Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.

I can honestly say we have something different this week. From 1960, we have Up in Smokea satirical mockumentary that seeks to take on Big Tobacco and its suspect motives and marketing methods. The film was presented by the L.D.S. Department of Education and produced by Latter-day saint film legend Wetzel Whittaker as is not to be confused with the marijuana classic, Reefer Madness (which somehow became the name of the 10th episode of This Week in Mormons).

It’s also worth noting the unfortunate title, since a better known marijuana-driven comedy dominates any SEO with this title.

The film opens with a banjo playing “Carry Me Back to old Virginny” as a cheesy narrator invites us to go behind the scenes at the Old Virginny Tobacco Company just as quarterly sales figures have arrived. The sepia toned film makes us feel like we are in the room. Like we have to peer through a tobacco-hued haze to see the action. Has the company been successful in making Humbar cigarettes everyone’s favorite brand? Have they succeeded in making every man, woman and child a Humbar smoker? Well let’s see.

Executives file in to JB’s office. He leads the Old Virginny company in all his southern white-suited, Boss Hogg glory. He is enjoying the respite of a hot towel while his yes-man executives hesitate to give him the sad news that Humbar came in SECOND!

JB is not amused. He masterminds a media blitz that includes billboards, newspapers, magazines and more. Why not send Humbar cigarettes to service men recovering in the hospital? But let’s not stop with targeting adults. It’s time to blitz boy scout magazines, weekly readers and school newspapers. Children need to know the satisfaction of Humbar cigarettes after all.

In the midst of this marketing brainstorm a lab tech runs in and proclaims “We gave this rat the residue from smoking one Humbar cigarette and it didn’t die!”

The rat then proceeds to curl up and die.

He leaves dejected and JB attempts to rally the troops. “We may have lost the battle but not the war. Get out there and SELL cigarettes!”

We cut to a montage of marketing activities and cash registers ringing up Humbars at $0.30 per pack. There are lead-ins to popular television programs and even a “reporter” planting a pack of Humbar’s on an “everyman” worker.

We cut back to the tobacco company where we see Junior Beauregard, JB’s son home from college. He waits outside his dad’s office and views various poster versions of print ads. He is greeted by Mr. Manning, one of JB’s marketing leads, and Manning is inspired to put JB in a company cigarette ad. What is more normal than a quarterback calling a play with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth?

JB emerges from his office and greets Junior. Junior asks what’s new and JB says sales are up, up up! Soon everyone between 10 and 90 will be smoking Humbars! Junior isn’t convinced this is good news. He learned at his fancy “yankee” university that smoking is really bad for you. Doctors on campus say it’s undermining the health of the nation. Perish the thought!

JB maintains that Old Virginny has just as many experts that will say the contrary. He admits that there are many horrible things in cigarettes that are both deadly and habit forming but with a little public whitewashing it’s all suitable.

They are interrupted by the lab tech again who says he has the perfect filter that doesn’t let anything through…even smoke! Realizing he has negated the purpose of the company’s core product he again heads back to the lab in shame. JB returns to his charts and accidentally shows one that shows the rise of cancer cases in conjunction with the rise of cigarette sales.

“Dad, does this mean smoking could cause cancer?,” Junior asks.

“What an awful thing to say!. They say it does, we say it doesn’t. What’s 2 or 10 years off a life? The world is crowded already. If everyone’s life was shortened by 20 years we would still sell cigarettes,” JB says.

Junior doesn’t want any part of it. He doesn’t smoke and definitely sees through the tobacco adds that promise one thing but in reality would deliver another. He shakes his head and walks out of the office only to be pulled into an impromptu cigarette ad by Mr. Manning. Later Manning shows the pictures to JB who promptly rips them apart. Even he doesn’t want his son affiliated with tobacco.

The film ends with a sweet father-son moment. “I may be a rough old tobacco man, but as for you not smoking, I’m proud of you. I wouldn’t smoke for a million dollars.”

The link between cancer and smoking was well-established by large studies in the 1940s and 1950s. By 1960 when this film was made, however, propaganda from tabbacco companies was going strong and only a third of U.S. doctors believed the case against cigarettes was open and shut.  The case against tobacco continued to build because of, you know—science—and came to a head in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement which seriously curtailed tobacco marketing and strengthened warning statements among other things.

Whether the film was made just for church members or as a public service available for anyone we don’t know, but clearly someone in the church office building wanted to fight back and highlight the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.” The actions of the film’s tobacco company and its executives are vile, unethical and without remorse. Junior’s idealistic questioning and the Lab tech’s bumbling serve as foils to Mr. Manning and the “truth” the tobacco company tries to sell. This humorous and satirical approach is clever and mildly engaging and could still serve as a prompt for discussion on the dangers of tobacco, vaping or the word of wisdom.

Thoughts, Musings & Trivia

  • Accounting only for inflation, a pack of cigarettes for $0.30 in 1960 would cost only $2.60 today. Taxes, however, significantly increase the cost with the average price of a pack at $5.50
  • At the time of this film, about 44% of the US adult population were smokers.
  • The average “lifetime” costs of a cigarette habit in all states is more than $38,000 over 20 years.