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At the start of this American Experience documentary, one old woman who
lived in the Detroit area during Prohibition matter of factly says that
everyone knew the Coast Guard staff was paid off to let the rum runners
bring in their cargo by boat from Canada. An old guy mentions that you
would see guys walking around with a bankroll of bills in their fist
big enough to choke an ox.
The rest of this documentary can't keep up the pace, as it goes into the background of how Prohibition took hold of the country. Demon Rum has a fine selection of news footage from the era, stuff on how Henry Ford pushed for banning alcohol and how Prohibition eventually fell into the trash bin of history. But those "man in the street" type interviews with survivors of the era show why most of the "talking heads" you see in documentaries like this are well known authors, professors and government officials. "Talking heads" who would never state the obvious if it meant calling the Coast Guard crooked.
60 years from now, if American Experience has a documentary on the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War, I hope there are interviews with regular folks who can have a chance to state the obvious, that loads of people are making fistfuls of cash from this war. Maybe by then Demon Rum will again be available on video, I only have it because I taped it July 4, 1990, when PBS broadcast 6 American Experiences in a row, starting off with Demon Rum.
Amid the optimism of 1920, Detroit seemed to reflect a puritan dream of
a teetotal workforce, enjoying health and prosperity in the new-style
factories where the automobile was being mass-produced at a price
millions could afford. Teetotal, not only because Prohibition had just
been made law, but because Motown's merchant prince Henry Ford was
offering to double the wages of any worker who would agree to a
spot-check of his home, to confirm that it was an alcohol-free
But Detroit suffered from a fatal drawback. It was so near Canada that illegal hooch could be smuggled over the river by speedboat in minutes. Indeed in winter, the locally plentiful Model-T's could actually drive across that frozen frontier with enough beer, wine and spirits to keep the bootleggers in luxury, year after year. When we remember that an easy-going president (Harding) and his popular first lady were serving alcohol in the White House at this time, there can't be much doubt about the social acceptability of it all.
And so, Prohibition turned out to be one of those laws that have the opposite effect from the one intended. Not because it failed to discourage the drinking habit (consumption actually went down quite a lot), but because it stimulated the growth of the speakeasy as an alluring new secret network, where short-skirted flappers could mix comfortably with the male sex, as they couldn't in respectable saloons. And the bootlegging industry caught the eye of that slumbering beast, the mafia.
With a huge irony, Ford's hopeful if patronising claims about 'uplifting the working class' were turned on their head. Corruption seeped everywhere. Even those much-filmed customs men with their heavy mallets, smashing the barrels, were also pocketing more than a few bottles while they were at it. The occasional token arrest would result only in a paltry fine. But it got worse. Ford's family were threatened with kidnap. Eventually schoolchildren were being used as innocent-looking mules, to supply the stuff to hotels and restaurants, causing a generation of youngsters to take a cynical view of the world.
It had to stop. The law that had been brought in to protect the family now had to be repealed - to protect the family! Michigan, the first state to declare Prohibition, became the first state to discontinue it.
This was one of the first programmes in the much-praised American Experience series. But even in 1988, those people who could remember Prohibition were getting elderly, and there is a lot of rather confused reminiscence. One old lady said she'd known all about the corruption, but added "There was a great innocence". In declaring that Prohibition was aimed at curing addiction, the film omits to mention a vast pressure-group who had been around for decades. These were the factory wives, who despaired at seeing their menfolk stampeding out of the gate on paynight, and promptly blowing half their wages in the bar. I doubt if they would have joined in the chorus of 'Happy days are here again' with which this film ends.
This excellent film offers a rare treat for a documentary. Through a cast of fascinating characters who provide colorful interviews and sweet jazz music of the period- the version of Sweet Lorraine will haunt you, you are pulled back in time to 1920s and 30s Detroit. The stage for the coming of prohibition is set and then a story of Ford's grandiose plan unfolds. The archival footage and excellent first person descriptions will leave you yearning to have been a part of the era.The failure of Prohibition parallels Ford's failure to control events beyond his power. The eventual overturning of the 18th Amendment was inevitable not just because of the Great Depression but because democracy did work.
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