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Prohibition is an Awful Flop, We Like It

Daniel J. Kelley 27 October 2011 13 Comments

Lavishly produced, including faithfully recreated period music and a treasure trove of archival films and photographs, the latest “documentary” from Ken Burns managed to narrowly miss the mark. In most American colleges and universities, Burns would receive an “A+” if he submitted an essay resembling his television documentary adaptation of Geoffrey Ward’s script, but that would be due to carelessness or an inattention to detail on the part of his docile professor.

As always, the film is beautifully composed. There are some seductive inserts of bottling plant assembly line machinery and a perfectly realized sequence of a properly prepared whiskey old fashion cocktail being made (always muddle the bar sugar and add bitters). Some of these sequences border upon being high quality advertising agency pornography produced for a liquor industry client. There are no sweaty laborers in crude overalls ordering Boilermakers in the final cut of the new “filler” scenes added to the archival footage. Burns resorts to his customary tropes of photographing governmental buildings at twilight. Ken Burns knows his real audience, his business partners, the folks at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (your tax dollars at work) prefer sophisticated cocktails rather than canned beer served with a bag of pork rinds.

As expected, the series was widely praised by the media critics, but is it historically accurate? Yes and no.

The production is marred by numerous historical errors and omissions, large and small, including some which were repeated in print on the companion PBS web site: Dean O’Banion did not live until 1926 as he was killed by rival gangsters in November of 1924; a montage of Chicago gangsters murdered during 1926 and 1927 gang war includes “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, who was actually killed a full decade later; The political comeback election of Mayor William Hale Thompson, Jr., in 1927, was described as a “landslide,” but, in truth, he was elected by a much smaller margin, with 51.5 percent of the vote (by about roughly 83,000 votes citywide), than he had obtained in his initial mayoral election triumph in 1915; similarly, the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, Governor Al Smith of New York, was not defeated on account of the immense popularity of the Republican presidential incumbent since Herbert C. Hoover had not served as president prior to 1929; Hoover had served as a cabinet member (Secretary of Commerce), but he was elected to his first and only term in office after the incumbent president, Calvin Coolidge, famously chose not to run in 1928 (this particular piece of inaccurate presidential information was posted on the companion PBS web site);

The documentary describes Hoover’s Electoral College landslide as the end of Smith’s political career. This shorthand ignores the plain fact that “The Happy Warrior” made a strong final bid for the Democratic nomination in 1932. Smith and his loyalists had enough power at the convention to force the eventual nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to somewhat reluctantly endorse a strong “wet” plank in the party platform that called for the legalization of 3.2 percent beer in advance of the repeal of the 18th Amendment.

The floor fight at the nominating convention held in Chicago had other consequences.
Roosevelt was finally nominated on the fourth ballot and a certain Chicago mayor incurred Franklin’s displeasure. Anton Cermak, who had acted as a political lobbyist for liquor industry interests while simultaneously holding various state and local elected offices, had to rush to Miami to seek an audience with Roosevelt in February of 1933, in advance of the March inauguration. The President-elect was nursing a grudge against Cermak, who had actively supported Smith’s candidacy at the 1932 convention. “Pushcart Tony” went to Florida in order to mend political fences and to seek federal financial assistance for cash strapped Chicago. He was struck by an assassin’s bullet while shaking hands with Roosevelt at the Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. He succumbed on March 6, 1933 and his killer, Giuseppe Zangara, was executed two weeks later. Arguments continue to this day if Cermak rather than Roosevelt was Zangara’s intended target. Cermak had opposed the ambitions of Al Capone’s successor, Frank Nitti, and favored rival gangsters who were looking to open local breweries following repeal. Many Chicagoans believe that Cermak was the target of an authorized hit.

