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|Index||12 reviews in total|
My favorite comment in this documentary is offered by Pete Hamill,
American journalist, novelist and essayist, who said basically if you
want people to brush their teeth, pass a law banning toothpaste. And
then people will do everything they can to acquire toothpaste
illegally, and they'll brush their teeth just to spite the law. The
unforeseen consequence of Prohibition is that once you take away a
person's right to do something that people have always done, people
will feel the desire to want it much more intensely, in the same way if
you deny a child all sweets, the kid will be sneaking chocolate inside
his jacket sleeves. Hamill later says he doesn't drink, but he would
probably take a swig in front of a government building if the law ever
forbade him from doing it. Encouraging moderation is not the same as
banning something completely.
The other comment worth noting concerns repeal crusader Pauline Sabin who had been entrenched in republican politics prior to 1928. Republican congressmen would vote to adhere to the strictest of prohibition laws as laid out by the Volstead Act and then go to one of Sabin's parties demanding a drink. She concluded that the United States had become "a Nation of Hypocrites", which is the title of the third installment of Burn's documentary. Sabin becomes an unlikely hero who would sway the country against Prohibition and the eventual repeal of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution, the only amendment so dignified. Ironically, Daniel Okrent points out that today alcohol is somewhat harder to come by than during Prohibition because of liquor laws, underage drinking laws, etc. When alcohol was strictly forbidden, there was nothing in place to regulate it, except for raids on speakeasies and private distilleries.
Based in part on Daniel Okrent's "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition", Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "Prohibition" is a thoroughly entertaining, simultaneously humorous and "sobering" look at one of the strangest episodes in American legal history. The documentary is in three parts, the first chronicling the birth of the temperance movement which began in the 1820's almost a century before the ratification of the 18th Amendment. No question that alcohol was a problem for some people, mostly among the rural poor, but the temperance movement decided alcohol itself was the problem and vowed its eradication by the late 19th century. The first part ends with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting not only the sale but importation of alcohol. Part two concerns the passage of the Volstead Act designed to enforce the amendment, and the immediate consequences of trying to stop people from drinking, and the antithetical results, such as lawlessness and bribery. The third and most sobering of the episodes chronicles many of the unintended consequences, such as the violence erupting in Chicago and the night club craze. The documentary ends with the movement for the repeal of the 18th Amendment.
The unforeseen catastrophes of the 18th Amendment which were designed to heighten American morality and assuage drunkenness turned America into one of the most alcoholic-driven nations among the industrialized world. Americans drank more booze, partied more, got more drunk, and flaunted the law more often during Prohibition than at any other time in the nation's history since after the Civil War, even as compared to the present time. Possibly only the 1960's are somewhat comparable to the mayhem of the 1920's.
The irony of ironies that the decade begun by the Temperance Movement's victory with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919 would be nicknamed the Roarding Twenties and the Jazz Age. This was not a decade known for drinking milk. This was a decade characterized by cocktail glasses in the hands of flappers dancing on tables to the evocative music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Men would be raising giant mugs of frothy beer in underground establishments called speakeasies. Only Prohibition allowed the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to become wealthy gangsters, almost movie stars by today's standards. The leaders of the Temperance Movement, particularly the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, were appalled when their daughters ran off to speakeasies and night clubs to partake of the forbidden fruit. Strangely, Prohibition helped usher in the Night Club culture of America which has continued unabated ever since. All the great night clubs famous for their booze, music, and dancing such as the Cotton Club and the Stork Club, were incepted when alcohol was supposed to be illegal.
For some reason, I didn't think Prohibition permeated into so many aspects of American life during its enforcement from 1920 through 1932. People could open small businesses in their basements and make a fortune through bootlegging, and then be hauled away under the Volstead Act. The rise of the Chicago Gang syndicate became a prototype for similar syndicates across the country, all vying for their bootlegging territory. At one point, citizens were legally compelled to snitch on neighbors suspected of bootlegging. The story as presented by Burns/Novick is as compelling as any action thriller being produced today. A great movie of American history, with all the elements that make a great story. Essentially it's a legal thriller with sex, violence, and lots of booze. Lots of it.
When it comes to making full coverage documentaries, you can't beat the
work of Ken Burns. "Prohibition" is another fine illustration of that.
This five and one half hour mini-series, shown in three parts on PBS and available on DVD, never bogs down. That's pretty amazing right there. I would think it difficult to have that kind of running time and not have at least a couple spots where the story gets boring. It never does, and is a tribute to Ken's film making ability.
