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'Prohibition' - A Review of Ken Burns' New PBS Documentary

By Jay Wertz 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: September 29, 2011 
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Women led the first campaigns for temperance, but later men, spurred by the Anti-Saloon League, rallied for dry laws in states throughout the country. Courtesy of John Binder Collection.
Women led the first campaigns for temperance, but later men, spurred by the Anti-Saloon League, rallied for dry laws in states throughout the country. Courtesy of John Binder Collection.

Florentine Films has been responsible for such monumental documentaries as The Civil War, which introduced that conflict and PBS itself to a new, wider audience. Florentine's subsequent projects Baseball, Jazz and The War, among others, have also been milestones in public television. The principal of Florentine Films is of course Ken Burns, who has masterfully sold the relevance of the American historical documentary by applying big-brand marketing techniques within a non-profit environment. My objection to Ken's approach has never been his savvy in getting the right people involved in a project or delivering it to an audience, but his interjection of himself and his point of view on these topics of American history. And it has been a pointed, often exclusionary point of view that has colored these otherwise well-made documentaries. I would be expounding on that critique now except that happily his latest offering, Prohibition, does not follow this trend. It is a brilliant work.

The three-part, six-hour documentary premieres on the evening of Sunday, October 2, at 8:00 Eastern Time (check listings for local times) with Episode 1, "A Nation of Drunkards," and continues on successive evenings with Episode 2, "A Nation of Scofflaws," on Monday and the finale, "A Nation of Hypocrites," on Tuesday, October 4. There is not a second to be missed as the documentary traces the long story of alcohol consumption, reform and politics through all the twisting, turning events and the personalities that give the topic less than six degrees of separation from the rest of a century's worth of American history.

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of Stephanie Berger.
Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of Stephanie Berger.
Images of happy-go-lucky flappers and dead gangsters in the introduction, set to a jazz soundtrack, draw on the most familiar icons of the Prohibition Era (1920–1933) while also reminding the audience that alcohol consumption is an important and controversial subject. Its use and abuse has been a long-standing issue in American life and the first program opens with the revelation of anti-alcohol sermons authored by a Connecticut preacher a century before the Jazz Age. "A Nation of Drunkards" makes the case that alcohol consumption may truly be one of those situations when American excess is a valid criticism in the international community. Americans quickly adopted a preference for stronger distilled spirits—Caribbean rum (grog) and homemade whiskey—while European alcohol problems were shrouded by cultures that drank the less potent beer and wine. There was even an early American custom to ring a bell twice a day for "grog time," in which workers would stop and raise a glass of cheer.

These traditions and their effects led to growing concern over the welfare of women and children as drinking in the 19th century was primarily a man's activity, individually or socially. For this reason women went public to rail against the evils of liquor early on as the anti-alcohol movement gained momentum throughout the 1850s. However, the crusade nearly ground to a halt when overshadowed by a greater one – the abolition of slavery. One of the more interesting organizations to come from these early reforms was the Washingtonians, named after the first president, which was founded on the same principles that made Alcoholics Anonymous into a successful institution a century later.

After the Civil War reformers returned with better organization and political clout. The familiar names were there—Susan B. Anthony on the fringes and Carrie Nation, whose hatchet-wielding destruction of liquor establishments was seen by many as a wild and entertaining publicity stunt despite her personal conviction. But the most organized and pervasive organization of the late 1800s was the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, a nationwide organization of dedicated women who took to the streets and schools with their message of reform. Unfortunately for them, their ever-expanding agenda diluted their effectiveness and their message began to disappear while the nation, and the nation's liquor business, was booming.

The documentary gives the audience a look into how the business of alcohol developed –especially beer production and the saloons that served it – and the part they played in the national landscape at the turn of the century. Enter the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), the most effective alcohol reform organization, and its dynamic and tireless leader, general counsel Wayne Wheeler. The unassuming lawyer from Ohio was a masterful manipulator who terrorized politicians, and his organization had the resources to make the campaign effective. As the film points out, for various reasons the fragmented state-by-state reforms that preceded the 18th Amendment didn't work. Wheeler and the ASL drove home their message nationally and exploited the developing divisions over the alcohol issue—cities against small towns, natives versus immigrants. With the passage of the permanent income tax in 1913, the federal government was much less dependent on liquor revenues. Then America's entry into World War I vilified the nation's predominantly German beer brewers. This was the final element needed to achieve what the ASL and prohibition supporters wanted, a Constitutional amendment banning the manufacture, sale and public consumption of alcoholic beverages.

