Thursday, October 13, 2011
Prohibition (Florentine Films/PBS, 2011)
by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I spent a large chunk of this morning watching the first episode of Ken Burns’ new series on Prohibition, a short — at least by his standards, just six hours — mini-series that actually traced the roots of the Prohibitionist movement to the 1830’s and the reform movements that were sweeping the country then, and made clear that though prohibition generally (in lower-case referring not only to the “experiment noble in purpose” of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act but the still ongoing, and equally ineffective and counterproductive, “war on drugs”) is considered a Right-wing cause today, the roots of Prohibition were actually progressive. The early abolitionists, including minister Henry Ward Beecher and Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe (whose father, Reverend Lyman Beecher, had delivered the anti-alcohol sermons that kicked off the movement in the 1830’s), were also Prohibitionists (Beecher père, who wasn’t an abolitionist, co-founded the American Temperance Society) and regarded opposition to alcohol as part of the same movement towards moral uplift and reform as opposing slavery and supporting women’s rights. Indeed, as this show chronicles, the entire political awakening of women in the U.S. — women’s discovery that they could be activists in their own right and didn’t have to live their entire lives in subservience first to their fathers and then their husbands — was bound up with the rise of Prohibition.
The first-wave feminists were ardent Prohibitionists because they saw alcohol as the direct cause of female poverty and domestic violence — they saw alcohol as evil because all too many men cashed their week’s paycheck on a Saturday afternoon and headed for the saloon and drank it up (indeed, in an era in which banking services were available only to the most affluent, the saloon often cashed the worker’s paycheck), coming home drunk and often verbally or even physically lashed out at their wives, who had to figure out how to keep themselves and their children going on no money for the next week — and the Prohibition and women’s suffrage movements were so closely associated (the founding mothers of American feminism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were also ardent Prohibitionists) that one of the reasons it took so damned long for women to get the vote in the U.S. was the opposition of the major brewers and distillers, who realized that votes for women would mean far more votes for Prohibition. One of the most interesting phenomena in this show was the “Washingtonian Societies,” founded in 1840 by what would now be called recovering alcoholics; they held meeting at which people who’d had drinking problems met and recounted their experiences to each other — essentially the first iteration of Alcoholics Anonymous, 95 years before today’s AA was founded by Bill Wilson in 1935 (two years after Prohibition was repealed). At the same time there was a parallel anti-drinking movement, the Anti-Saloon League, which was run by men and was essentially the prototype of the single-issue lobbies of today; the architect of their strategy was Wayne Wheeler, their legislative director, who perfected the now-common approach of mobilizing people to vote for or against politicians based solely on their stand on the issue his group was pushing. Needless to say, the program also profiled Carrie Nation, whose direct attacks on saloons with hatchets make her come off in the show as the strategic and tactical ancestor of ACT UP, with a quite familiar-seeming obsession with pushing what she considered a mass health issue by any means necessary.
The political alignments of Prohibition look familiar in some ways and wildly different from those of today in others: as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, including some Zenger’s editorials, in the 1890’s and the 1930’s the Left was actually associated with what would now be called social conservatism — the 1890’s and 1930’s were times of mass Left movements in the U.S. and also times in which the Left united economic progressivism and social conservatism, linking the moral excesses of the 1880’s and the 1920’s with the exploitation of working-class and poor people and calling for a more conservative, more Puritan personal morality, a combination that has been inconceivable since the 1960’s reshuffled the political deck and instead linked progressive economic policies with personal (especially sexual) liberation. A figure like William Jennings Bryan — who, as this show chronicles, originally was for temperance rather than Prohibition (i.e., allowing alcohol to be sold but not using it personally and organizing to encourage people to abstain) but soon realized that he could rebuild his political reputation after three failed Presidential candidacies by putting himself at the head of Prohibition (and later, after his side won that one, anti-evolution) — an economic and public-policy liberal verging on radical and an intense religious and social conservative — would be virtually unimaginable today. Prohibition the movie is a fascinating film on many levels, including showcasing how a determined minority with sufficient organization and discipline can reshape American society through both electoral activism and direct action (the Prohibitionists staged the first March on Washington, an event later copied by the African-American civil rights movement, the anti-Viet Nam War movement, the Queer movement and many others), and it’s also at least something of a retreat from Ken Burns’ previous filmmaking strategy — there are fewer titles and fewer cutesie-poo sequences of unseen voices reading published quotes or letters from the participants — though there’s one annoying cliché he didn’t duck: the use of 1920’s jazz as the basis for his soundtrack (even, rather anachronistically, before his story actually reaches the 1920’s).
