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Culture Cafe

'Prohibition' – so much more than gangsters and flappers

This Sunday (8 to 10 p.m. EDT) Ken Burns turns his prodigious research efforts and illuminating camerawork loose on America's failed attempt to sober up.

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He’s also friends with Lynn Novick, who is my co-director and coproducer on this, a longtime collaborator. And they’d been conspiring, so it was all fortuitous. He was embarking on a book project [about prohibition], and we were happy to share our research with him and he shared his with us.

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Did Daniel Okrent write a companion book about prohibition for your series?
He did a book called “Last Call.” It’s not a companion book.

What was the research like?
It was our usual deep dive.... This required us to take a lot of time, to work with a lot of scholars, to interview a lot of people ... lots of witnesses from all across the country. It required us to find incredible footage in the most unlikely places and, of course, go to hundreds of archival places to find the still photographs [that] make it come alive.

How long did it take to make?
The decision to do it was about six years ago. The actual intense work has been over the last three-plus years. And that’s normal for us.

What was the biggest challenge in pulling it together?
I think understanding the levels and complexity of the story to represent [prohibition accurately.] We are all distracted, understandably, by the gangster story. By the flapper story. And we have that. The film is sexy, and it’s violent, and it’s dramatic. All that stuff.

But invariably we permit Al Capone to distract us from the fact that bankers, newspaper reporters, I’m sure filmmakers, judges, regular people, were routinely breaking the law [to drink alcohol]....

Human beings have been drinking alcohol as long as there have been human beings, and all of a sudden we decided to take what was a very serious social problem – it was called drunkenness in the 19th century, alcoholism today, something that afflicts a terribly large number of people, perhaps 10 percent of the population – and we decided to impose a solution on 100 percent of the people....

We loved getting to know people who would have been front page news in that day besides Al Capone.... [such as] Wayne B. Wheeler [general counsel of the Anti-Saloon League], who said he could make the US Senate sit up and beg. How come we don’t know more about him?

The “drys,” who wanted to end drunkenness, were sincere reformers with an admirable cause. But the question seems to be whether they went about it the right way with the 18th Amendment and prohibition.

They just didn’t really think it through. Because you had Democrats as well as Republicans, you had progressives ... you had the Ku Klux Klan that was for prohibition. So was the NAACP.... The captains of industry, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, were for it because obviously alcohol cut down on output and productivity. So you have all these strange bedfellows....

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