An anti-smoking crusader comes to town and tries her best to ban tobacco but her extreme methods soon cause the residents to revolt. Comedian Flora Finch leads the charge against tobacco.
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Please don’t smoke or I might croak
I think it’s fair to assume that anyone interested in the silent era has at least a passing familiarity with the prohibition of alcohol. But alcohol was not the only vice that was in the process of being debated and regulated. For example, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, a mere year before The Smoking Out of Bella Butts was released, cut off easy public access to cocaine and opiates.
So, with the context of this comedy’s creation established, let’s dive in. Flora Finch was a popular comedienne in the Vitagraph stable and she had been paired with superstar John Bunny. The Smoking Out of Bella Butts was a solo foray into humor and the film poked fun at the anti-smoking leagues that were gaining some traction at the time.
The town of Hicksville loves its tobacco but the mayor’s wife (Betty Gray) has fallen under the influence of Bella Butts (Flora Finch), who means to stamp out the use of cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Her weapons include a chart showing the household items that can be purchased with the money spent on tobacco products and forcing ladies to smoke cigars to show how nasty they are.
(The financial angle was a popular line of attack for reformers. Buy Your Own Cherries! was a perennial temperance fable because it was less preachy and more finance-savvy. And articles on the subject of “If you give up this one seemingly small luxury, you will save $XXXX a year!” are constantly being published even today.)
With the mayor’s wife on her side, Bella is able to force the mayor (Hughie Mack) to ban tobacco smoking in Hicksville. She even goes so far as building a bonfire to destroy the supply of cigars and cigarettes that the local shopkeepers have on hand.
So far, so pro-tobacco. But then the film slips up in its narrative a bit by portraying the desperate smokers as so hungry for their nicotine hit that they turn to smoking corn silk and then purchase the entire stock of a travelling cigar salesman, hide in a woodshed and, as a contemporary review puts it, “proceed to make up for their long abstinence from the weed.” (Author’s Note: Teehee.) The desperation of the smokers undercuts the argument that smoking is a harmless, mild habit, don’t you think?
Chaos ensues when the large amount of smoke is mistaken for a fire and it all ends with Bella Butts being driven out of town as the mayor and his wife look on, the former happily enjoying his after-dinner cigar.
This little comedy delivers about what you would expect from the description. Flora Finch throws her all into the role of the obnoxious reformer and the rest of the cast spends the film either disliking her from the start or learning to dislike her once they realize what her reforms will mean for their town.
Movies were born during a time of intense debate about the recreational use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. And while both hard drugs and alcohol were banned in the United States at different points during the silent era, tobacco was not subjected to the same national proscription.
That does not, however, mean that the anti-smoking activism of The Smoking Out of Bella Butts was fictional. Political action groups accused cigarettes of being unhealthy (true) and claimed that the chemicals in cigarette papers would cause young people to go insane and become delinquents (um). Big names like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford put their weight behind the anti-smoking cause and author J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan) humorously wrote about his adventures as a smoker and ex-smoker in My Lady Nicotine.
The anti-smoking crusaders actually lost ground, though, as the cheap availability of machine-rolled cigarettes made smoking convenient and the cigarette industry made smoking a symbol of the newly-liberated 1920s woman. Serious pushbacks against smoking would not gain any ground in the United States for decades.
The Smoking Out of Bella Butts illustrates the popular attitudes toward smoking itself and the anti-smoking movement. You don’t like to smoke? Don’t be a killjoy. The film also takes pains to link the anti-smoking message to women exclusively (though, as we have seen, some major movers and shakers in the movement were men), which meant they could lump Bella in with temperance crusaders and suffragettes.
These political movements were often caricatured as being made up entirely of sexless frumps who just went into politics because they couldn’t find a willing man. And, of course, Flora Finch’s comedy persona would be ideally suited to delivering this kind of humor in The Smoking Out of Bella Butts.
Was The Smoking Out of Bella Butts meant to be that deep? Almost certainly not. Movies in America were under attack by prudish scolds and censorship boards, so a tobacco reformer would have been seen as being cut from the same cloth. Sending up reformers was a long and proud tradition with temperance crusaders and suffragettes being particularly popular targets.
I like to take a sympathetic view with older productions. The cast is funny, Finch is cute and there’s plenty of humor to go around. That being said… Come on, this is awfully humorous when viewed with the benefit of hindsight. I am certain that some of the things we do will come off as ridiculous to future generations (glances around at people refusing to mask up during a pandemic) but I can’t help it. I am using my hall pass and I am going to bitterly cackle at the old-timey belief that smoking was harmless. It’s similar to my bemusement at radium water.
(Disclosure: My father was a smoker until he quit because he thought cigarettes had become too expensive at fifty cents a pack.)
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