The Real Reason Humphrey Bogart Was Always Smoking In His Movies

These days, smoking is considered a disgusting and dangerous addiction that is to be avoided at all costs. Over the past seven or so decades, the truth about the dangers of smoking have been made public, and aggressive campaigns to eradicate the habit in the U.S. have seen the percentage of adults who smoke drop from over 40% to just under 13% from 1965-2018, according to the American Lung Association.

A couple of generations ago, things were different. Smoking was commonplace in daily life and, perhaps even more so, on the silver screen. Rare was the actor or actress who didn't puff away on a cancer stick during their scenes. And perhaps no actor of that era was, and is, more associated with smoking than Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart actually became associated with the ever-present cigarette for two reasons. One was, that's just simply what was done in those days. But in a practical sense, according to the Washington Examiner, it was a part of his efforts to make his performances more believable.

More than just a prop

On the one hand, the principal reason actors and actresses of Bogart's day were almost always depicted smoking was cultural: Smoking was popular and, at the time, seen as glamorous. That and, according to The Guardian, tobacco companies paid actors to smoke while endorsing the products.

However, there was also a stagecraft-related reason to depict actors smoking. As the Washington Examiner reports, it wasn't unusual for a film to have a scene involving lengthy, exposition-laden monologues. Bogie was concerned that the audience may get distracted during those scenes; during one long soliloquy, Bogart suggested that perhaps two camels should be added to the background of the scene (and here "camels" means the animals, not the cigarette brand) to keep the audience's attention. Later, that would evolve into Bogart manipulating his cigarette while he delivered his lines — perhaps by saying a few lines, pulling out his smoke, saying some more lines, dramatically lighting it, and so on, adding visuals to what might otherwise be a boring speech. "Smoking is a collection of hand movements, lip actions, match-striking, and heavy breathing, all to a measured, controlled tempo," notes Washington Examiner writer Rob Long.

Smoking killed Humphrey Bogart

As early as 1602, according to the New South Wales Cancer Council, the health consequences of tobacco use were beginning to be considered. Nevertheless, centuries would pass before the connection between tobacco use, lung and heart disease, and certain cancers would come to be fully understood and accepted.

By then, it was too late for Bogart. By 1956, according to The Week, his wife, Lauren Bacall, had become worried that his ever-present cough was getting worse than usual, and it was sometimes difficult for him to eat and drink. He underwent a lengthy surgery to treat esophageal cancer, prompting Bacall to write in her memoir what she witnessed. "Poor baby — all those tubes, those bottles — what was the body under the blanket like?" she wrote (via The Week).

Unfortunately, the surgery didn't cure Bogart's cancer, and he died in 1957. Nobody made the cigarette look more impressive. He made smoking cool, "but in the end it brought him a painful and early death," notes the Oral Cancer Foundation.