Jonathan Storm: A stiff shot of history

The speakeasy peephole. Prohibition was pushed by "the most effective political pressure group in American history."
The speakeasy peephole. Prohibition was pushed by "the most effective political pressure group in American history." (Chicago Tribune archive)

Ken Burns brings us "Prohibition," neat.

Posted: October 01, 2011

Let's raise a toast to Ken Burns, and not just any old swill. How about a sidecar? Or an aviation? Or a clover club? Or any of dozens of elegant cocktails that were popular and widely consumed in the 1920s, when alcohol was illegal in the United States and the country, nevertheless, became the biggest importer of cocktail shakers in the world.

Burns and his collaborator, Lynn Novick, have held the reins taut and produced a rarity for them - a historical documentary that sticks to the point and runs at a reasonable length.

Prohibition, not a whole lot longer than five hours, though it's being shown over six on PBS Sunday-through Tuesday, starting each night at 8 p.m., is a typical Burns tour de force, combining deep research, savvy storytelling, and appropriate talking heads.

But it's also eminently watchable, not just because so much of it is told through films of a particularly lively time in our history, but because it's 15 hours shorter than Jazz, 13 hours shorter than Baseball, 9 1/2 hours shorter than The War, and 6 1/2 hours shorter The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

And also because the history of America's Great (failed) Experiment has so much resonance today.

The battle to achieve Prohibition was a war fought by primarily rural people, who thought they were the only real Americans, against immigrants and urbanites with supposedly loose morals.

It was pushed by a single-issue constituency and what the documentary calls "the most effective political pressure group in American history," which required politicians to sign pledges of loyalty or face its wrath, just as Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform does today.

And it was eventually lost, at least partly because of the inflexibility of its supporters who refused to consider any changes in the draconian Volstead Act that enforced the 18th Amendment.

"In their extremism, they eliminated all moderate support," says Catherine Gilbert Murdock, one of the experts in the documentary, "and that's a really important political lesson. If you don't bend, it's all going to come crashing down around you."

America's use of alcohol, especially in pervasive all-male saloons, was pretty frightful before Prohibition, the documentary demonstrates Sunday night in its first installment, "A Nation of Drunkards." Murdock, who now writes novels for young adults, lives in Wayne. Her first book, about American drinking habits, grew out of work she did on her dissertation for a doctorate in American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania.

She tells a story in Prohibition about her great-grandmother, a Philadelphian, crossing the street "so she wouldn't have to cross in front of a saloon because it was so scary." The saloon, Murdock said in a telephone interview, was near 12th and Pine Streets.

Other aged commentators, including Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, relate anecdotes from their lives as young people in the time.

Al Capone, perhaps the most famous Prohibition character, gets his share of coverage, but the pleasure of the documentary, as usual, lies in learning about some of the most famous people of their time who have settled into obscurity. I would have liked a little more about Philadelphia's lead Prohibition gangster, Max "Boo Boo" Hoff.

Stocked with historical footage and photographs, Prohibition also provides insight into the life of the times. New York, the center of resistance to the law, gets special attention, as we see white people flocking to Harlem to dance the camel, fishtail, turkey, geechee, black bottom, or scrunch at speakeasys with such names as the Spider's Web, Garden of Joy, Bucket of Blood, Hotcha, Yeah Man, Small's Paradise, and, of course, the Cotton Club.

The dispatches from these and other watering holes by Vassar College grad Lois Long, who started at the New Yorker at 23, are especially tasty.

More than any of Burns' documentaries except The Civil War, Prohibition provides viewers with a real feel for the times as well as new and surprising information.

I'll drink to that.


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Prohibition

8 p.m. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday on WHYY TV12


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.

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