Have you heard of the award winning film, Varicose Veins? I would imagine not, but documentary film maker Sy Wexler, born Simon Wexler in Manhattan in 1916, worked as a producer, director, screenwriter, and cameraman in over 800 16mm black-and-white educational films in science, health, sex education, government and medicine, with catchy titles like Teeth are For Life, High Blood Pressure or Squeak the Squirrel.
Parents and school administrations have forever grappled for ways to control the rebellious nature of youth. Since the 1940s there have been a number of films which, through highly graphic imagery, attempted to shock, awe and otherwise persuade the youth of America into proper behavior and to shun the evils of driving, sex and cigarette smoking.
In the 1950s-70s, there was a very disturbing series of controversial driver's education scare films produced by the Highway Safety Foundation that featured gruesome footage taken live at the scene of fatal automobile accidents in the Mansfield, Ohio area. Titles like Wheels of Tragedy, Highways of Agony and one that I personally had to sit through in a High School public assembly, Mechanized Death. The positive effect of these is debatable. In my school, I saw fellow students screaming and leaving the assembly hall, girls vomiting while some boys feigned being unaffected and laughing. Although these films have cult status now and many are available in their entirety or in montages, I don't think America is missing much without them.
Sy Wexler's film, He's Too Tough Too Care, did not share this macabre, grisly approach, but instead was instilled with humor. In it, individuals were seen in various scenarios where they met with fatal outcomes due to smoking, like a worker smoking on a scaffold while his cigarette unknowingly burns a support rope. Another memorable scene involves a lab scientist working for a tobacco company expressing dismay to an executive. When asked how the tests are going, he responds not good, producing a stiff, dead rat from his lab coat pocket. All of these scenes were done with a blend of humor. Throughout the short film, the catchy jingle was sung - He's Too Tough to Care.
Cigarette smoking today transcends the defiance of yesteryear. There is virtually no cachet - even among the young, the habit appears foolish and over priced. Smokers are virtual pariahs, restricted and banned everywhere. The women in the photo are archetypes for today's smokers, relegated to the sidewalks of New York City. These women demonstrated the ultimate in defiance, smoking while standing outdoors in a frigid 10 degrees.
Our coworker Brittany Bartley, however, puts a positive spin on going against social norms. She bikes daily from Manhattan to Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, in a trip that takes about 35 minutes. Undaunted by yesterday's cold snap, Brittany still made the journey by bike, even on a morning with temperatures in the single digits. With no complaints. When I discussed my photos of the women smokers with our company graphic artist, she commented that she was infinitely more impressed with Brittany's braving the extreme cold on a bicycle. I agreed.
Sy Wexler passed away in 2005, but I see room for a sequel in the spirit of his original He's Too Tough to Care. Perhaps this is a project for our friend Ferris Butler. For casting, we have two women who smoke in down jackets on the streets of New York City in January and Brittany on her bike to Brooklyn in single digits. I can see the theater marquis now - "She's Too Tough To Care" :)