A so-called "flapper" flouts the Volstead Act by carrying a whiskey flask in her garter. Click to enlarge. Courtesy, John Binder Collection.
A so-called "flapper" flouts the Volstead Act by carrying a whiskey flask in her garter. Click to enlarge. Courtesy, John Binder Collection.
In "A Nation of Scofflaws," a term selected from a Boston newspaper's reader suggestions as best describing those who acted in opposition to the 18th Amendment, the issues of enforcing the tenets of the Prohibition law are examined in detail. Incidentally, the program chronicles the origin of an amazing number of other now-familiar terms that arose from the history of alcohol and Prohibition including "rum runner," "speakeasy," "skid row," and "bootlegger." Bigger than life personalities emerged as Americans immediately sought ways to skirt or flaunt the Volstead Act, the federal enforcement provision of the 18th Amendment, a law written almost entirely by lobbyist Wayne Wheeler.

Episode 2 devotes much attention to two important scofflaws. Roy Olmstead was a Seattle policeman who quickly tired of seeing Prohibition lawbreakers out of jail and making a lot more money than he did. He decided to join them. The U. S. Treasury department struggled to field Prohibition agents to enforce the law. Local police had little interest in enforcing the Volstead Act. Many were bribed not to. Olmstead started by influencing his buddies on the force and politicians in the city. In this way he was able to easily operate for a time as one of the Northwest's largest distributors of illegal liquor.

Another large operator in alcoholic contraband—large in every way—was Cincinnati's George Remus. A giant of a man, Remus was a shrewd lawyer who found ways to skirt the law and bribe government officials—even an influential member of the Taft administration—in order to feed a mammoth alcohol manufacturing and distribution business. His life of crime had it all: romance, passion, betrayal, revenge. And on top of it all, he was a teetotaler.

Though Elliot Ness loomed large in fictionalized movies and television shows, in reality he was a minor federal agent. A truly powerful person chasing Prohibition's lawbreakers was Mabel Walker Willebrandt. With a flying squad of prosecutors, Willebrandt hunted the nation for offenders she could bring to justice. Her story continues in "A Nation of Hypocrites," when an increasing number of citizens began to openly defy the 18th Amendment and call for its repeal. The issue began to split along party lines, and Willebrandt became a Republican strategist as that party lined up with the "Drys." One of her principal missions became the discrediting of Democrat Al Smith in his presidential bid. Smith was an outspoken defender of the "Wets" and the repeal effort.

A policeman guards a gangland murder scene in a Cleveland restaurant, 1932. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of John Binder Collection.
A policeman guards a gangland murder scene in a Cleveland restaurant, 1932. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of John Binder Collection.
While this war to influence the country's future stand on Prohibition was waged at a national political level, another type of war was fought primarily in large cities like New York and Chicago. Here gangsters such as "Bugsy" Moran, "Lucky" Luciano and the biggest of them all, Al Capone, fought for control of liquor distribution in open, often violent battles. All the while, the more genteel segment of the population was enjoying the fruits of this war in secretive clubs and gathering places that served illegal alcohol. With the 1920s' economy booming and alcohol flowing, a new, more open and uninhibited American culture emerged with equal participation by men and women, blacks and whites, the very wealthy and the middle class. American society was breaking away from old stereotypes and mores, and liquor was the common bond.

Every important aspect in the rise and fall of Prohibition is covered in the film with thorough and balanced journalism. The audience is given the reasoning and passion of all those individuals and groups who played parts in this curious national experiment. Prohibition makes use of a number of techniques that have become familiar in these documentaries – photographs, period accounts interpreted by accomplished actors, still life scenes and on-camera scholars (who are a very relaxed, yet informative group in these programs.) There is the additional advantage of a having a large archive of motion picture film to draw on and it is integrated well. A delicate mix of subtle sound effects and lively music written or arranged by Wynton Marsalis makes Prohibition a wonderful audio as well as visual and thought-provoking experience. Peter Coyote's strong, clear narration deserves special mention.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the interviews with descendants of those who were making the history—and with some people who were there—as they tell personal stories of how the Prohibition Era affected them and their families. It's hard to find anything to criticize in Prohibition, perhaps just overuse and repetition of some images and music, but that's a minor point. My hat is off to you, Ken, and your staff for creating a special document of this chapter in America's history.

Click here to read American History magazine's interview with Ken Burns about the Prohibition documentary. See more links to Prohibition articles on the next page.

To learn more about the history of Prohibition, see these articles on HistoryNet.

Uneasy About Alcohol – America and the Booze Question

The Prohibition Rule: Murder in Sioux City

About the Author:
Jay Wertz is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He is also the author of The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian's Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publication is War Stories: The Pacific, Vol. I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, published by Weider History Publications.


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