Posted by Moira Finnie on May 13, 2009
Acceptable risk vs. benefit ratios, the duality of human nature and the beautiful way that smoke photographs in black and white movies. These are some of the topics that an admittedly geeky but bright friend loved to discuss as we both studied for a professional insurance licensing exam a few years ago. At the time, I was overwhelmed trying to master enough arcane information just to squeak by on the exam for my then job, (though I’ve never used most of it again!).
While watching The Hucksters (1947) the other night on TCM, I thought about those philosophical conversations that my fellow student and I once had during breaks in our study sessions almost a decade ago. We were trying to avoid thinking too hard about actuarial tables, state regulatory laws, death and taxes. Fortunately for me, my pal had a love of classic movies, and a background in advertising that gave him some amusingly dark insights into the wizened, manipulative heart of modern methods of persuasion. The real life people who inspired this movie might be more interesting than the film.
The rather tepid and predictable drama in this movie seems to have been biting the hand that fed it by parodying the corporate culture and publicity machines that the major studios, including MGM, had helped to create during the studio era. Based on a roman a clef by Frederic Wakeman, a former advertising account manager at the Lord & Thomas ad agency, the once controversial novel was inspired by the author’s observations and a nonfiction four part series published in The Saturday Evening Post that critiqued the growing power of the Music Corporation of America (MCA).
The talent agency’s movers and shakers Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman became devious characters in the novel, with Wakeman emphasizing their Judaic roots and detailing their efforts to deflect criticism of their tough managerial methods that were motivated by fear of arousing anti-Semitism as much as an abhorrence of bad public relations. The book, which gives a pretty ugly look at advertising in contemporary life, needed to be cleaned up considerably for the movies. In the movie script, Stein became Dave Lash, a character whose origins were among the urban poor, though not specifically Jewish urban poor. He also became much more of a character whose efforts to help other poor slum kids was an atonement for past misdeeds. Lash was played with orotund vulnerability by Edward Arnold, who is blackmailed into cooperating with Gable‘s character, in a particularly interesting scene that shows both men’s ruthlessness as well as their regrets.
The novel had a happy ending for the central characters, but much of the bite found in Wakeman‘s book had been rendered toothless by the time the final script was readied for the “A” picture treatment, which was produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr. (an MCA client whose daughter played with Wasserman‘s child in Los Angeles). The only remaining “inside show biz” touch in the movie was a brief shot of the exterior of the Hollywood branch of the agency called Talent Ltd in the film. The impressive, marble, white columned building used for this exterior was the actual hq of MCA, a feature that would be lost on almost all the audience of the period.
While musing on the central dilemma posed in this movie, some of the conversations my study buddy and I had almost a decade ago seemed a lot more vivid than the moral and ethical tangles faced by Vic Norman, Advertising Genius, (played by a postwar Clark Gable, looking a bit wan). Perhaps that’s because I found the choice presented to Gable between sacred love, portrayed by poor Deborah Kerr, cast in a thankless role as an aristocratic war widow in her first American movie, and warm and welcoming profane love, depicted by an unpretentious and breathtakingly fresh Ava Gardner, to be a no-brainer. Unfortunately for this viewer, Kerr‘s annoyingly upright character brings out the gallant streak in our cynical hero, causing him to spurn the vulgar riches being offered by a career in advertising. Btw, in the novel, Kerr‘s character was an adulteress (not a widow), who still escaped from paying for her sins by The End and got a cleansed Clark Gable to boot. But we all know that the Production Code wouldn’t allow hints of adultery to sully such a production, even if it did have a faint air of being a bit daring.
Sure, Gable‘s former life path would have meant living as a toady to Adolphe Menjou‘s wildly insecure Mr. Kimberley and the repellent character played by Sydney Greenstreet, a soap manufacturer who displays manners that would have caused a benevolent despot to blanch. However, that is what makes me wonder if one of the reasons that Gable looked a bit queasy during this movie was his growing realization that the story touched on some pretty sensitive topics. My fellow insurance student was a big fan of The Hucksters, and was fascinated by the real life character who inspired Greenstreet‘s expectorating bully of a CEO, George Washington Hill . The colorful Hill, who was the president of the American Tobacco Co., which manufactured Lucky Strike, Bull Durham, Pall Mall tobacco products, died of a heart attack a year before this movie was made at age 61.
