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Ken Burns’ ‘Prohibition’ tackles hot topic that polarized nation

Chicagoans — men women alike — celebrate repeal ProhibitiCongress Hotel Dec. 8 1933. The country had come long way from

Chicagoans — men and women alike — celebrate the repeal of Prohibition at the Congress Hotel on Dec. 8, 1933. The country had come a long way from the days of male-only saloons. | John Binder Collection

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Updated: November 11, 2011 4:16PM

For an issue that’s usually relegated to a few paragraphs in history books, Prohibition sure has become a hot topic on TV.

The 18th Amendment — that “Noble Experiment” that turned out to be one of the country’s biggest civic failures — is the subject of a fascinating new documentary by Ken Burns. “Prohibition” chronicles the dramatic rise and fall of a constitutional amendment that tried to legislate human behavior and, along the way, unleashed a slew of unintended consequences.

The first episode of Burns’ three-part series debuts on PBS Sunday, the same night HBO’s hit series “Boardwalk Empire” airs the second episode of its sophomore season.

The equally well-executed “Boardwalk Empire” meshes real and fictional historical characters against the booze-soaked backdrop of bootleggers and crooked politicians in Atlantic City, N.J., during the Roaring Twenties, when Prohibition was in full swing.

One show is a drama, the other a documentary. But “Boardwalk Empire” and “Prohibition” go together like gin and tonic.

“They’re perfectly symbiotic and complementary pieces,” said Burns, who, along with “Prohibition” co-director Lynn Novick, is a big fan of “Boardwalk.”

“Our film was finished over a year ago,” Burns said. “All of a sudden, we wake up, and there’s ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ We just watched in amazement and went, ‘Wow, we picked the right subject.’”

It’s a subject that violently polarized the nation, pitting “wets” against “drys,” Catholics against Protestants, city folk against small-towners, and immigrants against native-born citizens.

Prohibition’s story, like Burns’ film, starts almost 100 years before the ban on alcohol took effect in 1920.

For much of the 19th century, a sizable percentage of the U.S. population made the cast of “Jersey Shore” look like lightweights. Male-only saloons and taverns were everywhere. Alcohol abuse was destroying families and, in some people’s eyes, the very fabric of society.

Women who’d never had a political voice began leading a crusade against the evils of booze — a crusade that was championed further by the Anti-Saloon League, a lobbying group that grew so powerful “it makes the NRA look like they’re still in short pants,” Burns said.

The fight culminated in 1919 with the passage of the 18th amendment, which made the sale and manufacturing of “intoxicating beverages” illegal.

“It was meant to eradicate an evil,” says “Prohibition” narrator Peter Coyote. “Instead, it turned millions of law-abiding Americans into lawbreakers.”

And it turned run-of-the-mill hoodlums into rich and ruthless bootleggers.

“Prohibition was the best thing that ever happened to the goons,” says author Jonathan Eig, one of several Chicagoans interviewed in the documentary.

Our fair city features prominently in Burns’ series, especially in the third and final episode. That one highlights Al Capone and the beer wars that turned the city’s streets into a war zone for much of the ’20s.

“The idea that there were shootouts on Michigan Avenue, that you could gun down a gangster in broad daylight in front of Holy Name [Cathedral] — it was the Wild West,” Burns said.

Oliver Platt supplies the voice of Capone, whose chubby, scarred face appears in black and white photos that show him signing autographs at Cubs and Sox games and surrounded by media at his trial for income tax evasion. (We even get a glimpse of a paunchy Capone in a bathing suit.)

“They say I violate the Prohibition law. Who doesn’t?” Platt says, reading the words of Capone. “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. ... Nobody’s on the legit.”

Another famous bootlegger, George Remus, gets a lot of airtime in “Prohibition.” Remus is a colorful character who made a name for himself as a defense attorney in Chicago. And he made a fortune for himself by breaking the law and keeping the booze flowing during Prohibition.

“George Remus is going to be a major character [in ‘Boardwalk Empire’] this year,” Burns said.

“Boardwalk Empire” got off to an explosive start with a bloody shootout in Sunday’s season premiere. While you won’t see that kind of HBO-style action in “Prohibition,” “I think ours is equally as exciting,” Burns said.

“Prohibition” tells its story through interviews with historians, authors and people who lived through that era, mixed in with compelling photos and old movies narrated by Coyote and a bunch of big-name talent, such as Tom Hanks, Patricia Clarkson and Samuel L. Jackson.

While listening to folk music, church hymns, ragtime and jazz from Wynton Marsalis, viewers watch historical footage of fellas and flappers carousing in illegal speakeasies and ladies hiking up their long skirts to reveal flasks of whiskey tucked into garters. Federal agents dump barrels of moonshine and smash bottles of bourbon in their zeal to uphold the draconian Volstead Act, a law that was passed to enforce the new amendment. Rum runners shepherd their illegal cargo to shore while mob hits lay in pools of their own blood.

“Organized crime,” Burns says, when asked what is the biggest legacy of Prohibition.

But not all of Prohibition’s fallout was negative.

“A lasting consequence has been a suspicion whenever someone else comes down the pike with an amendment we should pass,” he said. “We go, ‘Wait a second, there are always unintended consequences.’ It’s a cautionary tale.”

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