Ken Burns brings back 'Prohibition'
Television • Three-part, six-hour documentary is full of surprises.
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If there's one disappointment for local viewers about Ken Burns' three-part, six-hour documentary "Prohibition," it's that Utah doesn't figure more prominently.

After all, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, thus ending the 14-year ban on the sale and production of alcohol in the United States.

Why not make more of the irony of which state ended Prohibition?

"You mean Nebraska?" said Burns, who was quickly corrected by his co-director/co-producer, Lynn Novick.

"Utah," she said. "We think it spoke for itself."

"Yeah," agreed author Daniel Okrent (Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition), who consulted on the documentary. "That shows how unpopular Prohibition was if Utah was the 36th to do it."

Burns, whose previous PBS productions encompass everything from "The Civil War" to "Baseball" to "Jazz," does his usual exceptional job with "Prohibition." At six hours, it's not so long that it's off-putting.

"The conventional image of the Prohibition era is, of course, the rain-slicked Chicago streets around which the Model T is careening, machine guns blasting," Burns said. "Or the flapper who is shimmying in her miniskirt with her bobbed hair. We have a lot of that, and it is very exciting and sexy and violent. But the story that we told also encompassed other things, and indeed our whole first episode details the century of events that led up to Prohibition."

It's a fascinating history that stretches from the birth of the nation to the passage of Prohibition in 1919.

"We were just trying to embrace the phenomenon of how you could go from a country in which the president of the United States, John Adams, was drinking in the morning to a country that could, in a hundred years, ban the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages," Burns said.

It's a complicated tale that encompassed rural America vs. big cities, Protestants vs. Catholics and Jews and immigrants vs. natural-born Americans. It was a movement that brought together politicians of wildly different stripes and was a factor in women's suffrage and the adoption of the federal income tax.

What set in motion the centurylong effort to create an amendment to the Constitution was born out of the noble purpose of stopping the scourge of drunkenness, Burns said. But the unintended consequences of crime and corruption turned Prohibition into an abject failure. Which it was doomed to be from the start.

"The law used to enforce the [19th] Amendment, the Volstead Act, was in so many ways draconian that almost immediately you found people who had supported it, now not supporting it," Burns said. "And if you have porous borders north and south and a coastline of thousands and thousands of miles that permit the smuggling of [alcohol], you are going to have a sort of absolute ignoring of the law and all of the attendant consequences of that."

And it's hard to ban something anyone can make at home.

"It's really easy to make alcohol," Novick said. "It's a natural process, fermentation. So even if you were to seal the borders, you still have sugar, you still have apples, you still have barley, whatever. So practically speaking, it would actually be impossible to eliminate alcohol."

spierce@sltrib.com —

Three-part documentary

KUED-Ch. 7 airs "Prohibition" on three consecutive nights at 8 and 11 p.m.

"A Nation of Drunkards" (Sunday, Oct. 2) • Beginning in the mid-1800s, alcohol abuse is wreaking havoc on American families, and groups form to push for Prohibition.

"A Nation of Scofflaws" (Monday, Oct. 3) • In 1920, Prohibition goes into effect, and millions of law-abiding Americans become lawbreakers overnight.

"A Nation of Hypocrites" (Tuesday, Oct. 4) • Gangsters make huge profits and wreak havoc. By the late 1920s, many Americans believe that Prohibition has failed.