According to the real life ad man Emerson Foote, whose manic personality and career provided the template for Adolphe Menjou‘s character, “The only purpose in life to [George Washington Hill] was to wake up, to eat, and to sleep so that he’d have the strength to sell more Lucky Strikes… It was just a religious crusade with him.” Unfortunately, the movie went a bit overboard beating up on the mindless and annoying radio advertising of the period and dreadful comics, making them seem to be a threat to Western Civilization, though I notice the civilization has survived, (well, sort of), and insultingly stupid advertisements and vulgar comedians are still with us.
What is really still interesting about The Hucksters and the 800 pound gorilla it avoids while mocking out another branch of the burgeoning mass media in the 1940s, were the real world connections between movies and the advertising industry. The Hucksters steps nimbly aside while avoiding the fact that it wasn’t just relatively innocuous if prosaic products such as Beautee Soap that were being flogged so persistently on radio and in print back then, contributing to what many regard as society’s ongoing “dumbing-down” of the culture. Hollywood was pretty deeply intertwined with the tobacco industry from 1927 on, which is when Hill‘s company hitched the growing celebrity culture in our country to his products. Long before the word “synergy” started to be flung around regularly, “exploitation”, “tie-ins”, and “ballyhoo” were some of the terms known to describe the cozy relationship between advertising, tobacco and the movies. That would have been commercial suicide. While I don’t smoke, and have lived long enough to feel that human beings will almost always find some ways to self-destruct, despite our knowing better, The Hucksters reminded me of a recent study I ran across that gave me pause about the history of mass marketing and Hollywood. I can certainly understand the need for nervous actors to find something to do with their hands, but during the studio era the dream factory really helped to create a new habit for modern men and women–and I don’t mean the habit of movie-going.
It didn’t seem to get much attention when researchers at Stanford and at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco released an overview study of the the ties between smoking and Hollywood in the studio era in September, 2008. The report, published in the scholarly journal Tobacco Control , documented how closely the studios and the tobacco companies worked together to produce mutually beneficial advertising on radio, magazines and newspapers. The scholars who worked on the report were trying to make the point that movies influence everyday life in benign and malevolent ways, and even today, filmmakers should be conscious of their responsibility to their audience. Stanton Glantz, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and an author of the new study that “debunks the myth” that smoking in movies purely reflected American tastes at the time. “Our work further strengthens the case for getting smoking out of youth-rated films by rating new smoking movies ‘R.’
Personally, I wish to heck the movie makers today would live up to their responsibility to this audience member to be entertaining, but the Center for Tobacco Control’s report made for interesting reading for me, especially after watching The Hucksters–without mentioning the product that the real life hucksters were touting. While those who endorsed and used the tobacco products in this period did not have the scientific evidence clearly linking the habit to illness, there was, it appears, more than a little apprehension about the “wholesomeness” of such endorsements among some members of the advertising industry–though the revenues it yielded were undeniable. Beginning in the late ’20s, George Washington Hill‘s company began a concerted effort to link smoking with sophistication, slimness and sonorous voices via the 1927 “Precious Voice” campaign, which dovetailed nicely with the arrival of the talkies and the commercialization of radio.
Since I love ephemera, and find ads with movie stars touting brands of liquor, cigarettes and even power tools highly amusing, I was enthralled by the report of these long-ago ad campaigns, which can take one back to their time in a direct, sometimes crudely fascinating way. It’s not that you have the feeling that the people making the endorsements are stupid or evil because there are consequences to these once socially acceptable adult pursuits. One series of ads featured directors such as King Vidor, who endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes “for their soothing qualities” in a “Precious Voice” campaign advertisement mentioned how shouting on the set all day made the smooth cigarette his first choice. Vidor’s testimonial includes tie-in for his movie, The Big Parade (1925). “It is wonderful to find a cigarette that relaxes your nerves and at the same time insures you against throat irritation—a condition from which film directors are bound to suffer.”
