Prohibition, PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
Share This:


Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Written by Geoffrey C. Ward
Narrated by Peter Coyote
Voices include Adam Arkin, Phillip Bosco, Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Conway, Blythe Danner, Paul Giamatti, Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Lithgow
PBS stations, Oct. 2-4, 2011, 8-10 p.m. ET/PT

Perhaps I’m merely getting a bit bored with the Ken Burns documentary style: the black and white photos, the voiceovers, the slow, steady pace and the chronological presentation. Or, perhaps I was underwhelmed by “Prohibition” because, although it is very interesting, the film doesn’t have much heart. There are no heroes in this story. Instead, we see small-time crooks turn into big-time bootleggers.

“Prohibition” is divided into three sections. In the first episode, the lead-up to passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is explored. The Temperance movement had begun in the mid-19th century, when boys and men drank nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol per year. Today’s population drinks only 2 1/3 gallons on average. It’s no wonder that women whose husbands drank their wages away and abused them would seek to limit alcohol consumption.

Different drinking habits between “dry” Protestants and the “wet” Italian, German and Irish recent immigrants exacerbated the sociological class war against alcohol. Drinking German beer became synonymous with treason. While men were in Europe fighting WWI, the Volstead Act, which enabled the 18th Amendment, was easily passed by Congress and the ratifying states.

In the second episode, we see the full impact of Prohibition. Although most people voted for passage of the 18th Amendment, they still wanted to drink. But the rise of speakeasies, bootleggers, gangsters, rumrunners, crime syndicates, corrupt police and poisoned alcohol was unexpected. Since few funds were allocated toward enforcement of Prohibition, little was done to prevent rampant disregard of the Volstead Act. The speakeasies’ sophisticated atmosphere and the frisson of danger they offered added to the élan of the Roaring Twenties.

Prohibition was finally repealed in December 1933. The “Noble Experiment” had failed. The depression had changed the finances and mood in the country.

“Prohibition” exemplifies our government’s abject failure to legislate individual rights and personal choices. Nevertheless, many in government today don’t seem to remember the expensive and bloody lesson of the 18th Amendment, and they still self-righteously limit other people’s personal freedoms.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have put much time and attention in recreating the fight against alcohol. The interviews with those who lived through Prohibition add enormously to the documentary. The music, cinematography, and production values are first-rate. Although I wish the film had more heart and a more varied format, it does provide a fascinating look at a lost era in our country.

©Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved

Exceprts from an interview with Emily Mendel. Her review of “Octet” is here. On the human voice:“I was the stereotypical...
Theatre for a New Audience’s searing and brilliant new production of “The Merchant of Venice” (a co-production with DC’s Shakespeare...
My cultural round-up has usually centered on theater. This year theater finally did come back and hooray for that but...
Search CultureVulture