January 16 marks the 100th anniversary of the law establishing Prohibition. Few people today can understand the grassroots fervor that made the 18th Amendment the law of the land on January 16, 1920. But it did not happen overnight, and by the time the amendment was repealed in 1933, it had left a deeply divisive scar on the American psyche. It spawned a “live for today” counter-culture of gangsters and flappers, addicts and outlaw heroes that has been endlessly glamorized and remains today the most fondly romanticized fiction of the American 20th century.
For my own novels on early American movie-making I spent a good deal of time doing background research on the first three decades of the 20th century. The history of silent movies during the long push toward Prohibition makes for a fascinating study. It is a largely untold story, involving many giants of early cinema.
Iconic director D. W. Griffith best reflected the passions on both sides of the alcohol issue. His early work at the Biograph Co. as well as his later films and, indeed, his life itself, reflect the deep ambivalence of Americans toward the Temperance Movement. (For that reason I made a conflict between his studio and anti-saloon activists of his day the central conflict in my book, “The Designated Virgin.”)
First, though, a bit of background.
The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act that gave it some teeth were the culmination of 100 years of America’s grappling with the problem of alcoholism. Life in colonial America can only be understood as a constant struggle between responsible citizenship and drunken abandon. Consider that clean community drinking water was often not available in pre-industrial America. Everyone — even young children — relied on a variety of fermented ciders and grogs to quench their thirsts. Men turned more and more to imported rum.
Village taverns were a key component of community life. But all was not peace and harmony. Law officers were often called upon to compel husbands to return to their homes where they were needed. Women could not own property or even vote, and could hardly be expected to support their families. Anti-alcohol sermons, novels and stage melodramas of the 19th century presented “the demon rum” as a curse on domestic and civic life.
After the Civil War, beer breweries grew into a major industry, monopolized by waves of new German immigrants. The alcohol industry began offering more potent whiskeys and hard liquors to an ever-expanding leisure class.
Local governments enforced “blue laws” and adopted other measures to limit the social repercussions of inebriation. As victims multiplied they overwhelmed state-run “poor houses,” infirmaries and asylums, underscoring a need for more effective government “safety nets.”
A radical age of anti-saloon activism was born. Carrie Nation and her axe became symbols of female empowerment. Carrie Nation knew first-hand the curse of hard liquor and its toll on families. She watched the body of her own husband lowered, as she put it, into “a drunkard’s grave.”
Against this backdrop, silent film was growing in popularity as a mass amusement. Not since the invention of the printing press had a technology planted so much information in the minds of everyday citizens.
Edwin S. Porter of “The Great Train Robbery” fame took a satiric swipe at Carrie Nation in his 1901 film for the Edison Studio, “Kansas Saloon Smashers.” It poked fun at Carrie’s activism by having an actress reenact her famous raid on a Wichita saloon.
The majority of films at that time, however, offered a more somber take on the problem of drunkenness. A popular documentary imported from Great Britain titled “Manchester Band of Hope” showed an endless procession of protesters united by their stand against alcohol.
A 1902 Pathé film, “Victims of Alcoholism,” became another popular attraction, as did Siegmund Lubin’s unauthorized 1903 adaptation of “Ten Nights in a Bar Room.” That title had been made famous by an 1850s best-seller. It would be remade in 1910 by the Edwin Thanhouser Company and then again in 1911 by William Selig.
D.W. Griffith, however, was the only filmmaker to approach the subject from more than one angle.
Griffith had joined Biograph while on the rebound from his bitter failure as a playwright. In 1907 his first full-length play, “A Fool and a Girl,” opened and closed the same week in Washington, D.C. He blamed the closure on one unduly moralistic reviewer. Theater critic Hector Fuller had taken him to task for showing young unmarried men and women co-mingling in one of the trendy new “liquor salons,” drinking spirits in broad daylight and bandying about slang phrases.
In Griffith’s view, that one critic ended his dream of being a playwright. He was still brooding over the unfair power of such self-appointed defenders of “community standards” when he was hired by American Biograph in 1908 to overtake the direction of its films.
