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PBS Prohibition Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

A Deep History of a Troubling Time

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PBS Prohibition Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

PBS Prohibition Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

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In October, 2011 PBS released the anticipated documentary film Prohibition by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The five-hour movie documents The United States' prohibition of alcohol with intensity, clarity, and flare that is both entertaining and informative. It is, to date, the most thorough cinematic account of "The Noble Experiment" and discusses the politics, sex, violence, and views of Americans from both the wet and dry camps to an extent that can take a person volumes of searching to discover. Not only is the film packed with historical information, but it is riddled with fascinating photos and film clips from archives that are rarely seen. For the history buff, the liquor lover, or the person who simply enjoys a well-told story, Prohibition is a must see and a video to add to your library.

The In-Depth Story of Prohibition

The Prohibition film is five hours long and divided into three episodes.

Episode 1: A Nation of Drunkards

What I enjoyed most about Prohibition is that the story does not begin in 1920 when the 18th Amendment and The Volstead Act went into effect. Instead, most of the first episode is dedicated to the events and politics that led up to the dry era.

In this episode Burns and Novick examine the political movement of the "dry" camp - those who wanted alcohol banned completely from American society - including the Anti-Saloon League, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the Home Defenders Army. I especially enjoyed the bold actions of the hatchet-wielding actions of the Kansas leader of the latter, Carrie Nation, who was destructive in her conquest of the saloons. Agree with her or not, she was a woman of conviction and had no problem standing up for what she believed. She was so aggressive that in one of the film's still shots, a sign behind a bartender reads: "The Nation's Welcome. Except Carrie."

Other highlights of this episode include the bigotry against immigrant and African-American groups who some saw as the most intolerable of drunkards, and the concept that the saloon was both an escape and a hub of political and business dealings for the men who spent their time there. The one action of the Anti-Saloon League that surprised me most was that they were partially responsible for the idea of reimplementing the income taxes that most Americans continue to despise. How were Prohibition and income taxes related? The ASL knew that some revenue source was needed to make up for the excise taxes derived from alcohol when it became illegal and taxing Americans' incomes was the most logical solution. Next time you pay your taxes, you have the ASL to thank.

There is far more in this episode, with all events culminating in the passage of the 18th Amendment. As I said, this is the back story of the Prohibitionist movement is one that often goes untold, especially in the depth of this film.

Episode Two: A Nation of Scofflaws

"Scofflaws" by definition are those who flout the law, conventions, or rules and this is a fitting title for the second episode of Prohibition. It is filled with stories of the bootleggers, speakeasies, corrupt officials, and rum runners who had a found anyway possible to obtain and distribute the illegal alcohol. Many of these stories are well-known as they are often the highlights of the Prohibition-era, but the filmmakers have examined each subject in a rarely seen way.

Some of the famous personalities included are Al Capone, Roy Olmstead, and George Remus. While others highlighted in this episode are the Kentucky moonshiners, the Atlantic coast rum runners, the New York City speakeasy operators, and the home distillers and brewers who littered the countryside and cityscapes. Almost everyone knows the story of Capone, but the film reveals the "good guy" side of him in the eyes of Chicago residents, especially when he ran soup kitchens and helped the city's downtrodden hit by the Depression. Roy Olmstead was Seattle's "bootleg king" and had the nation's first wiretaps reveal his illegal dealings. Then there was George Remus, the attorney and pharmacist who bought multiple distilleries for prescription reasons and finagled the books, stealing his own liquor supplies to sell in the underground.

These are just tidbits from the film, there are so many more and anyone interested in the crimes of this historical era will thoroughly enjoy the depth to which these stories are told.

Episode 3: A Nation of Hypocrites

The last episode of Prohibition is no less interesting than the other two, despite the fact that we all know that the outcome will be Repeal. Here, the filmmakers highlight the hypocrisy and the ever growing divide between wets and drys, alluding to the fact that toward the end of Prohibition when the debate became most fierce, there were very few moderates on the issue. The political folly of Prohibition was just this: it did not curb the drinking problem that Prohibitionists first saw to remedy in the 1800's, it instead increased crime and turned average citizens into outlaws. Freedom of choice was gone, yet some of Prohibition's staunchest supporters took a few drinks when the public eye was turned off.

A few of the notables of this episode are Al Smith, Fiorello LaGuardia, Lois Long, and Pauline Sabin. Each were integral pieces of the growing vocalization that Prohibition was not working, and as Smith put it "a terrible idea." Smith was the Democratic candidate for the 1928 presidential election and a firm backer of repeal. The campaign between him and Herbert Hoover was harsh but Smith stood his ground and clips of him accepting the first case of beer in New York City acknowledges the respect he gained. La Guardia was known for, among other things, demonstrating to the press how easy it was to make beer via two legal ingredients, "near beer" and malt extract, which if left to ferment created an alcoholic brew. Lois Long documented the speakeasy scene for The New Yorker in true flapper fashion, complete with a daring flamboyance indicative of the little recognized sexual revolution of the day. And, Pauline Sabin was a voice of reason for women who followed her to campaign for repeal as vehemently as women had fought for Prohibition in the first place. One can also witness the maturation of organized crime, as Prohibition was a school of sorts for anyone who had the ambition of breaking laws even more severe than those concerning booze for personal gain.

The focus of this episode is the changing tide, the realization many Americans came to that Prohibition was unnecessary. It is surprising to most how quickly these shifting attitudes swept the country, culminating in a quick ratification of the 21st Amendment by states and placing that into effect directly after the election of Roosevelt. The celebrations were greater when beer became available in March than full repeal on December 5, 1933. Yet, Prohibition ends not with these ticker tape parades and bar rooms filled with toasts, but a short tribute to one solution to the "alcohol problem." That was found for many in Alcoholics Anonymous rooms, where those who were alcoholics could work on their issues together, leaving the rest of the country free to choose to drink or not.

Final Thoughts

Prohibition was and continues to be a matter of passionate debate: was it good or bad and should it return? In this film I get the distinct impression that, while well intended, it was as many call it "a failed experiment." Prohibition is also a well managed tribute to American freedom, the choice of the individual and the ability to stand up for a cause no matter if in the right or wrong. I find this movie inspiring and motivating and not solely on the subject of liquor, but for any number of debates in modern culture and with that I believe that many Americans can find inspiration in this story and, as Burns' other films are, this is a modern classic and a documentary worth revisiting often.

Visit the Prohibition page on PBS.org

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