bond smoking in “Dr. No.”

Anyway, when some of us tobacco control advocates started clamouring for removing smoking from PG and PG-13 movies, there was a big hue and cry from some Hollywood directors, who claimed banning smoking from teen-marketed movies somehow crimps their artistic freedom. (You’ve never been able to say  “fuck” more than twice in a PG-13 movie — and even then it has to be as an exclamation, not as a description of the sex act — which is silly to me, but I’ve never heard directors piss and moan about that.)

Well, lo and behold, here is a movie based in 1963, (a movie with plenty of drinking and casual sex, BTW) when smoking was still seen as glamorous and suave, when over 50 percent of men smoked, and there is virtually no smoking in the movie … and even I barely noticed. In fact, I doubt virtually no one other than me did notice. It didn’t ruin the movie, whiny Hollywood directors! It simply doesn’t add anything to stories or characters or plots to have smoking included in movies. It’s completely gratuitous. And it always was. Napoleon Solo’s character is quite suave, sophisticated, drinks his fair share of alcohol, sleeps around … and manages to remain cool without the aid of a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

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Mad Men

It also heartened me because I believe this movie is a good sign that the new rules put in place in 2008 by the MPAA regarding smoking in movies is in fact, having an effect. The rules have created a chilling effect over smoking in movies because studios just don’t even want to butt heads with the MPAA over it.

The MPAA didn’t actually ban smoking in PG and PG-13 movies, which made a lot of tobacco control advocates angry at the time. But, it did strongly discourage it, allowing loopholes for historical period accuracy (So, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. probably could have included more smoking and gotten away with it.), and the rules also included some weasel words like “pervasive smoking.” However, the rules were good enough to send the message to studios, “don’t even bother. It’s not worth it, it’s not worth fighting over it.” The simple threat of movies being rated R for smoking was enough to convince studios and directors to just not bother.

 

 

 

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