PBS Previews | Prohibition
Special | 22m 35s | Video has closed captioning.
A 30 minute preview of Prohibition and a Q&A with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
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Special | 22m 35s | Video has closed captioning.
A 30 minute preview of Prohibition and a Q&A with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
Problems Playing Video? | Closed Captioning
(upbeat jazz music) - Prohibition started when I met an old friend, Daniel Okrent, who is a writer.
Who was the first public editor of the New York Times, and was in our Baseball series.
And we sort of exchanged pleasantries, and I asked him what he was working on, and he said that he wanted to work on a book about Prohibition, and he wanted me to make a film about it.
- We were busy working on our World War II film, and there really wasn't time to do anything about it, but as we progressed through that project, he was working on his book, and we eventually decided that we would go forward.
- 1:45 offset mark.
- Willard's power was such that she was able to have her movement reach into all aspects of American life.
- Working with him.
Learning from what he learned about the subject during our own research, and kind of having the two projects on parallel tracks, but sort of mutually supporting each other.
And that was the genesis of the film.
- How the hell did that happen?
How does a freedom loving people, a nation that's built on individual rights and liberties, decide in one kind of crazed moment, it almost seems, that we can tell people how to live their lives.
(jaunty jazz music) - Prohibition is the story of people on the left and on the right, in the north and in the south, and black and white, arguing that human beings should have to give up what human beings have always had for centuries.
And it didn't work.
And the story of it not working is so instructive in so many other ways.
It's really about single issue campaigns that metastasize.
The demonization of immigrants, smear campaigns against politicians, unintended consequences, unfunded mandates, a whole host of things that if you just divorced it from the subject of prohibition you'd say I'm talking about it right now.
And in a way we are.
The great gift of history is it permits us access to human nature that is now over with.
The stories of human beings engaged in stories that are done, and they can be extraordinarily instructive.
- [Man] They say that the British cannot fix anything properly without a dinner.
But I'm sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink.
If you meet you drink, if you make acquaintance you drink, if you close a bargain you drink.
They drink because it's hot.
They drink because it's cold.
If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice.
If not, they drink and swear.
They begin to drink early in the morning.
They leave off late at night.
They commence it early in life, and they continue it until they soon drop into the grave.
Captain Frederick Marryat.
(melancholy piano music) - Prohibition didn't happen overnight.
Prohibition was the result of almost 100 years of people being concerned about alcoholism, about what to do about all the problems that it caused in families, and in society.
It was all happening in the late 19th century, early 20th century, against the backdrop of a country that was rapidly changing.
And many, many people really were disturbed by that.
In a way, alcohol came to be seen as the problem.
If we could fix the problem we have with alcohol, then all of our other concerns about where America is headed will miraculously just go away.
- There is a belief in human perfectability.
That humans can be perfect.
And alcohol is the fly in the ointment.
You could have a perfect marriage, if it weren't for alcohol.
You could have a perfect husband, if it weren't for alcohol.
You could have a perfect community, if it weren't for alcohol.
And alcohol, in a way, becomes the scapegoat for all of the failures in society.
(upbeat jazz music) - [Narrator] The fourth of July was only days away.
By then, Olmstead's backlog of orders was so great that the bootlegger, himself, rushed around the city with his men helping make deliveries.
- [Campbell] You're gonna be unlucky one of these days, Roy doing that.
- [Tom] No, I don't think so.
- [Campbell] The federals will slip up on you.
- No, the city won't.
And those other sons of bitches are too slow to catch cold.
- That was wonderful.
- [Tom] Let's do it again.
- This will be take six.
Picking the voices is always really fun.
First, we have to pick the quotes that they're gonna read, to find the characters.
And then, once we have a sense of what the different voices are gonna be, we sit around and we talk about, you know, who might be good for this part, or that part.
- Coshocton, Ohio.
It is easy enough to conquer a man, if you only know how.
- What we try to do is get actors to come in who could read multiple parts because we're not really sure who will be best at which part.
We're not offering them a particular part.
We're offering them to come in for a couple of hours, and just read a bunch of different stuff.
And then, when we get back we actually listen to each person's version of every voice, and pick who is best for that particular voice.
- This is voice 3.41, F. Scott Fitzgerald, take one.
There are so many wonderful people who have read for us over the years, and who read for us here.
- We were the most powerful nation on earth, who could tell us any longer what was fashionable, and what was fun.
- And helped this idea of mine, that you could have a chorus of first person voices that would help wake the past up.
That if you could hear the way people spoke in letters, and journals, and diaries, and newspaper accounts, that you could get a sense of the people then lived lives not too different from ours.
That we could make the tragic, the exultant, and the heroic come alive in their own words.
(laughs) That's great.
- We had Patricia Clarkson come in.
Who we had never worked with before, and was a true joy.
- She came in and got me.
Because she said, now do you just want this with a Kansas accent, and we knew that Carrie Nation was from Kansas, or do you want a little Tennessee, because of course she grew up in Tennessee.
Or I could mix the two.
She's just marvelous, and inhabits the words in the best sense of what these first person voices are supposed to do.