Others drew endorsements from theater and film actors such as Al Jolson, the first lady of the American theater Helen Hayes, the “good, wholesome American actress” Alice Brady and actor and writer Jimmy Gleason in their ads. Brady, remembered fondly today for her work in films such as My Man Godfrey, In Old Chicago and Young Mr. Lincoln, was also a prominent theatrical performer. Her 1927 Lucky Strike ad mentioned “The Captivating Voice of the Delightful Actress, Alice Brady”, who sais that she “used Lucky Strikes, as I find they not only protect my voice but afford me the greatest amount of genuine enjoyment.” Btw, Miss Brady died of cancer at age 46 in 1939.
James Gleason, while mentioning his current Broadway show in his ad, claimed that Lucky Strikes “is certainly the cigarette of the acting profession”. Jolson even claimed that the cigarettes kept his voice limber and helped him to be less stressed by the demands of his profession. Hayes and Constance Talmadge were part of a really clever marketing ploy aimed at fashionable women, encouraging them to “Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet”, connecting being chic and slim with smoking. In 1936 Fortune Magazine would cite this initial ad campaign as playing a significant role in the adoption of smoking by women in that period, even in public. During WWII, there were even ads that showed an independent looking woman having a smoke with the banner “Be Confident in Yourself!” heralding her capacity for wartime usefulness, vigilance, enjoyment and independence. One of the exemplars of an image of women standing on her own two feet, Rosalind Russell, even appeared during the war as an air raid warden, grabbing a smoke after the “All clear” was sounded. Of course, her current movie, My Sister Eileen (1942) was also mentioned in the copy.
For a time in the early ’30s, the Federal Trade Commission and a self-regulating body of the movie industry put the kibosh on testimonials, since the ubiquity of them and the amusingly stilted language used by the stars indicated that they were the products of an army of copywriters and publicity agents’ fevered imaginations. Eventually, that restriction was lifted, allowing the busy minions at such outfits as the Lord & Thomas ad agency to grill prospective celebrity endorsers with questions asking what they smoke and narrowing down their willingness to exclusively smoke whatever brand they were promoting at that time. A process of “mutual using” became fairly common practice again by the late thirties with plugs for movies being given some thought along with the promotion of the cigarettes. Though the ad agencies would always emphasize the testimonial over the movie, the timing of ads were often keyed to coincide with the release of a star’s movie. Gary Cooper, for example, was seen in a print ad one month for Souls at Sea and the next would be on the radio in time to mention his forthcoming The Adventures of Marco Polo. Despite the big-time ad campaign, both those Cooper movies laid an egg at the box office. This possibility often worried Lord & Thomas in particular, whose reps clearly wanted only top of the line “A” productions with a great chance of attracting big audiences to be associated with this ad agency’s clients. Among the major studios in the 1931-1951 period, it was Paramount that participated in the most of these cross-promotional ads, with Warner Brothers, Fox, and MGM bringing up the rear on these campaigns. One thing that is not clear in this report is how much of the money earned from these endorsements went to the actors, their agents and their studios. Clearly, there was a lot of money floating around these deals.
Interestingly, the stars themselves rarely seemed to seek out the testimonial style ads, but they were coordinated most often through their home studio. This seems to be in contrast to the work done by movie stars on radio broadcasts in the ’30s and ’40s. When some rare actor went independent of the studio system, or they were on suspension while arguing with their studio because of scripts or career management, radio was sometimes allowed in their contracts, (an arrangement that helped Ida Lupino in particular when she was feuding with Warner Brothers). As you might guess, the big names pulled down the big cash for endorsements, which, in 1937-38 topped out at $10k a year for Lucky Strikes, (that’s about $146,583 in 2008 money). The glamour of smoking was presented Spencer Tracy, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Wallace Beery and Herbert Marshall were among the big time endorsers in that period. The statistics for the endorsements of the biggest actors of the period, among them Clark Gable, Joan Crawford John Wayne, Bette Davis and Betty Grable are not all available (some ad agency contracts from the period are missing from the archives), all appeared in prominent advertisements for such brands as Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Chesterfield and Camel. There are indications that the equivalent of $3 million in present day cash was paid to icons of virility on screen, John Wayne, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy by Lord & Thomas’ ad agency at one time.
