Friday, September 30, 2011

Ken Burns Goes Original Gangster: Prohibition

They thought if Prohibition could make it here in New York, it could make it anywhere. Well, it didn’t. The combination of some of the hottest night life, wettest politicians, a large immigrant population, and close proximity to the Canadian border and Long Island Sound made enforcement more or less impossible. Ken Burns and his filmmaking partner Lynn Novick bring their flair for assembling archival material to bear on America’s misadventure with temperance in Prohibition (promo here), which airs three consecutive nights on PBS, beginning this coming Sunday.

Perhaps the best installment of Prohibition is the first, A Nation of Drunkards, in which a number of preconceptions about the prohibition movement are challenged. In the years leading up to the 19th Amendment, consumption of hard liquor was far greater in America than it is now. Evidently, public drunkenness was a genuine social problem that attracted the notice of the reform movement. Indeed, more than a religious phenomenon, prohibition was initially aligned with progressives and the suffragette women’s movement.

Perhaps most tragically, “dry” activists provided decisive support for the 16th Amendment establishing the federal income tax. Until then, the U.S. government had been overwhelmingly dependent on liquor taxes to fund its operations. Unfortunately, it would not be repealed by the 21st Amendment, along with the notorious 19th it helped bring about.

Burns and Novick’s Prohibition is also quite adept at capturing the colorful character of several notorious bootleggers, who sprang up in the tradition of old western gun-slingers. Though Al Capone got the most ink (which was always how he wanted it), the example of former Seattle copper turned gangster Roy Olmstead might arguably be more significant. Eventually taken down through wiretaps, his case launched a branch of Constitutional law still debated to this day.

Unfortunately, the talking head segments are a tad weak this time around for Burns and Novick. Should you have a drink every time the audience is told we cannot legislate morality, you would be very wet indeed. Presumably, this means they also advocate repealing every morally motivated reform from the Progressive Era, perhaps starting with child labor laws.

Commentators who suggest there are often unintended consequences to government regulation are rather more on target. Yet, there do seem to be concrete lessons to be learned from the Dry interregnum that Prohibition the film prefers not to belabor. For instance, we learn the brewers tried to throw the distillers under the bus rather stand united against the increasingly militant temperance movement. For their efforts, they got the absolutist Volstead Act, putting everyone out of business, at least temporarily.

Once again, Wynton Marsalis provides an original era-appropriate jazz score that evokes the free-wheeling spirit of the speakeasy milieu. However, the rich voice of Keith David, the narrator of Jazz and Unforgivable Blackness, is definitely missed in Prohibition. Frankly, lead narrator Peter Coyote sounds rather dry (so to speak), by comparison.

Combining striking images, good history, entertaining music, and so-so social commentary, Prohibition is PBS’s marquee event of the season. A finely crafted production, it is definitely well worth watching (though perhaps with a bit of Tivo fast-forwarding). It airs back-to-back-to-back this Sunday through Tuesday (10/2-10/4) on just about every PBS outlet nationwide.

(Photo ©Scherl/Sueddeutsche Zeitung/The Image Works)