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
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
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
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
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
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