Ken Burns' Prohibition: Bootleggers, Organized Crime + The Glamorization of Getting Blitzed

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Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Prohibition-era peep hole - CHICAGO TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO
  • Chicago Tribune file photo
  • Prohibition-era peep hole

We all know that Prohibition was a brief, controversial, Jazz Age constitutional amendment that made drinking a big, jail-worthy offense, and turned on a spigot of organized crime instead. But did you know about the saga of how criminalizing the sale, manufacture and transporting of all things firewater became law (thus making it incredibly glamorous to drink intoxicating beverages)? Or what sorts of cash-generating industries sprang up around the ban? Or that the 18th amendment is so crazy and oddly contemporary-sounding (hello anti-everything Tea Partiers) that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick turned it into a must-see three-day, 5 ½ hour PBS television event?

Called Prohibition, the documentary will air on October 2, 3 and 4th. And to celebrate this event, we caught up with Brooklyn-born, Emmy-winning Burns to talk 1920's America, the war between the "wets" and the "drys" and why he's never sampled the grain alcohol, water, juniper berries and glycerin concoction known as "bathtub gin."

click to enlarge NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
  • New York Daily News
Squid Ink: How did you become fascinated by the idea of doing a documentary about a law that banned the one thing that makes many people feel life is worth living?

Ken Burns: You're first drawn to the great stories about the compelling individuals you've never heard of -- like Wayne B. Wheeler or Mabel Walker Hillebrand or the bootlegger Roy Olmstead or George Remus. Then you begin to realize that the collision of these stories and how [current] they feel. You have single-issue campaigns and the demonization of immigrants and the whole group of people who want to take back their country. It just sounds like today. You don't even have to point arrows at it. You just tell the story and it's really obvious.

SI: Like making a connection between the German-bashing of that era and the French hating that swept the country when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003?

KB: Yes. When Germans became our enemies "sauerkraut" became "Liberty Cabbage," and you think, "Wow! Isn't that like Freedom Fries?"

SI: Did you go into the project knowing that Prohibition was essentially a law that targeted people who moved here from other countries?

KB: I knew there was a dimension to it where the countryside was pitted against the cities and [by countryside] that would mean the folks that are trying to cling to the myth of an agrarian Jeffersonian America that, in point of fact, never really was. That these were people who were scared of all the very different changes as that came with Catholics and Jews from Central and Southern Europe arriving here. African Americans, newly freed, started sort moving to the North and exerting what little political power they might have, and Prohibition was an attempt to regulate them.

SI: One point you drive home is that in Europe a bar was (and is) so much more than a place to get a nice glass of red wine...

KB: ...It was a political center, a social center, a job center, a translation center, a place to have your mail delivered. Human beings have been drinking since there were human beings. People say, "Oh, you can't legislate morality." Well we DO legislate morality. We have laws against murder and stealing. But in this case, this was something that lots of people had always done and then all of the sudden they were told, "Oh, you can't do that anymore." Unless you had a perfect law perfectly applied, it wasn't going to work. It was an imperfect law and it was imperfectly applied -- and it was a DISASTER.

This just tells you that sometimes these tensions that we see in America between Puritanism and prurience, between generosity and greed, between Saturday night and Sunday morning, aren't just between us. They're within us. Is it so shocking these days that we hear about some evangelical preacher who's been railing against homosexuality turns out to have visited a male prostitute? Nope.

SI: Your documentary Prohibition and HBO's Prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire overlap in so many ways. Was this coincidence or a 150% proof plan?

KB: We just had a wonderful co-mingling of our forces at the 21 Club, the old speakeasy in New York City with the head of HBO, the head of PBS and Terence Winter, the creative guy behind Boardwalk Empire and Lynn and me, and we just talked about the similarities.

SI: Are you referring to George Remus, the real-life wildly successful bootlegger who appears on both shows and who was so nuts that he spoke of himself in the third person?

KB: Yes. I loved George Remus. I thought "Why isn't there a feature film about him?" and then my wish comes true because he's a big part of Boardwalk Empire, which isn't a feature film but still. I saw [Terence Winter's] George Remus for the first time [that night] and he saw my George Remus for the first time and it was hilarious. [The two shows combined] give you a deeper dive into everything, into what the Women's Christian's Temperance movement and how it actually came about, into the intricacies of the bootlegging industries across the country. Our film complements your enjoyment of Boardwalk Empire. If you're a fan of documentaries, it's really wonderful to have a drama that extends out imaginatively about the lives of the people you've been hearing about.

SI: Just to be thorough, did you drink bathtub gin?

KB: No, I didn't.

SI: Not even a sip? Why NOT?

KB: I'm not much of a drinker. I have a little bit now and then. But through most of the Prohibition project I was myself tee-totaling, not through any sort of desire but because every once in a while I just do that, just to get a lot more work done. With four daughters, one grand-daughter and eight film projects, you got to keep going.

SI: The people who created the documentary about Prohibition were all abstainers? There is a joke here but we're not sure what it is.

KB: No. We did do a lot of filming of [liquor being poured into glasses] and there was lots of sampling of the rye and the whiskey and the various stuff. But [assembling a 5 ½ hour documentary] is very unglamorous: When you're working 14 hours a day the last thing you want is a drink. We're in Boston today and just an hour or so ago, we were in a bar, an old speakeasy, and at one point someone said, "Can I serve you something?" and I was like, "Are you kidding? It's 10 a.m. I'm working. I'll have some water, please."

SI: According to your documentary, New York was the wettest city in the country. What was Los Angeles's wetness ranking?

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