Other actors, such as Henry Fonda, Charles Boyer, George Raft, and Ann Sothern only raking in $3k for their advertisements. You have to feel a little sorry for some, such as Conrad Nagel and Ramon Navarro, who, as they slid down the Hollywood greasy pole only earned a “mere” $1500-$2,000, (that’s $21, 988-$29, 317 in today’s greenbacks) in that period by their endorsements. Some endorers were apparently a bit mercurial in their brand loyalty, with Herbert (“Hollywood’s Most Polished Voice”) Marshall praising Luckies by saying they were a “light smoke” when he was appearing in a forgotten RKO movie A Love Like That, but, by the time he was making Duel in the Sun, he’d decided that he’d “rather have a Raleigh!” For sheer variety, however, the number of testimonials by Jack Webb tops them all. Coming along as the run of the cigarette advertising gravy train was almost over, Webb scrambled to endorse Fatima, Chesterfield, and Old Gold cigarettes over the years, though it is unclear from the material that I found whether the independent-minded Webb did this through various studios or on his own initiative. In any case, any of us who’ve ever done time goofing on Dragnet remember that the man definitely smoked. Even some actors, notably Maureen O’Hara, who never smoked, nevertheless appeared in ads endorsing cigarettes at one time.
The report, entitled “Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Big Tobacco in Hollywood 1927-1951″, found that by 1929 American Tobacco was spending $6.5 million annually (about $80 million in current value) to promote their products. By the end of the 1940s, (when television started to cut into the advertising budgets previously designated for movie star tie-ins), two-thirds of all of the top 50 box office stars in Hollywood endorsed cigarettes for advertising. Cross-promotion ads with the testimonials of the celebrities taking up most of the ink and air time was greatest for Lucky Strike, Chesterfield and Camel cigarettes over time, making them the biggest advertisers in the country. By contrast, the ballyhoo for the movies, with their chain of theaters, coming attraction trailers, lobby posters and word of mouth were pretty modest, though they are much better remembered today.
If my slightly appalled and facetious tone in this blog offends you, I apologize, though I don’t see much point in my emphasizing the obvious:Cigarettes are bad, but boy, they were and are big business.Btw, Emerson Foote, that ad man mentioned above who was a driving force behind Lord & Thomas advertising campaigns for George Washington Hill’s American Tobacco Company left Madison Avenue eventually and became known to the general public for his acerbic views of tobacco advertising. A former chain-smoker, he said that his role in promoting cigarettes preyed on his conscience from 1950 on, when a doctor acquaintance gave him a private study that linked smoking to cancer. Foote eventually became a director of the American Cancer Society. The former ad maven once said”I am always amused by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products.”
Using the biblical “three score and ten” as a rough rule of thumb for the number of years we can hope to attain in our span–if we’re lucky–here’s a partial list of actors whose work ended before their time, perhaps because of cigarettes, as well as many other factors. In any case, wouldn’t it have been nice to have them around a bit longer?:
1. Allen, Gracie, 58, actress; heart attack
Lum, K.L., Polansky, J.R., Jackler, R.K., Glantz, S. A., Tobacco Control Journal, 9/25/08, Signed, Sealed and Delivered: “Big Tobacco” in Hollywood, 1927-1951.
McDougal, Dennis, The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood, Da Capo Press, 2001.
Not a Cough in a Carload: Images From the Stanford University School of Medicine Collection of Tobacco Advertising.
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