THE DOCUMENTARY "Prohibition"
Burns' terrific new film on the consequences of the 18th Amendment.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Although Mark Twain died a decade before the 18th Amendment -- banning the sale and production of "intoxicating spirits" -- became law, his words open this five-and-a-half hour spread: "It is the prohibition that makes anything precious." In other words, ban something people want and they'll want it even more.
Enacted Jan. 17, 1920, Prohibition had an impact few foresaw. Sunday's episode looks back at the antecedents to Prohibition. In the 1830s, the influential preacher Lyman Beecher blasted drink from his pulpit in Litchfield, Conn. (His daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was later a neighbor of Twain's.) A long line of bluenoses followed, and by the beginning of the 20th century, the "anti-saloon" movement became a huge political one, under the guidance of an Ohioan named Wayne B. Wheeler.
The "drys" were pitted against the "wets," with the anti-alcohol forces mostly from rural areas and the pros from largely urban areas. This became a battle of city versus country, and immigrants versus old Protestant stock. Part two (Monday) looks at the results of Prohibition; part three (Tuesday) the 1933 repeal, brought about by the enactment of the 21st Amendment. Long Island's role during Prohibition comes up Monday night. "Rum Row" was a line of bootleg ships permanently stationed three miles off the south shore. The ships, recalls one eyewitness, were like a line of supermarkets. Buyers would go from one to the next to compare prices.
MY SAY The law of unintended consequences has no more perfect a role model than Prohibition. Crime soared, and so did drinking, while government corruption became endemic. Burns and his longtime collaborators, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey Ward, certainly revel in the many ironies of this colossal failure, but they also let the story speak for itself. They tell it all with great energy and clarity but also let viewers draw their own conclusions about the wisdom of social engineering. Even so, a pleasing thrum of nostalgia fills these hours. "Everyone was happy" is an observation repeated many times in the film. Everyone certainly seemed to be.
BOTTOM LINE Burns, Novick and Ward in their element. An enthralling film.