Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano, the Klu Klux Klan-fighting alcohol sales, corrupt politicians everywhere, an incredible-to-believe liquor mogul named George Remus who referred to himself in the third person like “Jimmy” on Seinfeld…
Are we talking Boardwalk Empire? No, this is Prohibition -- an absolutely engrossing five-and-a-half-hour documentary, presented in three parts, October 2-4, 2011 on PBS, directed by the incredible Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
The groups and forces that created and opposed America’s disastrous experiment in banning booze were more odd and complex than one could ever imagine. And as always, Burns and company deliver us a history lesson but presented in a lively, entertaining package, with fine narration by Peter Coyote, great character voices including John Lithgow, Paul Giamatti, and Samuel L. Jackson, and a knock-out soundtrack by period artists, as well as Winston Marsalis and others. In our humble opinion, a must-watch package!
Buzzine had the pleasure to interview Ken Burns, America’s leading creator of historical documentaries:
Richard Elfman: I found Prohibition not only informative, but -- as usual with you, Ken -- great filmmaking: fun to watch and totally entertaining.
KB: It’s a funny thing – this Prohibition. It zooms past our history books in one paragraph, and yet it’s an incredibly precise way to understand the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The issues it brings up are so contemporary, with single-issue political groups that display the political discourse; a whole group of people who feel they’ve lost touch with their country and want to take it back; unfunded congressional mandates; the demonization of immigrants; smear campaigns during presidential elections – it all seems very familiar.
RE: Absolutely. From watching Prohibition, I was amazed at the complexity of politics and unlikely forces on the “dry” side that conspired to bring it about. You had Frederick Douglas to the Ku Klux Klan, the socialist International Workers of the World to big capitalists like Ford and Carnegie…
KB: It’s pretty amazing, and I think we can see this as initially a progressive impulse to try to cure one of society's big ills in the 19th century, but then it’s hijacked. The whole thing metastasizes with horrible unintended consequences, and you do have this amazing coalition that coalesces around it. And you could say that the majority of Americans had favored some kind of prohibition, but I think everybody woke up with a big surprise – that they assumed this was always prohibition for somebody else -- that they’d have their beer and wine, and the law was both so draconian and so filled with loopholes that you were able to drive a truck – in this case a prohibition truck – through it.
RE: I also hadn’t realized how Prohibition pitted Protestant against Catholic, country versus city, natives versus newcomers…
KB: And it’s not even that easy to do that. I think what’s so clear is that we are an amazing combination of generosity and greed. We are an amazing combination of sincerity and hypocrisy. We are a combination of prurience and…what would you say? Puritanism. We’re Saturday night and we’re Sunday morning, and sometimes it’s not always between people – it’s within people. So you can see Bishop Canon – one of the leaders of the anti-saloon league – falling heir to all the things that flesh is heir to, all the while sanctimoniously decrying the behaviors of others he knows nothing about. These are fantastic stories: number one, interesting people, amazing aspects of democracy that we rarely get a chance to see; but more importantly, by gaining access to the past, we help ourselves understand our present, and that, to me, is a gift of history.
RE: It was interesting to see how the suffrage movement and the temperance movements aligned. Can you tell us a little bit about the sexual politics and the role of the male saloon and that aspect?
KB: It’s an interesting thing because what you see is the first agency for women outside the home in the 19th century, and they are attending to the business of temperance and also abolition of slavery. Suffrage seems like just the most radical idea; we wouldn’t think of asking for the right to vote – we want it just to maybe use that vote to help achieve this much more mainstream goal of temperance and, before that, abolition. But what they’re after is this male-dominated institution called the saloon, which they see as purely evil. It is, of course, more complicated than that, but they see this as purely evil, and if they get rid of the saloon, somehow this is the magic bullet that is going to cure everything – everything that’s wrong with the family, everything that’s wrong with the community, everything that’s wrong with society. The evangelist Billy Sunday rejoiced, when the Prohibition Amendment passed, that Hell will forever be for rent. Everyone thought the slums would empty, everything would be perfect. Of course, it was not perfect; in fact, it was standing-room-only for Hell as a result of this law. [Laughs] But I think what is planted is this seed of women to say: “I can do it!” They are engaged in protests, they are engaged in a Women’s Christian Temperance Union, they are engaged in every level. So ironically, by the time the Prohibition Amendment is passed -- in no small part due to the efforts of their grandmothers and their mothers – the daughters are the ones that are shortening their skirts, bobbing their hair, having premarital sex, and getting drunk in speakeasies, not saloons. No one would ever be caught dead in a saloon if you weren’t male unless you were a prostitute, but the speakeasies -- now that’s a different thing, and that goes back to the original thing – the cautionary tale that Prohibition is because of all of these unforeseen and unintended consequences.
RE: I was quite surprised and informed by Prohibition – there was so much that I hadn’t known about. In your research, were you surprised as well? Anything you didn’t suspect...?
KB: Every single day. We never make films about stuff we know about and then tell you what you should know about. That, the last time I checked, is called “homework.” And every day is a process. We’d rather share with you our enthusiasm at learning new things -- of just how important Wayne B. Wheeler – the general counsel of the Anti-Saloon League was – enough to make the Senate of the United States sit up and beg…and they did. Or just about the Anti-Saloon League. I’d heard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union -- I’d made a film on it before – but I had not known about the Anti-Saloon League and its effect on this. They’re the single greatest lobbying organization in American history, period, full stop. It makes the NRA look like they’re still practicing.
