Prohibition by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is a three part documentary mini-series that provides a rare and interesting look at the causes, history, and effects that prohibition had on the United States of America. We begin with Episode One, "A Nation of Drunkards", which explores the seeds of the early prohibition movement, backed largely not by conservatives as one might originally believe, but women whose family lives had suffered the abuses of alcohol. They fought to abolish alcohol because their husbands had become consumed by it, lost money over it, became violent, or even died from excessive drinking. An early pioneer of prohibition, Carrie Nation, went into saloons armed with rocks and hatchets, and proceeded to smash them to the ground. Nation was jailed numerous times for these acts, but did not stop “destroying” saloons. This early look depicts an America who started its day with whiskey, and drank alcoholic beverages throughout the day.
According to the film, in the 1920s saloons were more than a place to get a drink. A man could pick up his mail there, if he did not have an address of his own. He could cash his paycheck, hear about job openings, or even land himself a city job. The culture of the saloon, in the eyes of “dry” advocates, took a man away from his family and led to dire consequences; squandering pay, neglecting responsibility.
Having a “dry” nation was something that very few Americans believed would ever come to pass. In 1920, roughly 70% of government money was wrapped up in taxes from alcohol. However, in 1911 with the passage of an income tax law, the government no longer relied so heavily on the alcohol business and could thus see a future without it. Those in favor of prohibition, in turn, favored the income tax law.
Part two, "A Nation of Scofflaws", explores what happened after Prohibition had been passed in the United States. Scofflaws was a term that referred to those who still drank, bought, or sold liquor after prohibition had been passed. Even though the law had been passed, there were many loopholes and a lack of enforcement on the part of police. Many police officers believed that not enough money was spent on enforcing this law, and that they had much more important arrests to make (thieves, murderers and the like) to worry about arresting someone for drinking.
Bootleggers, those who bought and sold liquor illegally during the prohibition era, were pervasive during this time period. They made lots of money, and kept law enforcers in their back pockets. Writer Pete Hamill claims: “If you want people to brush their teeth, make it illegal. Make toothpaste illegal. They’ll be standing on the roof brushing away. It’s natural to human beings, I think. It’s a healthy thing.”
The third and final disk of the Blu-ray set is entitled “A Nation of Hypocrites.” In 1926, six years after prohibition became law, republican congressman Laguardia of New York claimed that in his opinion, the eighteenth amendment was a complete disaster. It had created contempt and blatant disregard for the law all over the country. To prove the hypocrisy of prohibition, Laguardia called the press into his office and mixed together two legal products available in any grocery store at the time: non-alcoholic beer and malt extract. When this is allowed to ferment, it turns into illegal 2% beer.
According to historian Catherine Murdock, the dry movements’ extremism and refusal to budge caused them to lose all moderate support, in her mind, an important political lesson that applies to many movements. You need to bend a little if you’re going to stick around, otherwise your entire movement is doomed to fail.
It seems that the affect of prohibition was a country-wide shift toward hedonism, the exact opposite of what the dry movement attempted to accomplish. By 1926, more and more Americans ignored the prohibition law and we became the largest importers of cocktail shakers in the world. Speakeasies and underground clubs replaced the old time saloons, approximately 32,000 speakeasies operated in New York City alone.
Blu –Ray Bonus Features
Bonus interviews with the films’ commentators, and filmmakers Lynn Novick and Ken Burns.
"Prohibition" is on sale October 4, 2011 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward. Starring Patricia Clarkson, Paul Giamatti, Peter Coyote, Tom Hanks.