A swig of Prohibition

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2011 - 10:45 AM

Ken Burns looks at the 1920s through the eyes of feminists, racists, religious leaders and all that jazz.


An undated handout photo of a New York City police official watching agents pour liquor into a sewer after a raid during the Prohibition era.

Photo: Library Of Congress, Prints, Associated Press

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Ken Burns' latest project examines the demonizing of immigrants, religion-driven campaign issues and a movement stirred by Americans demanding to have their country back. Has the great historian leaped into the modern age? Not quite.

"Prohibition," his excellent, nearly six-hour film airing Sunday through Tuesday on PBS, once again proves that everything old is new again. More poetically, Burns cites Ecclesiastes 1:9. "What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun."

You may already know that drinking was a no-no during the Prohibition Era (1919-33), thanks to a constitutional amendment. Then you also know that a lot of people ignored the ban. But Burns, as usual, goes so much deeper, with such rich anecdotes, that even a history major will be floored.

You'll learn that the movement was spurred largely by religious zealots and anti-Germans who feared that people with names like Adolphus Busch were gathering too much power and taking away precious jobs. You learn that politicians, led by a congressman from Minnesota, Rep. Andrew Volstead, went overboard in trying to appease radical voters. You learn that during Prohibition, drunk driving and cirrhosis actually increased because amateur batches of wood alcohol were more toxic.

"Not only did we not fix everything about society, we made half the nation lawbreakers, created organized crime and a host of other horrific unintended consequences," Burns said in a recent interview. "We hope it will foster a lot of discussions, but as historians, we would be the last to promote what the national dialogue is. We're just interested in telling good stories."

Not all of the era should be looked upon with regret. It was called the Jazz Age for good reason, with Louis Armstrong tunes and the Charleston sweeping the nation. More important, it planted the seeds for a wave of feminism as the suffrage movement -- which finally won women the right to vote in 1920 -- was a major supporter of banning alcohol.

"Before the Prohibition movement, suffrage was extremely radical, so it was actually the popularity of temperance that encouraged women to join the suffrage movement and that legitimized it," said Lynn Novick, Burns' partner. "They felt it would dry out the country and safeguard families and protect children. So without temperance, I'm not sure that suffrage would have happened the way that it did."

The three-part film isn't all serious stuff. There are rich tales about Al Capone, Carrie Nation, Warren Harding and a cast of lesser known characters that'll be hard to forget.

Among the neat trivia you can use to wow guests at dinner parties:

  • In the early days of the country, people drank alcohol at breakfast.
  • George Washington made sure that each day his soldiers were provided a half-cup of rum.
  • By 1830, the average American male over the age of 15 drank 88 bottles of whiskey a year.
  • At one point, brewers tried to pass beer off as a health beverage.

Those tales, told in narrator Peter Coyote's gin-flavored voice, are among the most memorable in Burns' storied career. That's saying something about a guy who's responsible for "The Civil War," "Jazz" and "Baseball."

"The films are more than just documentaries," said PBS President Paula Kerger. "They're epic poems, love letters to the people, institutions and events that make up our culture."

Burns isn't done with the 1920s. The decade plays a major role in upcoming pieces about the Dust Bowl and the history of the storied Roosevelt family. If they're half as good as this documentary, we'll drink to that.

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  • Filmmakers Ken Burns, right, and Lynn Novick


    When: 7 p.m. Sun., Mon. & Tue.

    Where: KTCA, Ch. 2.

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