RE: I was astounded with the power of a single-issue group like that.
KB: Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who’s in charge of enforcement in a corrupt justice department – just an amazing figure. Just that every single day, somehow, the country that had just banned the sale of alcohol was the largest importer of cocktail shakers in the world. That’s fantastic! So every day was just a revelation. They come in a blizzard of little facts like that – less significant except in their totality. In the amazing individuals like Mabel Walker Willebrandt, later Pauline Sabin, and before them Wayne Wheeler and Frances Willard – sure, it’s about Al Capone and speakeasies and flappers. We do all that, and it’s sexy and violent and dangerous and exciting, but that also masks that fact that many people – millions of Americans – were breaking the law. It was bankers and newspapermen and filmmakers and lawyers and doctors that were breaking the law – making alcohol, selling it to their neighbors. There was just widespread corruption going on at that time because no one thought the law was right.
RE: For us fans of Boardwalk Empire, which just debuted its new season, Prohibition is an absolute must-see, with Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and all these characters…
KB: And now our great character, George Remus. They’ve just premiered, in their second season – they’ve introduced George Remus. When we finished our film, we locked our picture before the first season of Boardwalk Empire went out, and we’d been talking and commingling with HBO about this, and we were so delighted to have an event at 21 Club a couple of weeks ago, where we showed a scene on George Remus and they showed a scene on George Remus. [Laughs] I had to swear to the press attending that we’d never met each other before and never knew.
RE: By the way, the story of George Remus and Imogen was so utterly fantastic. As fiction, I wouldn’t have accepted it, but it’s history. Tell us just a little bit about George Remus.
KB: As we were working on the George Remus story, we were saying, “My God, this is a feature film!” And then we finished the film and went on about other stuff we were working on and forgetting the final printout, and beginning the promotion, and then we learned that HBO had actually made a character of Remus because he is irresistible. This is a Chicago defense attorney who is quite talented and quite good at what he does, who is just stunned with the ease with which these sort of dumb-as-posts prohibition thugs are peeling off thousand-dollar bills to pay fines, and he thinks, “I’m in the wrong racket.” Moves to Cincinnati, shrewdly understanding that, within 300 miles is most of the locked-up, padlocked, bonded whiskey in old shuttered distilleries and other government warehouses, and that if he can just bribe officials to get withdrawal permits, form his own drug company, form his own shipping company, arrange to have his own shipments hijacked, and then have the booze put into the illegal bootleg market, he’ll make millions…which is what he did. And I’m only halfway through the story. It gets only better, and I’m not gonna ruin it.
RE: If Shakespeare were around today, certainly we would have read about George Remus…
KB: You couldn’t get a megalomaniac that rivals anyone. He referred to himself in the third person, so much so that Boardwalk Empire has turned it into a hilarious scene, as have we have as well, quoted in our film perfectly by the voice Paul Giamatti.
RE: All the fans of Boardwalk Empire are going to enjoy it even more after watching Prohibition, and vice versa.
KB: We see this as a purely symbiotic event. I remember when the Civil War series came out, there was the Battle Cry of Freedom on the Best Seller list, the movie Glory was shortly to appear, and you just felt that the Civil War was in the zeitgeist. It’s what we needed to know about, and we felt fortunate to be able to apprehend that, however consciously or unconsciously in advance. And with Prohibition, I went to HBO two months ago and said, “This is an enormous opportunity for the both of us,” and they said, “We agree.” So we’ve done a few events together, and I think that, for those people who have been enjoying Boardwalk Empire, you can take a look at what we’ve done and get, perhaps, the background story on it all, or a deeper dive on some of the aspects there; and for those who are loyal to PBS and the works that we’ve done, there is an extraordinary drama over on HBO that you should check out.
RE: One absolutely compliments the other…
KB: I think so, in the best way, and I must say the apotheosis of this was this lunch at 21 (in New York) where Terry Winter (HBO) was screening a bit, and I was screening a bit with Lynn Novick, who is the co-director and co-producer, and our George Remus scene is almost identical to theirs. One is documentary and one is fiction, but it drew huge roars from the crowd, and I had to ensure the press present that we’d never met each other, we’d never compared notes; this was just a happy accident of two good stories, we think, well-told.
RE: That’s amazing! And finally, Ken, what brought you to Prohibition?
KB: I’ve got a friend, Dan Okrent, who wrote a book – Last Call – that was published a year and a half ago, and I’ve known him for two decades. He was a commentator on our Baseball series and Jazz series, and most recently in our update of the Baseball series. I bumped into him six years ago on the Brooklyn Bridge – the subject, coincidentally, of my first PBS film – and I was pushing a newborn baby across, and she’s now in the first grade. He said, “I know what your next film is going to be,” and I looked at him and said, “I know what my next five films are going to be.” And he said, “Oh, okay. Well I know what your sixth film is gonna be” [laughs], and he had already talked to Lynn, who he is also friends with and sees socially, and all three of us agreed this would be a fantastic project to do. Because of that, I didn’t know that kind of aspect to it in every way, shape, or form, and he proceeded sort of on a parallel track. We benefitted from his research; I hope he benefitted from ours. We have stories that are in his book; we have stories that aren’t in his book. He appears in our film… It was just a great – again, like HBO – kind of symbiotic thing.