"Prohibition" describes how we got there, what it did to our country, and why the 18th Amendment, banning booze, became the only Amendment to be repealed. It was doomed to fail from the start, but nobody saw it at the beginning. It almost single-handedly brought about organized crime in America, a problem that has yet to be repealed.
Ken Burns covers it all very well, and his good name in these documentary efforts never fails to bring in the big names for voice-over work. In this case, Tom Hanks, Patricia Clarkson, Adam Arkin, Jeremy Irons, John Lithgow, etc., etc..
(Although it was never mentioned, I couldn't help but think of the parallels to modern day marijuana laws. When you have a product that millions of Americans want and you make it illegal, the money from that product goes to gangs that provide it, and with that, all the violence that goes along with those gangs. You can't legislate morality, as the 18th Amendment surely showed. And pot is much less harmful than alcohol.)
Another great job by Ken Burns.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I just finished watching this 3-part series on PBS. It is timely to add
comments because this is such a fascinating film.
I grew up mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a young adult was aware of the "prohibition era" but really knew nothing about it. Seeing this film puts lots of things into perspective.
On the one hand, the concerns about alcohol consumption were, and still are, real. What the film shows so clearly is that the "solutions" didn't solve anything, plus many new problems were created. A new criminal enterprise was spawned, and there simply were not enough law enforcement people to monitor, arrest, and try those in the booze smuggling business. It was doomed to failure, and we are better off today as a result.
As history now witnesses, prohibition failed. It was replaced by laws which, instead of making production and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal, make it illegal to be drunk in public or perform certain activities while under the influence. Which should have been the approach all along.
I can't help thinking of prohibition alongside the current Tea Party movement. While both of them have certain admirable goals, in both cases you can't charge ahead with a tunnel vision that neglects all the other things that will be impacted.
What's this? America, a nation of drunkards? Impossible!
Through 100s of vintage photographs and newsreel footage, plus interviews with historians and celebrity narration by Peter Coyote, this well-researched, often-revealing 3-part documentary gives the viewer an in-depth, up-close look at the sheer preposterousness of "Prohibition".
This documentary clearly shows how the likes of "Prohibition" (which was strictly enforced for 13 years, from 1920 - 1933) limited human freedom and turned millions of otherwise law-abiding American citizens into literal criminals (as well as two-faced hypocrites) overnight.
Though President Woodrow Wilson (a Democratic) vetoed Congress for imposing the 18th Amendment on the country's taxpayers he was inevitably over-ruled and "Prohibition" prevailed throughout the terms of the following 3 presidents, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover (all Republicans) until Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Democratic) had it promptly revoked and abolished upon his election to presidency in 1933.
To think that such a disastrous act of folly such as "Prohibition" could actually go into effect and exist for 13 years (in the 20th Century) truly boggles the common-sense thinking of a rational mind. But, it did. And, boy, did it ever create an utter, nation-wide mess of nonsense (that was clearly destined for failure) like nothing anyone had ever experienced before.
This is the latest documentary series from Ken Burns--the docu-god for
Public Broadcasting. Not surprisingly, with his amazing reputation for
perfection, he was able to once again get many of America's top actors
to provide their voice talents to the shows--such as Tom Hanks, Sam
Waterston and Blythe Danner. And, like so many PBS documentaries, Peter
Coyote narrates more than capably.
The miniseries consists of three episodes. The first is about the background leading to Prohibition--the temperance movement and problems with alcohol over-consumption. It also ends with the implementation of the Constitutional Amendment. Part Two is about the practical aspects of the law. The difficulty in enforcement is due to a lack of widespread support, loopholes in the law as well as the way the law actually ENCOURAGED the growth of organized crime. Part Three is about the rising dislike of the law that led to its repeal.
Overall, it's yet another very good series by Ken Burn and is among the best shows you can find on the topic. Well worth your time--and it manages to make an educational show fun...of sorts.
Daniel Okrent's "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" and Ken
Burns and Lynn Novick's "Prohibition" mini-series were two similar
projects that began together resulting in two different end products.
Together, both provide a rather detailed account not only of
Prohibition's place in American history, but the events leading up to
such, the results of repeal and the long-lasting societal impact of the
entire matter. Separate, both are still strong, informative and
entertaining yet each tend to focus on different themes that sometimes
do not intermingle and the result is noticeable.
Ken Burns, in his trademarked fashion, intermingles fantastically- original photos and video with colorful interviews from subject-matter experts and first-hand histories over-laced with celebrity voice-overs, makes learning hip and brings about a passion for a dark, but necessary, time in American history. Burns' documentary was too light in certain instances where a deeper look at American history would have benefited the story. Okrent's novel definitely fills in such details that Burns either ignored or edited out but was definitely too heavy at times with whole sections coming across as a historical text book rather than an entertaining narrative.
