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Ken Burns Tackles Prohibition

The acclaimed documentarian explores the causes and effects of America's dry years

Jack Bettridge
Posted: September 23, 2011

Americans can't get enough of Prohibition. While they may not want to relive the so-called "noble experiment" of the 18th Amendment, they do seem eager to learn more about it. Last year, journalist Daniel Okrent explored Prohibition in the comprehensive book Last Call. Now filmmaker Ken Burns is tackling the topic in an immersive six-hour, three-part documentary, Prohibition (on PBS, Oct. 2-4). The film traces America's long love-hate affair with alcohol and reveals how the issue of abstinence came to pit class against class, rural America against urban, Protestant against Catholic and native against immigrant. We even learn it had profound tax implications.

Popular hindsight has a hazy vision of Prohibition as a curious experiment gone awry that gave us jazz and organized crime. Burns, however, finds it a complex phenomenon that pervaded and divided the nation. Since the arrival of the Mayflower, America had enjoyed alcohol. Prohibition picks up the thread in 1826, when growing horror at the prodigious consumption of hard liquor spawned a temperance movement. The first installment sees what started as a call for voluntary abstention morph into an anti-saloon movement, which even grew violent at times, as in the case of Carrie Nation. (She was known for attacking saloons with a hatchet.) A current of race and class issues ran underneath the calls for sobriety—progressives believed they could "save" recent immigrants from poverty if they took away drink. Several temperance leaders were women, and the movement helped spark the drive for women's suffrage.

When Prohibition finally began in 1920, many were surprised by its stringency; they had assumed wine and beer would remain legal. What followed was a series of unintended consequences, including making scofflaws of much of the nation—not just the Al Capones. We hear from the now-grown son of a bootlegger who rode along when Dad delivered hooch to the Capitol building.

As always with laws, there were loopholes, and sacramental wine enjoyed the largest, a dodge that would help fill seats at churches and synagogues. An allowance for homemade wine for personal consumption also kept grapegrowers in business, selling concentrates packaged with ironic warnings not to add water nor leave in the dark lest it turn to wine.

One aspect of Prohibition that is largely left unexamined by the otherwise comprehensive documentary is its long-term effect on the beverage alcohol industry. By the time Repeal came, in 1933, American producers had lost 14 years of production experience to the rest of the world and would lag behind for decades. And the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th, created the three-tier alcohol distribution system we still have today.

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