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Ken Burns: Prohibition

PBS // Unrated // October 4, 2011
List Price: $44.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted October 1, 2011 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The story of Prohibition in America in six hours? You won't believe how fast six hours will pass with this fascinating, illuminating and positively inspiring documentary. Minute for minute it represents documentarian Ken Burns' best work to date. I have to say I entered the new PBS docu Prohibition with ambivalent memories of the groundbreaking but somewhat distended The Civil War, with its endless slow motion segues between sad 'letters from the front' backed by mournful violin solos. For this new show, I pictured a wailing fiddle showing a picture of a misunderstood Italian-American boy, with a celebrity voiceover: "Dear Ma. Life is lonely here in the Windy City. That stubborn Irishman I told you about, Bugs Moran, is more trouble than ever. I need to send him a Valentine. Love, Al."  1

Just ten minutes of Prohibition put all negative thoughts behind me. The docu covers the history of the 18th Amendment to prohibit the production, sale and consumption of alcohol, establishing it as a major theme in American life. Prohibition has prime relevance today and is most often resurrected in arguments about the War on Drugs. The historical record presents a crucial lesson-that-must-be-learned about the efforts of an impassioned minority to impose its beliefs on the rest of Democratic society.

The show is an eye-opener from the beginning of part one, entitled A Nation of Drunkards. The proliferation of saloons was such that the lower classes and especially immigrant workers slaving away at hard-labor jobs regularly forfeited the majority of their pay to liquor. Saloons gave away free lunches with the purchase of a drink. The Temperance Unions, religious groups advocating teetotaling (the "T" stood for Total Abstinence) were reacting to broken homes, battered wives and abandoned children. By the early 20th century, when Prohibition became a powerful issue, its huge numbers of supporters put on enormous rallies. Carrie Nation was something of a performance artist and agitator, carrying out her "hatchetation" raids against bars. The real movement was based in the Protestant Midwest and South and gained steam as more than just a force against alcohol. Behind the slogans was a second doctrine of hate against immigrants and Catholics, who were considered degenerate foreigners. Prohibition propaganda insisted that they were the scum of the cities and not "real Americans." The Klu Klux Klan was a major supporter of Prohibition. The big brewers were predominantly German in origin, and anti-German hate (and even lynchings) in WW1 was behind the adoption and ratification of the Constitutional amendment.

Ken Burns and co-director Lynn Novick begin with a few shots of barns at dawn, because the story of Prohibition really starts before the Civil War. But the photographic and film coverage that their researchers have unearthed soon takes over completely. As a 'hot' subject, the marches, raids, rallies and proud drinkers were well documented. Only when we follow the career of a particular bootlegger or Prohibition crusader do we see a photograph repeated. It's shocking to see mass rallies of the Klan in Washington, D.C., and the proliferation of hate propaganda against foreigners and Catholics. It's also fascinating to see that earnest and sincere voices existed on both sides of the issue, splitting the country right down the middle. Our present day political stalemate makes us want to know how things worked out in Prohibition's 13-year reign.

Parts two and three, A Nation of Scofflaws and A Nation of Hypocrites, presents a rich and compelling account of the prohibition years. The big events and trends are covered in superb film and still coverage -- the rise of bootlegging and the organized crime it inspired, the efforts of some politicians to reform Prohibition into something more practical, and the stubborn Prohibition supporters who refused to give an inch. At every step we see how the Amendment was a functioning failure. Judges, officials and politicians that claimed to support Prohibition were often heavy drinkers, and almost as often complicit in the traffic in illegal booze. We're shown maps detailing how a single neighborhood in Manhattan or Chicago had dozens of illegal speakeasies, all paying tribute to organized crime. People were blinded by imbibing liquor with toxic additives. As a deterrent to thefts of legal government-issue alcohol, the Feds tried putting real poison in their stock. People ignored the warning labels, leading to cases of death by poisoning.

We also focus on extremely interesting personalities, such as the female Attorney General that fought for strict enforcement. One lawyer made millions buying brewery stock impounded by the government, and bribing officials to put it on the street. A cop in Washington State gets busted for bootlegging, and begins a new career as a booze czar, smuggling liquor from Canada. Rumrunners crowd the midnight horizon off Long Island, landing stock from the Bahamas. Meanwhile, the gang wars in New York and Chicago erode what's left of America's belief in the law and social justice. We meet great characters like Al Smith, the failed anti-prohibition Presidential Candidate that helped pave the way for F.D.R.'s ascent to the White House. Even though all know that it is a hypocritical, unworkable failure, Prohibition's hold on the nation is broken only when various interests and a New York socialite begin a counter-campaign against it, counseling a return to sanity and an end to hypocrisy.

