Friday, January 17, 2020

100 Years Ago Today Prohibition Went Into Effect

It was one hundred years ago today that Prohibition went into effect in the United States. One year before, on January 17 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified. It was on October 28 1919 that Congress passed the Volstead Act, meant to carry out the intent behind the Eighteenth Amendment. It was then on January 17 1920 that the production, sale, and transport of alcohol became illegal in the United States.

Obviously Prohibition had an immediate impact on the United States, but its impact would also be lasting and is still being felt to this day. Bootlegging began almost as soon as Prohibition took effect. Speakeasies, illicit places selling alcohol, sprang up almost immediately. While organized crime had existed prior to Prohibition, it grew ever more powerful during the years Prohibition was in effect. Such criminal organizations as the Chicago Outfit and the American Mafia made millions of dollars through bootlegging, the smuggling of liquor from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and the operation of speakeasies. Gangsters became prominent figures in the United States throughout the 1920s.

Of course, Prohibition would also have an impact on American popular culture. In fact, it seems very likely that the gangster movie would not exist as we know it without Prohibition. Gangster movies emerged during the Silent Era, among them Underworld (1927), Lights of New York (1928), and The Racket (1928). Arguably the Golden Age of gangster movies was the early Thirties. It was during this period that The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) were released. In all three films, bootlegging played a prominent role in the plot. The gangster movies of the Prohibition Era would have an impact that is still being felt to this day. Even more recent movies, such as The Untouchables (1987) and Miller's Crossing (1990), owe their existence to the gangster movies of the Prohibition Era. Even television would feel the impact of Prohibition years after its repeal. The Untouchables debuted in 1959 and produced such imitators as The Roaring Twenties. The Prohibition Era has been the setting of more recent television shows as well, most notably Boardwalk Empire.

While Prohibition would lead to the emergence of the gangster movie, it also had an impact on movies in other genres made while it was in effect. If the temperance movement had hoped that with Prohibition drinking would no longer appear in movies, their hopes must have been dashed repeatedly during the Silent Era and the early Pre-Code Era. If anything, drinking seems to appear more frequently in movies from the 1920s and the early Thirties than any other time in the history of American cinema. It certainly played a central role in many of the flapper movies of the era, such as Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Drunkenness continued to be a source of gags in movies even as Prohibition was still in effect. In fact, getting liquor and then getting drunk is at the centre of the Laurel & Hardy short "Blotto" (now lost except for a Spanish language version).  While drinking would continue to be part of the movies well after Prohibition was repealed and continues to be a part of movies to this day (let's face it, the "Thin Man" movies would be a whole lot less fun without the drinking), it seems like the Silent Era and the Pre-Code Era was some sort of heyday for on-screen drinking.

Of course, Prohibition eventually came to an end. Opposition to Prohibition had existed from the beginning, and as the Twenties progressed the movement towards its repeal only grew. Organisations in favour of the repeal of Prohibition, such as the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, had memberships in the thousands. The Democratic party's 1932 platform even included the repeal of Prohibition. It was on December 5 1933 that the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, finally bringing Prohibition to an end. While Prohibition was over, its impact is still being felt to this day.


Caftan Woman said...

Ollie's quote from Babes in Toyland works for Prohibition: "It's a good idea, but I don't think it will work."

rcocean said...

You had a lot of drinking in movies like "The Thin Man" because it was a way that Hollywood could cock a snoot at all those "Blue Noses" and "Evangelical Christians" who supported it. Its also why you constantly see every actor lighting up a cigarette throughout the 30s and 40s. People forget that "Bible Thumpers" used to be against cigarettes too. Of course, these were mostly the same people pushing the Hayes code.

Back to Prohibition. It had some downsides, but deaths due to drunk driving and cirrhosis of the liver nosedived. Big Cities suffered from a gangster problem, but the rest of the country didn't have that. There are two sides to every story. Personally, I think allowing advertising for hard liquor is taking advantage of weak willed people but what do I know.