The documentary praises Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as a feminist heroine while politely ignoring her bizarre personal lifestyle (cross dressing in masculine attire and conducting numerous lesbian affairs on two continents with her intimates who affectionately called her “Frank”) which marked her as something of a fanatical crackpot as well as a prohibitionist. Willard’s organization was not above employing racist arguments to promote prohibition. Negro men were supposedly transformed into bestial brutes by the demon rum. Before the Twenties, the corner saloon was decidedly a male institution that was routinely off limits to women. It was also a political gathering place as many taverns were owned by ward politicians, so the W.C.T.U., headquartered in Evanston, Illinois, aligned itself with the suffragettes.

In faulting Protestant evangelicals, Klansmen and other bigots and xenophobes for supporting Prohibition, the documentary gently sidesteps the significant role of their numerous Progressive allies in the unlikely coalition that secured the passage of the 18th Amendment. President Woodrow Wilson opposed alcohol prohibition, but his veto was overridden by the Congress. The direct references to the role of Progressives in the “dry” movement are kept to an absolute bare minimum by Burns. I counted a grand total of two such comments in over five hours of broadcasting. Politically correct orthodoxy demanded no less and Burns did not disappoint his benefactors. After all, the heirs to the Progressive movement are the same folks who want to mandate government sponsored healthcare and to outlaw cigarette smoking and the use of certain cooking fats.

There are some photographic non-sequiturs in the finished film as well. When the documentary narrator (actor Peter Coyote) described how Federal court dockets became crowded with defendants arrested for Volstead Act violations, Burns selected several still photographs from “The Chicago Daily News” archives to illustrate this point. The Honorable John R. Caverly, whose legal and judicial career was advanced by two notorious Chicago aldermen, “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, is depicted in a sidebar conference with attorneys, but Caverly was a local Circuit Court Judge, not a federal jurist. The photo was taken while Caverly was presiding in the Leopold and Loeb kidnapping and murder trial at the old Criminal Courts Building on Illinois Street. Similarly, a photo used to illustrate a despondent Volstead Act violator seated in a courtroom is actually that of Harvey W. Church, a Chicago railroad brakeman, who murdered two automobile salesmen in order to steal a brand new Packard vehicle. Church was convicted of these two murders and executed by hanging. While it is not uncommon for documentary films to incorporate stock footage and photos to illustrate various points, Burns has twisted the predicate facts to use photographs wholly unrelated to Prohibition activities simply to make use of visually interesting insert shots.

I could go on at further length, but what would be the point? One would think that Burns and Ward or their staffers would simply engage in some basic fact checking.

The series presents a composite history of prohibition which repeats many oft told yet widely accepted canards and embellished generalizations while occasionally creating brand new mistakes. The historical analysis provided is flavored with the leftist biases so common to historians and commentators who favored the New Deal Democratic Era to the Republican Twenties. In truth, there was, of course, a decidedly bipartisan flavor to the Prohibitionist movement. Hypocrisy abounded. The elites continued to consume intoxicating beverages legally from their well provisioned club rooms or private wine cellars (alcohol stockpiled before the effective date of 18th Amendment could be consumed in private without violating the law) while nodding with approval at the notion that restrictions upon personal liberty were the perfect tonic for other people as opposed to sophisticated “people like us.”

I so wanted to enjoy “Prohibition,” as I had liked some of the previous historical documentaries that Burns had made, but this one did not quite measure up.


Daniel J. Kelley is a contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer” who prefers Canadian blended whiskies. A portion of this article was used for an online review of the commercial DVD of the same television series.


  • Frank DeBarnone said:

    When in making a movie, the Director, Producer, and Editors think
    more about how it will be received at the pre-release private showings
    post parties, with long lists of Liberal benefactors, this is what you get.

    The movie simply becomes the trite and pompous food for thought that is carried around on a silver tray by a white gloved waiter post viewing. This celluloid cuisine affords one the opportunity to pontificate wildly about all things liberal and “true”.

    I am sure there was more than one leftist weirdo there in prohibition
    period attire trying to act the part as if they just walked off one of the parts.

