Burns and Novick’s Prohibition: Lantzer on Episode Three

Editors’ note: Prohibition, the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, concluded last night.  We’re very pleased to bring Points readers a review of the third episode from historian Jason Lantzer (more on Jason here at the Guest Bloggers page).  Readers may also wish to check out David Fahey on Episode One and Episode Two, and Frankie Bailey on Episode Two.

By the time viewers reach episode three of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition, they have been transported from the early nineteenth century when temperance was but a dream for a nation awash in drink, to the mid-1920s when Prohibition was in place.  The theme is “a nation of hypocrites,” detailing how the United States wrestled with the “noble experiment” and ultimately decided to put it to an end.  And befitting a conclusion, the episode draws many parallels with the Age of Prohibition and our present one.  Whether that is enough for viewers is another question entirely.

Prohibition Repeal Headline
Viewers are shown how immigrants reacted to the law, the excitement of speakeasy culture, the gangsters who helped make it possible, the politicians who fought over it, and the dry and wet forces that battled for and against the Eighteenth Amendment.  Those showcased are Lois Long (writer for The New Yorker, who glamorized breaking the law by drinking for a generation of readers), Al Capone (famed gangster whose rise was facilitated by Prohibition), Al Smith (wet New York politician and 1928 Democratic Party presidential nominee), Mabel Willebrandt (assistant US  attorney general, who helped unleash dry religious and legal forces on Smith’s candidacy), and Pauline Sabin (wealthy Republican socialite who went from supporter of the dry cause to one of its harshest critics and champion of its repeal).  Others who garner some mention in passing are Fiorello LaGuardia (New York Republican Congressman, who consistently asserted his belief in the absurdity of Prohibition), Bishop James Cannon (leading Southern dry who took Wayne Wheeler’s place as the spokesman of the Anti-Saloon League), and presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt (who jointly presided over the last days and death of the noble crusade).  With the cast of characters set, Burns and company begin to explore the decline and repeal of Prohibition, as well as the lingering affects it continues to have, ranging from worries about morality based legislation and proposed Constitutional amendments, the vast difference in drinking today as opposed to pre-Prohibition, as well as the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

As with any Burns miniseries, the viewer gets the full treatment.  Hollywood actors provide the voices for the narration.  Historians and experts are utilized to great effect.  Period photographs and music dominate the screen.  It is well packaged and delivered, and a pleasure to watch.  But that does not mean there is not room to offer a critique. 

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