- [Patricia] I told the owner Mr. Dobson, get out of the way I don't wanna strike you, but I'm gonna break up this den of vice.
(glass breaking) I began to throw at the mirror, and the bottles below the mirror.
Mr. Dobson, and his companion, jumped into a corner, seemed very much terrified.
From that, I went to another saloon, until I had destroyed three.
The other dive keepers closed up, stood in front of their places, and would not let me in.
- [Ken] This will be take one.
- I'm willing to talk to anybody, any place, to bring about a settlement.
- Paul Giamatti was really fun to work with.
We'd never worked with him before.
He has a great sense of humor.
He's super smart.
- Paul Giamatti who we all know is a terrific actor.
And he reads George Remus, who is this wonderful, colorful bootlegger.
And he takes George Remus, this supreme egomaniac, but a genius at figuring out how to get around the Volstead Act, and the Prohibition law, and is just wonderful.
- [Paul] I was impressed by the rapidity with which those men, without any brains at all, piled up fortunes in the liquor business.
The more I studied the Volstead Act, the more I was convinced of its frailties.
And so I decided to get in on the ground floor.
Strike while the iron was hot.
- This film has a lot of humor.
So, we've been looking for actors who can bring that kind of comic sensibility.
There are some very serious things in it, but there's also a ton of humor.
(laughing) - I think Ken does with all of the subjects that he covers, is he turns it into pure human terms that we recognize in our own day, and possibly in our own philosophies, and how we practice them.
And I'm not complaining now.
I violated the law.
That is always wrong.
And now, I'm going to pay the penalty.
It is my own fault.
Every bootlegger goes into the game for the same thing, the dollar.
(upbeat jazz music) - Never underestimate the need for young dopes to defy the conventional laws.
You want them to brush their teeth, make it illegal.
Make toothpaste illegal, and they'll be standing on the roof brushing away.
It's natural to human beings.
I think it's a healthy thing.
- There are some laws that are put in the books, that we inherited down through the ages of civilization that make sense.
You shouldn't kill other people.
But when you impose a new law that's so radically different.
That sort of runs against the grain of what human beings have done in almost every culture for all of human time, you're gonna create opposition to it.
Almost from the beginning, people wanted to have a drink, and they saw to it.
- It didn't take a lot of brains to make a lot of booze.
Then, you just had to get the people to buy it.
First, you invited in your neighbors.
If you ended up with a pretty good product, more neighbors came.
And then, the police came.
And you provided them with some whiskey, and with some money.
And everybody was happy.
- You ask about my father.
I never saw fear in his face.
He was running a business like Prohibition hadn't happened, you know.
And he was supplying a need.
Like Macy's and Bloomingdale's today.
They're supplying a need.
They're supplying product.
And that's how he looked at it.
He had, at one time, five what you'd call cordial stores, but they were actually liquor stores right in Midtown Manhattan.
It was on 49th Street, between Broadway and Seventh.
In the window, there would be lithograph bottles of ginger ale, Coca-Cola, but if you went in you could buy a bottle of liquor.
Now, these five cordial stores produced a lot of income.
And in the morning, I would come into the dining room, and there would be money, money, money all over the dining room table.
And I knew we were rich.
I said, "Pop, how are you able to operate "right in Midtown?"
He says, "Son, every cop knows what's going on, "and every cop gets a little something from me "on a weekly basis, and that's how it is."
- There were thousands of speakeasies in Manhattan alone.
It's just an unbelievable number.
Someone once said, that all you needed was a bottle and two glasses, and that would make a speakeasy.
- Most women who were working didn't make enough money to go to nightclubs to spend their evenings drinking and dancing in the arms of dashing young men.
That simply wasn't available to most people.
This is still a country in which there are deep inequities.
But they could read about what it was like to be a young, single, liberated woman who goes to all the right nightclubs, who drinks all of the right liquors, who knows all of the right people.
- [Woman] Another thing that your most high-hat friends have recently discovered is the Cotton Club in Harlem.
I cannot believe that most of them realize that they are listening to probably the greatest jazz orchestra of all time, which is Duke Ellington's.
I'll fight anyone who says different.
It is barbaric, and rhythmic, and brassy, as jazz ought to be.
And it is all too much for an impressionable girl.
- You gave incentive to criminals to make money on something that had previously been the fifth largest industry in the United States.
So, once you make that illegal, there's still a demand for it, but now criminals want to take advantage of that.
So, you put enormous amounts of money in the hands of criminals, which made them more powerful.
They could corrupt the political process, they could corrupt law enforcement, and basically operate, more or less, with impunity.
So, that was never foreseen, and a hugely important problem that Prohibition created.
Sort of laid the foundation for organized crime.
- [Oliver] Some call it bootlegging, some call it racketeering, I call it a business.
They say I violate the Prohibition law, who doesn't.
All I ever did was sell beer and whiskey to our best people.
All I ever did was to supply a demand that was pretty popular.
Why the very guys that made my trade good, are the ones that yell loudest at me.
Some of the leading judges use the stuff.
They talk about me not being on the legitimate.
Nobody's on the legit.
- We've created a criminal underclass.
And another unintended consequence.