Prohibition has the most concise and focused (and myth-free) coverage I've yet seen of the Chicago mob wars, touching base with the toughest mobsters and even overachieving teenaged hoodlums, like The Purple Gang. The docu can boast the best evocation yet of the hedonistic 'roaring twenties' world of liquor, jazz, flappers and sexual emancipation. Forget the same over-used docu montages, often cribbed from old Warner Bros. gangster films... we see plenty of authentic footage from the floors of night haunts like The Cotton Club and Texas Guinan's 300 Club. In fact, we see film footage of the legendary Texas Guinan herself. Not just professional flappers but also the sexy black chorines that performed strictly for white audiences and a shimmy dancer or two that seem more contemporary -- and erotic - than performers we see today. We hear quotes from the New Yorker writer Lois "Lipstick" Long, a columnist who lived the spicy life she wrote about: "The men in the clubs aren't good looking but they look like good providers."

The show frequently rewards us with funny observations. A sign in a Midwestern Bar announces "We Serve all Nations but NOT Carrie". One commentator remarks that sauerkraut and German chocolate cake have more alcohol than allowed by law. The ubiquitous, clandestine booze outlets in New York are called "cordial stores". Witnesses to gang slayings were said to suffer from "Chicago Amnesia". Commentator Pete Hamill expresses his disgust at the unyielding nature of Prohibitionists: "If they saw Jesus turning water into wine, they'd bust him... 'There he goes again!'"

Prohibition shows us how society changed in just a few years. Before the 'twenties, saloons were exclusively male haunts. Wiretapping was outlawed as an invasion of privacy. By the time Burns and Novick get into the home stretch, the show has given us a very powerful lesson on how America was taken down a dark road by ideological extremists, whose good ideas were co-opted by hateful intolerance. The Prohibitionists' refusal to compromise did great harm to the country. In practical terms, Conservatives should note that the loss of liquor tax revenue caused the Income Tax to be greatly expanded. In terms of the damage done, Prohibition showed that a group of rigid zealots could divide the country into warring "wet" and "dry" factions, break down our belief in our own laws, and turn our Democracy and way of life into a hypocritical joke.

I guarantee that you'll leave Prohibition feeling entertained and exhilarated, and better informed about the forces that shape American political life.

Prohibition's main narrator is Peter Coyote, with a long list of actors providing voices throughout: Patricia Clarkson, Adam Arkin, Blythe Danner, Paul Giamatti, Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson, John Lithgow, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, Frances Sternhagen, Sam Waterston.

PBS Video's Blu-ray of Prohibition is a beauty, wonderfully mastered in HD. The format flatters the hundreds of razor-sharp vintage photographs, showing us that the oldest are some of the most detailed. The quality of the film footage is outstanding, with most clips looking nearly new; no 3rd-generation sources here. Only one or two essential film excerpts in the entire six hours had to be included from less than optimum material.

The important thing is to see Prohibition wherever one can, although this Blu-ray on a big screen is the best TV I've watched since Mad Men delayed its fifth season. The music chosen for the soundtrack is terrific -- a special release had better be on the way -- with the cues to accompany the jazz age and gangland episodes chosen for authenticity, not popularity. Prohibition makes 1926-1929 look like a really great time to live in the big city, at least until the Crash.

The extras are light. The first disc carries a featurette, some bonus scenes and interview outtakes. The menus use images of booze being poured. One of the interesting final topics of the show is the birth of the modern Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. The respected organization is not that much different from the anti-liquor leagues of the 1860s.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Prohibition Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: English, Spanish
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Packaging: 3 Blu-ray discs in keep case
Reviewed: September 29, 2011


1. The Civil War put a human face on history. It of course marks a major shift in pop documentaries -- every show made since, from war diaries to examinations of germs, now seems to use Burns' style. And one can say that Civil War's slow pace puts us back into an 1863 state of mind. Prohibition plays the formula at a faster pace.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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