At one point we hear Wynton Marsalis (who, because of his anointing as the authority on jazz by Burns and the people running Lincoln Center, has become the most powerful figure in jazz history in terms of defining what is and isn’t considered jazz, and who’s used that power to impose a racialist view of jazz history in which African-Americans are considered not the primary but the only true creators of jazz and all sorts of “fusion” between jazz and contemporary pop are ruled illegitimate — this is a man who actually disowned his own brother Branford for doing an album and tour with Sting!) and a pianist do a pretty good recreation of the 1924 recording of “King Porter Stomp” by King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, and indeed so much of Morton’s music is heard (possibly from his piano rolls, more likely from a modern pianist copying his style) he practically deserves credit for scoring the film. There’s also the almost unbearable irony of Paul Whiteman’s 1928 recording of “Sugar” being used as underscoring and heard (unlike most of the recordings sampled in Burns’ Jazz series) start-to-finish — including the great solo playing by Bix Beiderbecke, who really did drink himself to death on illegal booze … — 10/4/11
Charles and I had the chance to screen the second episode of Prohibition, the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and the episode that first got us into the 1920’s, when Prohibition actually went into effect — and, given that this was an era of fiscally and socially conservative Republican Presidencies and Congresses, the level of funding necessary for any serious enforcement efforts was far from forthcoming; Fiorello La Guardia, a progressive Congressmember from New York City at the time, estimated that in order to enforce Prohibition in New York you would need 250,000 police officers — “and 250,000 other men to watch the police” — and instead only 200 agents were assigned for the entire state (not just the city but also the Long Island coastline and the border with Canada through which legal liquor could relatively easily be smuggled). This show has caused enough consternation among the modern-day prohibitionists in the “War on Drugs” that a former official in Obama’s drug policy office published a Los Angeles Times op-ed trying to blow apart the comparison modern day legalization advocates are making between the failure of alcohol prohibition and the ongoing failure of drug prohibition — but the parallels are so inescapable even the usual hysterical “war on drugs” rhetoric can’t mask them, especially the power criminal organizations acquired from the income from the illicit trade and their ability to use their money to bribe law enforcement and be let alone, often to settle their differences on the streets in drive-by shootings and kill innocent people.
This episode was less interesting than the first one in that it focused less on the politics of Prohibition and more on the personalities involved, though some of the personalities were absolutely fascinating. The story of George Remus, an attorney turned bootlegger and liquor czar, would have made a great 1940’s film noir — one could readily imagine Edward G. Robinson playing him and Barbara Stanwyck playing his wife. Remus represented a husband accused of killing his wife and tried — and failed — to get him off by pleading temporary insanity, and when he realized he could make a lot more money (to please the high-maintenance trophy wife he’d just married after dumping his first one) running an illegal liquor business than being a criminal defense attorney, he searched the Volstead Act (the implementation law for Prohibition) for loopholes and found a big one: whiskey already distilled at the time Prohibition went into effect was grandfathered in and stored in government-bonded warehouses. The key to getting it out again was having a government permit to withdraw it, which involved swearing an affidavit that it would only be used for medicinal purposes (the patent-medicine lobby had been strong enough to get an exception into the Volstead Act that alcohol sold for purely medicinal purposes was still legal) — and by getting an assistant to Harry Daugherty, President Warren G. Harding’s (corrupt) Attorney General, on his payroll, Remus got all the permits he wanted, and then had “gangs” on his payroll “hijack” the shipments of “medicinal” whiskey and divert them to distributors. Eventually he got caught when his man in Daugherty’s office committed suicide and the Prohibition Bureau launched an enforcement effort — and Remus’s trophy wife fell in love with the male Prohibition agent involved in the case, and the two of them looted Remus’s entire fortune so when he returned from his four-year prison sentence, he was penniless. So he waylaid his wife and stepdaughter while they were driving one day, forced their car off the road, killed his wife and got off on the same “temporary insanity” defense he had once unsuccessfully used on a client.
Oddly, the most heroic characters in this story keep turning up on the Prohibition side — in episode one Carrie Nation came off as a spiritual ancestor of ACT UP, heroically using direct action and crimes against property to advance what she saw as the cause of public health; and in this episode Mabel Walker Willebrandt, another heroic woman, was appointed by President Harding as assistant attorney general and put in charge of Prohibition enforcement, a duty she took ultra-seriously (she even insisted on conducting part of George Remus’s prosecution herself!) — which led to one writer of the time commenting that Prohibition was a big joke but someone had forgot to let Ms. Willebrandt in on it. The show also told the story of Roy Olmstead, the “good bootlegger” of Seattle, who made it a point of pride never to palm off adulterated or potentially toxic goods on his customers (of course, living in a state easily accessible from Canada by both land and sea, he didn’t have to!) and who was finally caught by wiretaps on his phone (“whispering wires,” the press of the time called them), and his conviction was upheld by a 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court even though the calls were not actually recorded (the recording technology of 1924 would probably not have been able to record them) and the only documents offered were stenographic transcripts of the calls made “live” by the private detective who was running the taps.
The film mentioned the 1924 Democratic National Convention and the epic 103-ballot battle between “dry” candidate William Gibbs McAdoo and “wet” Al Smith — who as governor of New York had signed a law repealing the state’s tough Prohibition statute and attracted the ire of rural America because he was everything they hated: a Catholic, a “wet,” a progressive and the man behind the unsuccessful attempt (it failed by just one vote!) to get the Democratic convention to condemn the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. It also did a passing mention of the famous Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein (he and his partner were the subject of a quite entertaining TV-movie in the 1970’s starring Jackie Gleason — and the photo of the real Einstein included here suggested that Gleason was excellent casting for the role) in which he kept track of how long it would take between the time he arrived in a new city and the time he would be offered his first drink; not surprisingly, the quickest was New Orleans, when within 35 seconds of his arrival the cab driver taking him into town from the train station pulled out a flask from under his car seat and offered him some. One can readily see why the neo-prohibitionists don’t like this program; though it doesn’t really go out of its way to hammer home the message, the unmistakable lesson is that you can’t keep people from doing something that’s bad for them just by making it illegal — and if you try, all you will do (as real-life Prohibition agent turned repeal advocate Col. Ira Reeves wrote in his 1931 book Ol’ Rum River) is raise the substance’s price and lower its quality, along with fostering a general disrespect for the law and making some very nasty criminals insanely rich. — 10/11/11