Women were never patrons of the saloons that were the hated object of the Prohibitionists.
But the speakeasies that opened in their place were unregulated, there were no hours so kids drank, and women drank.
And all of a sudden, female alcoholism, which was nonexistent at the beginning of Prohibition is a huge, or much greater, social problem at the end of it.
It just goes on and on.
The hypocrisy of the politicians who were voting dry so that they could get reelected, or get the money from the drys, but who were living wet.
And the hypocrisy that bred was about contempt ultimately for the law.
And so, in so many ways, this was doomed to failure.
And how it failed is so interesting.
- [Josh] Prohibition is not a matter of abstract morals.
It is a matter of social welfare.
Viewed in this light, it is the greatest and most interesting experiment that has ever been tried in the history of civilization.
It is certainly worth trying fairly and honestly.
We believe that a substantial majority of Americans want that trial made.
- No one could mistake the idea that there was a national condemnation of alcohol.
I think that was crystal clear.
But the question of what it would mean in practice was gonna have to be worked out through the legal system.
Through laws passed by Congress, and perhaps even more importantly than that, through the way that local and federal authorities would enforce those laws.
Because to pass a law in the real world means nothing.
To enforce the law means everything.
- [Man] Take 31, Hard time, one.
(jazz music) - We are here recording Wynton and his great musicians.
World class jazz musicians that are so generous to come and play for us.
In this case, Prohibition, mainly the 1920s, is just a treasure trove of great musical expression.
- We had some things that we knew we wanted to use.
We had some things of Wynton's that we were hoping to use.
We described some vibes that we wanted from him, and he composed to that some wonderful, wonderful themes that we use throughout the film.
And that's the great gift of working with Wynton, you always get more than you ask for.
(jazz music) - You know, arguably New York is the wettest city in the country.
It's the place where there are bars on every block.
Where everyone, every culture, every heritage, had some strong connection to alcohol.
If this was going to work, you had to make it work in New York, or the whole thing was worthless.
- I wrote a piece called Gangsters that I composed, A minor blues called Fire in the Night.
I composed that one.
The people, they were first exposed to New Orleans jazz when the original Dixieland Jazz Band came to New York that became the national music.
Everyone was dancing to a jazz soundtrack.
That became known as the jazz age.
People with a lot more promiscuity.
People they moved to the city, they were dancing, they were having a good time.
They were drinking.
Money was flowing.
Good old fashion American corruption.
- We went to him, and we sat down with him and spoke for half a day about the kind of stories that we were telling, and the kind of themes that we were looking for.
- Now, when they play the chord they gonna play on is a minor blues.
- He'd play something, and then we go, yeah that one, and let's give up this one.
So, we basically put our arm around a bunch of tunes that we like.
And then, we'll let this music coexist with a developing script, with a developing shooting schedule, with the developing editing.
That's allowing the music to be an authentic member of the team, and not something that's an afterthought.
(jaunty jazz music) - I think there are really two reasons that people obey the law.
One is when they just understand from the world around them, from their parents, from the traditions of their culture, from their neighbors, that this is the rule, and everybody follows it.
I think for laws that have been around for a long time, and seem to have the power of moral suasion behind them, this is a powerful reason that people follow the law.
The second reason is that they're afraid of getting caught, and getting punished.
This is much more important when you have a brand new law, and where people are not completely convinced that the law is inherently moral.
- We found the story of Prohibition to be so fresh, and compelling, because human nature is the same in every era.
So, people behave the way they behave whether it's 1920 or 2010.
It's the original culture war.
And we're still fighting it.
So, even though it's history from seemingly a long time ago, it could've happened yesterday, and it's actually still happening today.
- [John] June 1924.
And the white, protestant, Nordic delegates from the Christian Endeavor regions of the south and middle west arrive in the big town their tongues hanging out.
They will get all that they have dreamed of all these months.
It will cost them somewhat more than the dreadful corn liquor of their native steps, but they will quickly get too much aboard to bother about money.
In brief, I formally prophesy that the Democratic National convention will be as wet as Democratic National conventions have always been.
And that the Prohibitionist delegates, as always, do more than their fair share of guzzling.
- I think it goes way back to Robin Hood, and things like that.
That there was a myth of the person who breaks the law when it's a stupid law to give people what they want.
Once the government begins forbidding things, then somebody will come along and say, "I got it.
Step around the corner."
- We argue today about the role of government.
Well, this is government's heavy hand in our lives that touched into every living room, every dining room, of every house in America.
Now, many people in the beginning, most people went willingly along with this, but enough people did not at the beginning, and that grew to a huge amount of people.
And when the Great Depression hit, and jobs were at a premium, it suddenly seemed that, you know, in the midst of hard times, maybe having a drink at the end of the day wasn't such a bad thing.
In the midst of hard times, maybe if you could put people back to work in the breweries again, in the distilleries again, that would put a lot of people back to work.
And, in fact, it did.
And so I think a culmination of things, and a lot of it had to do with that very age that post-World War I age, that we call the Jazz Age, that just wasn't going to be told by their elders that they couldn't do something.
That's what makes it a classic American story.
It tells us not only about who we were, but who we are.
(jazz piano music)
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