October 4, 2011
"Prohibiton" and the Carrie Nations
Are you watching the new Ken Burns documentary "Prohibition"? So far I've seen the first episode, and it's really great. As with all his stuff, the images and film clips he's collected are truly amazing: he's gathered loads of video of ecstatic partiers in the 1920's cavorting in jazz clubs and guzzling bottles of gin and looking like they're having more fun than you've ever experienced in your life, which he intercuts with shots of stern crusaders hacking apart barrels of liquor with axes and gloating as all that devil's brew gushes into the streets. You can watch the full episodes online.
Even though it's titled "Prohibition", he looks at a broad history of alcohol in early America, when we were a nation of immigrants unified by our love of drinking. The Temperance movement was pretty much synonymous with feminism in the 19th century, and there are some great photos of hordes of women kneeling in prayer in their voluminous skirts outside of saloons and marching through city streets to protest the sale of liquor at a time when marching wasn't something women generally did.
But the best story of all was about the violent firebrand anti-alcohol hellraiser, Carrie Nation. She was such a compelling figure at the center of a bizarre episode in our country's history that Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer were inspired to name their busty, gutsy, all-girl rock band in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Carrie Nations, after her. You can see some truly wonderful stills from the movie and revel in a moment in American cinema when a lurid piece of surrealist sexploitation trash would reference early feminist crusaders. Ah, the 70's.
Ken Burns, sadly, makes no mention of the Russ Meyer film in his documentary. The real-life Ms. Nation had a rough life plagued by alcoholic men, and lived in Kansas, where liquor sales were illegal but bars still flourished. In her 50's, she decided to take justice into her own hands, and with God's alleged support, started going from town to town, attacking saloons with rocks.
From her Wikipedia entry:
After she led a raid in Wichita her husband joked that she should use a hatchet next time for maximum damage. Nation replied, "That is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you." Alone or accompanied by hymn-singing women she would march into a bar, and sing and pray while smashing bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet.
My favorite Carrie Nation quote from the doc: "I tell you ladies, you don't know how good it feels till you begin to smash, smash, smash!"
Sure, she was probably mentally ill, and claiming you're doing God's work by throwing rocks at bartenders is never OK, but I can't help but love her and her take-no-prisoners style.
Maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters could take some inspiration from Ms. Nation and start carrying hatchets and Bibles and using her slogan, "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls," to greet bankers heading to work.
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