"Prohibition": Ken Burns toms himself


Ken Burns seems to keep topping himself. "Prohibition" -- Sunday through Tuesday on PBS -- is another masterpiece. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

For 14 noisy years, Americans had their
social experiment. They banned alcohol; they turned collectively
sober.

Well, not quite. Even leaders found
ways to duck the law:

– Herbert Hoover, then the Secretary
of Commerce, had a routine, says Dan Okrent, an author (“Last
Call”) and a consultant on PBS' “Prohibition” miniseries. “He
would stop at the Belgian embassy, where he could legally have his
martini every night before going home.”

– Others didn't bother with legality.
Ken Burns, the “Prohibition” producer-director, savored one man's
account: “His father was a bootlegger and delivered his wares to
the United States Capitol.”

– In many cities, the “Prohibition”
people say, attitudes were the same. San Francisco's biggest
bootlegger was the district attorney; Seattle's was an ex-cop. “I
remember talking to Ruth Proskauer Smith, who was 100 years old,”
said producer-director Lynn Novick. “Her father was a New York
state Supreme Court judge and they had a bootlegger come to their
house every week.”

– Those pro-drinking views were even
stronger overseas, Burns said. Rum was shipped from the Bahamas, then
a British protectorate. “The home secretary of Great Britain, named
Winston Churchill, refused to lift a finger to stop the flow of rum.
He thought Prohibition was an insult to civilization.”

As these stories swirl by, it's easy to
dismiss Prohibition as an absurdity. At its core, the filmmakers
point out, there were great intentions.

Back in 1830, Okrent said, “the
average American drank three times (the amount of alcohol) that we
drink today.” That was “the equivalent of 90 fifths of 80-proof
liquor (annually). If you consider there were people who were not
drinking at all, those who were drinking were really, really
drinking.”

Families were shattered, lives were
destroyed. Carrie Nation wasn't the cartoon-ish character some
people depicted, Burns said; she'd seen her first marriage destroyed
by alcohol.

Nation used an ax, other women used
sheer will and a movement began. Then came the Anti Saloon League,
which Burns calls the “most powerful lobby of all time.”

It linked with people on both sides.
Prohibition was backed on the right by the Ku Klux Klan and on the
left by the Industrial Workers of the World; it became law in 1919..

Enforcing it was another matter.
Alcohol arrived by land, from Mexico. It arrived by boat from the
Bahamas and Canada. It was also easy to make.

When their factories were shut down,
Burns said, brewers sold the raw material. “Augustus Busch said he
was the largest bootlegger in the country.”

Others also were helpful, Burns said.
“They sold grape concentrate with a thoughtful warning: 'Do not add
sugar (and) leave in a dark room or it will ferment and turn into
wine.'”

The brashest stories may have come from
New York City (where, before Prohibition, half the city councilmen
owned bars) or Boston. Still, the country's once-quiet mid-section
was also quaking.

There was Busch in St. Louis, working
within the law. And Al Capone, working outside it. “He took over
Chicago when he was 24 (or) 25,” Okrent said. “And he was gone
before his 30th birthday.”

There was the brutal Purple Gang in
Detroit. And a Cincinnati lawyer who worked the system. “George
Remus was one of the most successful and sort of flamboyant
bootleggers in the Midwest,” Burns said.

Most would fall; Remus did
spectacularly. Prohibition itself ended in 1933, but its impact
lingered. Indirectly, it had stirred the women's vote, the income
tax, even the first wiretapping case. It slowed down drinking, Okrent
said. “We did not get back to pre-Prohibition drinking levels until
1973.”

For a half-century there, Americans
were at least a bit more sober.

– “Prohibition,” 8 p.m. Sunday
through Tuesday, PBS (check local listings)

– Many stations will rerun it at 9:41
p.m. Sunday and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

 

Hugh Laurie -- comedy, crew, drama ... and now the blues


By now, you may have heard me lecture on the fact that "House" is TV's best drama and Hugh Laurie is the best drama actor. I do that sometimes; I also  blather about his comedy skills, which remain semi-tucked away in England.

Now there's more; he's also a bluesman who is the center of a terrific PBS special. In some markets -- including East Lansing and Cincinnati -- that airs at 9 p.m. Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

The purpose of Englishmen, it sees, is
to tell us what we've overlooked.

Often, that involves the old blues
greats; in the 1970s, they drew tiny crowds at home, huge ones in
Europe. “They were exiled prophets, if you will,” Hugh Laurie
says.

They already had big fans in England,
including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Laurie, who has a new blues
album and PBS special. “As soon as I heard my first Willie Dixon
song, I was on the hunt,” said Laurie, 52. “I would spend my
pocket money on whatever blues record I could find.”

Fans of “House” – which starts
its eighth, and maybe last, season Monday – have seen glimpses of
this. Dr. Gregory House (Laurie) sometimes obsesses on his guitar or
piano.

