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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: How One Song Made Four Movie Moments Great

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a show tune written in 1933 for a musical called Roberta and went on to be recorded and covered by numerous musicians since, best known by The Platters chart-topping version in 1958. A classic ballad, it found its way into film and over the decades helped define a number of great movie moments.

If you’re not familiar with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, originally titled, (When Your Heart’s On Fire) Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, it was written by American composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach for their Broadway show and become an instant hit where it spread to other mediums, most notably pop music and film. It’s been featured in dozens of movies and television, even as recently as 2015. We’ve selected four that deserve a closer look and in case you don’t know the song, click the play button below and listen as you read:

Steve and Laurie Dance

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Cindy Williams, Ron Howard (American Graffiti, 1973)
FILM: American Graffiti (1973)     DIRECTOR: George Lucas

This coming-of-age drama follows a group of teens during the course of one evening in 1962 as they are faced with becoming adults while still clinging to the memories of high school. It also launched a few careers. In this moment, Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and his girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams), return to a back to school sock hop at the high school. Steve has already graduated but Laurie has one more year. Once there, they are cued by the dance emcee to begin a snowball dance (meaning they start and others follow) as he was last years class president and she is this year’s head cheerleader. The problem is that he is headed off to college and had just told her that maybe they should see other people while he’s away to strengthen their relationship. She doesn’t take it well, and while they head to the dance floor, The Platters version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes swells and the two begin to slow dance. As she holds him, realizing he has thoughts of separating, she reminds him of how they came together, how she was the first to kiss him, and what it took to get him to finally kiss her. It moves her and she soon falls to tears in his shoulder. When he asks what’s wrong, she replies, “Go to hell,” and then holds him tighter. It’s a bittersweet moment. It should be noted that a young Richard Dreyfuss was in this movie, too. That’s relevant because . . .

Pete and Dorinda Dance (Twice)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss (Always, 1989)
FILM: Always (1989)     DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) is an aerial firefighter, working with a squad of forest fire fighters who regularly takes big risks to save the fighters on the ground. His girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter) is also a pilot but spends more time as a dispatcher and while she loves Pete and respects his bravery, is fearful of his lack of caution. After the crews successfully stop a wildfire, they gather (still in their soot-stained gear) at the station for a birthday party for Dorinda, a woman they all respect and admire. Pete gives her “girl clothes”, an elegant, beautiful, body-hugging white dress that she changes into and reappears moments later looking ravishing. Feeling good about herself, she approaches, and on cue, Pete signals the band, to which they begin Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (performed by JD Souther), a song the couple claim as ‘theirs’. They dance in great romance, and the tune and the moment will play a significant part later in the film when she dons the dress again and in a touching scene, “dances” with Pete once more. An often misunderstood and forgotten film, this is a great movie and two great moments.

Julia Reflects

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Annette Bening (Being Julia, 2004)
FILM: Being Julia (2004)     DIRECTOR: István Szabó

Set in London in 1938, Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) is a famous theater actress who is feeling less motivated as she approaches middle age and wishes to end her current show in order to travel abroad, but her stage director, who is also her husband (Jeremy Irons), convinces her to last the summer and introduces her to American Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), with whom she soon begins a secret, passionate affair. All things are not as they seem though and Tom is not the dedicated or devoted lover he professes and soon is involved with another actress named Avice (Lucy Punch) who in turn asks Tom to solicit Julia for help in getting her into the famous woman’s show. Devastated by the jilt and betrayal, Julia shows one face but schemes with another, adding the lovely Avice to her show, giving her the the appearance that the spotlight will be hers though such will not be the case. As the film draws to a close, the renowned Julia reaffirms her place as the greatest, and dines alone at a lounge as the vocalist (Alison Jiear) sings a slow jazz version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The song’s meaning slowly, steadily settles upon her as she realizes what she’s done. A gripping end.

Kate and Geoff Dance

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling (45 Years, 2015)
FILM: 45 years     DIRECTOR: Andrew Haigh

A couple plan to celebrate their long-lasting marriage, interrupted five years earlier when Geoff (Tom Courtenay) had to have by-pass surgery. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) has devoted her life to Geoff and though they have no children, have many friends and are a happy and content pair. One day, Geoff receives a distressing letter from Switzerland. A young woman he was involved with before he met Kate has been found, her body visible in the melting glacier of a crevice she fell into while hiking with Geoff fifty years ago. The memories of Katya rush back and begin to haunt Geoff, who is mostly open with Kate about the past, but reveals he has stored images and memorabilia of his former lover in the attic, whom he confesses was officially declared his wife so they could travel in those more stringent times. As Kate beings to crumble and question her entire life, she discovers another secret, and soon she is overcome with darkness and disillusionment. At the anniversary party, after Geoff gives a moving, tearful (as a friend predicted) speech about the choices of their youth, they take to the dance floor as The Platter’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes echoes throughout hall. As other guests join, Kate grows rigid and closes in on herself until the camera settles only 0n her, shattered and alone.

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