    Thank God, some Celluloid Heroes really do die.

  • Pat Hickey said:

    Well, done Dan and it was especially nice to see you present Frank Willard in her best light. They don’t make men like that woman these days.

  • Marty Robinson said:

    Excellent diagnosis Dan. Historical errors and political bias aside, I must admit I enjoyed the series. Is Dean O’Banion the same guy as Dion O’Banion?

  • Dan Kelley said:

    @Marty Robinson:

    It is the same guy.

    According to O’Banion family members, he was always referred to as “Dean” or “Deanie.” Somewhere along the line, the newspapers started spelling his name “Dion” and it stuck. Similarly, many articles and books mistakenly referred to O’Banion being a native of Aurora, Illinois. He was actually raised in Downstate Maroa, Illinois.


  • John Powers said:

    The Daniel Okrent companion book handled the issue of Progressive busy-bodies pretty well. Must have been Burns and his film-editors who cut that part, as I am pretty sure you are right DK, pointing out the unpleasantries of your donors doesn’t bring much money in.

  • Bessie said:

    Thank you….great article…Have you seen the “Boardwalk Empire” series?

  • Dan Kelley said:

    Another book worth reading is “Ardent Spirits” by John Kobler. It was published during the 1970s, but it is worth seeking out.

  • John Powers said:

    I think O’Banions father was a barber in Maroa.

    It is a neighboring town to Wapella, which is where I am from. According to local lore, they went to Mass at St. John the Baptist in Clinton, which was a Mission of St. Patrick’s in Wapella in those days. There was and still is no Catholic Church in Maroa.

  • Rufino Torres said:

    Excellent work Dan. This is why I distrust television as a serious medium. I understand that Ken Burns’ genius is blending artistry with fact. Just fact would be boring television, and just art wouldn’t hold your interest for two long.

    When you blend artistry with fact, there’s going to be some serious give and take. Sounds like ‘fact’ took a couple of takes here. Were there similar sloppy errors in Burns’ other documentaries?

  • Dan Kelley said:

    O’Banion’s father was employed as a barber for a time.

    As for Ken Burns, consider the fact that he has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party (reportedly more than $40,000.00 to date). With the limits placed upon the dollar amounts that an individual can make in Federal campaign contributions, that is proof positive that Burns is decidedly partisan. It also may be a sign that he recognizes where his funding is coming from as a film maker.

    Burns has also allegedly praised Obama as the most important American since Lincoln. If true, that statement tells you something about the political perspective that Burns brings to his projects. What is harmful is that impressionable students may think that his documentaries are truthful accounts of American history rather than slickly produced propaganda.

  • jmk said:

    Obama is the most important American since Emil Jones.

  • Pat Hickey said:

    Not only did Burns botch Frank Willard and misplace Deany O’Bannion’s influence, he states that the first use of Thompson sub-machinegun was by Joe Saltis – Nope Frank McErlean shot up the front of the drug store at 63rd & Western trying to kill Spike O’Donnell – the only beer war survivor to die in his bed . . .well, Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park.

  • Jim Ridings said:

    Another brilliant essay, Professor Kelley. I, also, was very disappointed in the series. I agree that this was more of an academic term paper than an interesting film. What subject could be more interesting than Prohibition, Al Capone, gangsters and beer wars? So why did Burns make it so dull? Again, it was the academic approach — in this 6-hour series, why was so litte time given to the gangsters and the violence? Al Capone was only a footnote in this series, and Mayor Big Bill Thompson was barely mentioned. Governor Len Small was not mentioned at all. It was Thompson and Small’s complicity, and their own corruption, that allowed the gangsters to flourish in Chicago. The bigger story is that it was Prohibition that enabled Organized Crime to become big time, something that continues today. That fact is ignored in Burns’ series, which preferred to focus on the social opposition to alcohol and drunkenness. To that I say, Who Cares??

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