Burns, and Okrent as well, enlighten 21st-Century audiences to the fact that Prohibition, what can be now considered a silly arrangement, was not only responsible for the rise of Jazz, the introduction of mixed drinks and the invention of speed boats but also led to very beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the outright success of Women's Suffrage.
Naturally, Burns provides much attention to that of the gangsters of the era, particularly Chicago's Al Capone. But again, he provides just enough details for a satisfactory display of information yet fails to get deeper. Similarly, this occurs when discussing the role of the Church and the Prohibition movement. Dry Congressmen and Senators knew how to convince their Baptist and Methodist ministers to use the pulpit to condemn the evils of alcohol, particularly in the Mid-West states.
Likewise, Prohibition was an outcry not just against alcohol but also against the rise of poor immigrants filling America's urban centers. The Irish, the Germans, the Italians, all known for enjoying wine and spirits, and all Catholics, became a scary threat for "decent, Protestant country folks". Cutting off immigrants from their alcohol was a way to ensure that these new Americans were productive members of society, not a burden of filthy drunkards. Burns did not spend too much time on these ideals.
However, Burns attention to detail and crafting of a narrative tale is shown in his vision and with what is presented. He does keep entertainment at the forefront of his documentary, much like what he has done in the past, especially with his must-see Baseball series. Some indirect humor is presented with history playing the comedian to a more naïve time. Burns does get political with some of his views, but at no time are such views sobering enough to prevent the viewer from seeking out a drink.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I really liked the fact that this documentary went deeply into the
history of what led up to prohibition; the social normality of drinking
alcohol and the slow change from 'temperance' (moderation not
drunkenness) over to full abstinence, etc. The push toward alcohol
prohibition was interrupted repeatedly, it was melded into other
political issues like women's right to vote, and fused into the new
version of US Christianity that had swept the nation. It was also part
and parcel with deep racism and xenophobia - often aimed against the
very migrants it was *claimed* to be there to help. Prohibition was
supposed to stop poverty and make life safer, but it did the opposite -
it destroyed the 5th largest industry in the nation (and other reliant
jobs) creating mass unemployment at a time with no government
unemployment system. It created organized crime (which is tied now to
The view of the local bar as being a center of commerce and community for the lower classes (who did not have private clubs) was not the view held by those who saw alcohol as the central evil of their era. But then they wanted easy answers... not accurate ones.
People in that era were told (in the first mass political propaganda machine ever) that alcohol was the cause of all their social ills; that domestic violence, prostitution, poverty, gambling, and many other things were all due to the bottle. They were told that with no alcohol people could be made 'better' & society would be better. All would be well. Somehow few people questioned the information they were getting, but then they had not experienced that sort of propaganda before.
There was a good discussion of the long era in which the prohibitionist movement grew, and of the sudden increase in alcohol production, and the result of the rise of groups that were against drinking or let alcoholics help each other stay sober.
THE MISSING PART? However there was no discussion at all of *why* so many people in that era drank to excess, or why any substance (or other obsession) becomes the center of self destructive behavior. After all,you can't sell anything to people - including excessive amounts of alcohol, to people who won't swallow it down.
The *why* of all substance misuse is nearly always tied into feelings of emotional pain and the desire to escape them; hopelessness, despair, trauma, and a desire to have a mental 'vacation'. Looking at things in this way is less popular than anger. It doesn't let people have easy answers to complicated problems, or give them people to vilify. It fails to let them 'off the hook' when it comes to looking at their entire way of life. Anything can be used this way, including ideologies and theologies.
The fact is that nearly all the people in that era lived in abject poverty & had no real rights. There were no government enforced rights at all : no workers rights, no right to equal housing, there were no unemployment benefits or disability system. Child labor was common and sweat shops were normal. Jobs paid so little that you could starve to death while fully employed, working 12 hour days. People were worked extreme hours, in dangerous conditions, and could be fired for anything (including being too sick to come to work, having a kid to care for, or for refusing to do a thing that was wrong or even illegal). You could be fired for not going to the employers church (see the job requirements 'Dwight L Moody' met, when hired by a relative).
Empires of money were made by people willing to do 'all the wrong things' for cash. The employees & employers knew this; and that all jobs were like that so you could not quit a job & find better treatment. Nobody was willing to say no to greed or on the job cruelty. After all, the entire prohibition movement came into being in a US shaped by men like Daniel Webster (who believed the poor were poor because of their inferiority, their race, their original nationality, and that the US should be CLASSIEST and keep voting a privilege of the wealthy... education too). It was not a good thing to be poor in a world shaped by folks like Webster.