Griffith was born in Bourbon whiskey country, Kentucky — as was Carrie Nation, by the way. But Griffith was an avowed social progressive who detested hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Perhaps taking his cue from Edwin Porter, the man who gave him his first job in movies, Griffith aimed two of his early “Mr. And Mrs. Jones” comedies for Biograph at anti-saloon fanaticism.
“Mrs. Jones Entertains” (1908) showed the respectable Mrs. Jones (Florence Lawrence) attempting to ingratiate herself with the local temperance ladies. Her hopes topple when the staid gathering is served spiked tea by mistake and they all end up making fools of themselves.
This comedy was such a hit with audiences that Griffith followed it in January 1909 with “Mr. Jones Has a Card Party.” Here Mr. Jones (John R. Cumpson) takes advantage of his wife’s absence by throwing a male-only party. But Mrs. Jones and her temperance group miss their train and they return to find the husbands all “three sheets to the wind.”
The so-called “Jonesy comedies” are often cited as cinema’s first commercial serial. They established the formula for all situation comedies to come.
A different style of farce released by Biograph in February 1909, also portrayed public drunkenness for comic effect and was a big hit for Griffith. “The Curtain Pole” featured young Mack Sennett, a chunky, slouching hulk of a man, as an inebriated home decorator on a disastrous errand into town. It sparked Sennett’s own ambition for directing a type of knockabout farce that within a few years would earn him the title of “king of slapstick comedy.”
Something happened at this same time, however, that caused Griffith to reconsider the messages he was sending. Some say he was moved by the suicide of a popular English actor named Charles Warner, celebrated on Broadway for portraying a dying alcohol addict in the sensational hit play, “Drink.” Or perhaps it was the brand new New York state Board of Censorship that reminded him of the power that movies had on impressionable minds.
In any case, Griffith had been consumed in early 1909 by his own pet project — a film honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of his favorite American poet and writer, Edgar Allan Poe. His dramatic homage to Poe, released February 8, 1909, could not have escaped the notice of the Prohibition Party. Here were Griffith and Biograph seemingly thumbing their noses at them by glorifying America’s most celebrated drunk!
Whatever happened in early 1909, it prompted a change of heart in Griffith. He set out to be a more socially responsible producer of motion picture entertainments. Never again would any of his films make light of public drunkenness or of the temperance cause.
In March 1909 Griffith released “The Drunkard’s Reformation,” a throwback to antique stage melodramas (though with a tip of the hat to Emile Zola’s gritty brand of naturalism). Just so there would be no confusion he gave his drama the bold subtitle “The Most Powerful Temperance Lecture Ever Depicted.” It was a full declaration of Griffith’s new moralistic stance, and he followed it up quickly with the less notable film, “What Drink Did.”
It is amusing to consider the ironic repercussions of Griffith’s temperance films. They gave a national platform to what had been a fragmented, urban crusade. Griffith did not want a prohibition amendment and did not subscribe to the notion of legislating morality. But for years afterward his temperance films played on Main Streets all across America and were used in campaigns to fund the American journey toward the 18th Amendment.
Ironic, too, in a more heartbreaking way is the fact that D.W. Griffith would be brought down ultimately by his own alcohol demons. His last attempt at a “talkie” film, “The Struggle” (1931) was a drama about alcoholism that failed to engage Prohibition-weary audiences. He passed the rest of his life out of the public eye with his bottles and regrets — the spirits of Biograph.
© 2019 John W. Harding
(NOTE: “The Designated Virgin: A Novel of the Early Movies” is available now as a paperback and eBook from Pulp Hero Press on Amazon. To celebrate its release, Pulp Hero Press has also re-issued a new edition of “The Ben-Hur Murders,” which dramatizes the corruption of the Hollywood studio system under Prohibition in 1925. It shows how closed studio gates were forced to open to the influence of bootleggers and gangsters. You can get “The Designated Virgin” and “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 ‘Hollywood Games’” on paperback or eBook here.)