Hollywood Flashback: 100 Years Ago, Prohibition Led to Gangster Movies

ONE TIME USE ONLY-Hollywood Flashback- April 7, 1933, Jean Harlow christened the first truckload of beer signaling the end of Prohibition-H-2019
Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

When the 18th Amendment was ratified on Jan. 19, 1919, Hollywood thought cinemas would be flooded with former bar patrons. But the real gain came in screenwriting: "The stories that resulted from Prohibition were irresistible."

When Prohibition first went into effect 100 years ago — the 18th Amendment was ratified Jan. 19, 1919 — Hollywood thought movie theaters would be flooded with former barflies. But the real gains were felt by screenwriters.

"The stories that resulted from Prohibition were irresistible," says Ken Burns, director of the 2011 docuseries Prohibition. "The gangster, the flapper, the G-man — it opened unlimited new plotlines with kingpins and Al Capone's and a more open sexuality. Hollywood couldn't help but make movies about the glamorous mistakes that Prohibition created." The era's films were certainly pro-"wet."

A study done by the Alcohol Research Group showed that of the 115 films released between 1929 and 1931, 66 percent showed drinking and three-quarters of those films treated intoxication as humorous. (The Hollywood Reporter certainly wasn't a supporter of the booze-banning Volstead Act; founder Billy Wilkerson had been a successful Manhattan bootlegger before starting the publication in 1930 at age 40.)

While Prohibition was in effect, major gangster films like 1931's Little Caesar and 1932's Scarface dramatized bootlegging. The whole thing ended with much relief and fanfare in 1933.

"Prohibition was the only amendment to the Constitution that limited human rights rather than expanded them," says Burns. "And it ended up having a horrible effect." 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.