“When Dr. House sits down at the
piano for solace ..., it's not really an act,” said David Horn,
PBS' “Great Performances” producer. “Hugh Laurie really knows
his way around a keyboard.”

And he knows about getting lost in the
music at home.“I'll look at my watch and go, 'Oh my God, it's 2
o'clock in the morning and I have to be up at 4.'”

Music is one of many things he does
well. “There's barely a field he hasn't conquered,” Horn said.

One of the first was crew. Laurie was a
champion oarsman – just like his dad, the late Dr. Ran Laurie, a
1948 Olympic gold-medalist. When he had to drop the sport because of
illness, he joined Cambridge classmate Stephen Fry for a comedy team.

For decades, Laurie was known for
comedy – “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of
Fry and Laurie” – or for nothing. For many viewers, he was an
unknown when “House” began.

“It's amazing that I was able to sort
of forge a new identity (in the U.S.),” he said. “I arrived with
as blank a canvas as canvases get.”

As the darkly acerbic Dr. House, he
found instant success – six straight Emmy nominations (with no
wins), six straight Golden Globe nominations (with two wins). Along
the way, he discussed his love of the blues; this past year, Warner
Bros. Records suggested a New Orleans album.

“I could feel the word 'no' rising up
in me,” Laurie said, “(but) I thought, 'No, wait a minute, this
is not going to come my way again.'”

The project grew, adding top
instrumentalists, including a horns arranged by Allen Toussaint.
Laurie did the keyboards and vocals – with Tom Jones, Irma Thomas
and Dr. John joining for a few tracks.

Warner also suggested a PBS special.
“Any time there's an opportunity … to have a celebrity shine a
light on a particular styl of music that people wouldn't ordinarily
listen to, sign me up,” Horn says.

Parts of the hour were makeshift,
Laurie said. “I bought this very wonderful car (a classic
convertible) in Texas and drove to New Orleans, sort of making it up
as we went along.”

The peak came in New Orleans, he said.
“It has a sort of fragrance and spirit to me, that even as a young
English boy, thousands of miles across the ocean, it seemed to reach
me.”

This is the city he imagined when
hearing those Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters records 40 years ago,
Laurie said. It thrives, even after Hurricane Katrina. “It is
actually humbling to behold people who stared death in the face and
found a way to carry on and … share joy with that sense of
generosity.”

Hugh Laurie, everywhere

– On PBS: “Hugh Laurie: Let Them
Talk – A Celebrations of New Orleans Blues,” a “Great
Performances” special, 9 p.m. Friday (check local listings)

– On Fox: “House” opens its
season at 9 p.m. Monday, with Dr. House in prison

– On record: “Let Them Talk,”
Warner Bros. Records; see www.hughlaurieblues.com

– In video stores: “Blackadder,”
“A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” more

 

Well, give it another 41 years


This is not the way a 41-year run should end. After all those decades of pain and rage, "All My Children" ended weakly.

Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) had a long (and quite poorly acted) argument with the latest guy she wanted to marry. He walked out. She said he needed him; he said that frankly, he didn't give a damn. (That was a good line; I wonder if they thought of it themselves.)

And then -- just as Erica walked by -- the angry J.R. fired his gun. "All My Children," which may or may not be coming back as an Internet show, had ended its 41 year run.

It was as if someone had consulted "The Sopranos" on how to end a series. I went through the mixed emotions of:

1) Thinking maybe it's OK if the soaps are ending.

2) Thinking maybe it's not. The ads for "The Chew," which takes the spot on Monday, gave me no inclination to watch. Or to eat.

3) Or maybe it IS OK. Following the "All My Children" finale, "One Life to Live" began with four straight scenes in which people woke up from odd dreams. Four. Shouldn't there be a legal limit?

 

The X Factor: Haven't we been here before?


What did I think of the "X Factor" debut? I sort of  liked it; of course, I also liked it when it was called "American Idol."

If there were anti-cloning laws in Hollywood, this show would face capital punishment. It's mostly "Idol" with a few "America's Got Talent" touches added for, well, originality.

Simon Cowell is like the kid who was wise enough to stay awake in class and copy someone else's answers. He was also wise eough to copy from the smart kids; it would have been a shame if he'd copied from the dumbos who created, say, "H8R."

The X Factor: Haven't we been here before?


What did I think of the "X Factor" debut? I sort of  liked it; of course, I also liked it when it was called "American Idol."

If there were anti-cloning laws in Hollywood, this show would face capital punishment. It's mostly "Idol" with a few "America's Got Talent" touches added for, well, originality.

Simon Cowell is like the kid who was wise enough to stay awake in class and copy someone else's answers. He was also wise eough to copy from the smart kids; it would have been a shame if he'd copied from the dumbos who created, say, "H8R."