Read "The Jungle" for a look at US migrant life in the early 20th century. The migrants in it found the US was not the new wonderful world they had hoped for. It was terrible, dirty, and filled with poverty. They rapidly discovered that nobody could be trusted in the cities, that most US city people were con artists who preyed on each other constantly and had no ethics; that jobs were hard to get & easy to lose; that their family members died of poverty (the cold, starvation, lack of medical care) surrounded by people who COULD help but would not. At the end of the work day (or in despair over no work) many chose to disappear into a bottle. Knowing what they faced at home, men stayed at the bars, fearing going back to the pressures of their impoverished family. Yet nobody was campaigning to STOP the conditions that sent people off to drink in order to cope.
It was easier to blame booze and ban it (and more satisfying as you could feel superior) than it was to go after the CAUSES of mass alcoholism and address them, by reeling in the abuse of power and addressing poverty.
It still is easier to use the blunt instrument of the law to deal with the societal results of greed and cruelty, and it is still done everyday.
I watched this several years after it had been first aired at my local
library. It was a nice situation to see it in. Some of the library
patrons who were also attending had relatives and such who were
involved in the "industry" during the featured years.
The librarian had to make sure that we were sickened, or at least spooked by pointing out that all of the photographs of dead people were of real dead people and not staged.
Some of the prohibition people were just simply nuts.
Nothing makes crime like the de-legalization of something that most people can handle or will handle anyways.
Any Ken Burns documentary is going to be smart, well made and
educational. This one is also fun (in the plus column), but lacks the
emotion, ambition and power of his very best work, like "The Civil War"
or "The Central Park Five".
Made with a ton of great movie footage and stills, and lots of tid-bits about the history of drinking in America -- it's out of control pervasiveness among men, especially working class men, that led to the push for prohibition that puts the now ridiculous seeming constitutional amendment in a somewhat more understandable light. That in turn explains the odd confluence of its backers, from religious conservatives, to well meaning social progressives looking to save the poor from themselves, to blue-blood WASPS who hated working class immigrants who drank more openly, to women fighting for the right to vote, and who saw how often alcohol contributed to domestic violence.
The film also does a great job in showing how a law that tens of millions of Americans will simply ignore is much worse than no law at all, as it sows the seeds of disregard and contempt for the law, as well creating a fertile ground for criminals to give people what they want in a black market. Much the same arguments are going on right now about other "vice" laws, from marijuana, to prostitution, to proposed laws on fatty and sugary foods.
One of the central questions of any democracy is how much and where does the government have a right to intrude into people's lives for the greater good. It's an important and complicated question, and one the series does a good job of raising.
But at over 5 hours it starts to run a little thin, and the points and stories start to get a bit repetitive. I'm glad I saw it, and enjoyed myself quite a bit, but unlike many documentaries by Burns (and his equally talented brother Ric), I don't think I'll feel a need to re-watch it anytime soon.
I've always wondered how the US ever passed laws prohibiting alcohol.
Such an amazingly common thing today, it would be like banning caffeine
or soda. This six hour story is told well from all sides and it
provides clarity as to the insane and radical motives behind the
Volstead Act and how it backfired in every way. While the video and
photos are all rather dated being from the 1910s and 1920s, the
interviews of experts, historians and people with real-life stories
really come together well. The narration is also great and uses some of
the best names in the film business.
This is a long series, about 6 hours. Ken Burns' direction is poignant and well-paced. It gives you time to think about the meaning and the historical impact of each chapter of this story which touches on many decades.
I feel I know understand an important part of American history that never made sense to me. Concepts like "Bootleggers and Baptists" being aligned and the role of the gangsters in society become crystal clear after viewing this film. I had no idea how vicious and immoral the attacks on Al Smith were by the Herbert Hoover camp. Politics and police seem violently corrupt in this era. You learn a lot about life, laws, religion and politics in a difficult and bitter era (the Great Depression). Most importantly, you are reminded of the fact that US was built on Freedoms--and Prohibition is such an amazing violation of this. It's a historical guidepost to preserving our freedoms going forward.
The story of the Roaring 20s, flappers, the speakeasy, the rum-runners, and ironically, how the post-prohibition era was favorable to women and equality and stories I'd never imagined.
FDR had three priorities when he took office: 1) regulate the banks, 2) cut federal spending, 3) legalize beer. He won by a landslide. On a funny note, Utah voted to repeal the Volstead Act rather quickly. Amazing given that that state has spend the last 80 years trying to restrict it! This three DVD series is worthy of a weekend of your time. Thanks PBS for this fine historical film and Ken Burns for another amazing tale.
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