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I'll Drink to That! Prohibition in California and The Roaring Twenties

December 5, 2014

Part of this piece was originally written for the American Cinematheque. They graciously gave me permission to re-print the section here, in a slightly edited form.


In honor of the passing of the 21st Amendment on this day 81 years ago, which repealed Prohibition in America, we're flashing back to a special presentation chef, educator, and historian Ernest Miller gave at the Egyptian Theater in January 2014. Miller was on hand to recreate some Prohibition recipes - both beer and cookies! - and set straight some facts about Prohibition in California before a screening of the Prohibition-era classic, The Roaring Twenties (1939). 

Ernest Miller brewing up a storm at the Egyptian Theater with products accessible during the 1920s. (Picture by Margot Gerber/the American Cinematheque)

Miller began his talk by tracking the beginning of the alcohol timeline back a few thousand years: in 5000 BC, the earliest traces of beer brewing were found on shards of pottery located in modern day Iran. A few centuries later, around 1900 BC, evidence of the most primitive known recipe of any kind was found in a Sumerian poem honoring the Goddess of Brewing, Ninkasi.


Ancient booze history lesson over (and yes, there apparently was a Goddess of Brewing).


Fast forward to a little over 100 years ago. In the early 1900s, beer, wine, and spirits were all popular in California. Los Angeles alone was home to roughly 100 wineries before Prohibition hit, and several breweries thrived in and around the area.


The business fundamentally changed in early 1920, however, when the Volstead Act, also known as the National Prohibition Act, went into effect to fulfill the objective of the Eighteenth Amendment, which made the production, transport, and sale of alcohol illegal. 


With the nationwide ban of alcohol, several items naturally rose in popularity, including milk, coffee, cola, cereal drinks and fruit juices. During this time, companies that made alcoholic drinks had to find a way to stay afloat; consequently, products such as Near Beer, which is non-alcoholic beer, were produced by many breweries, as were items such as malt syrup, with or without hops added. Fun fact: malt syrup was actually billed as a 'healthy item’ in cookbooks of the day, along with brown sugar and whole wheat! 

Just in case you weren't sure, malt syrup is a food item.

For their part, the American government tried their hardest to keep alcohol out the hands of the general population. For trendy, higher concentrated spirits that could be easily manufactured, the government actually ordered that poison, in the form of denatured alcohol, be added to industrial alcohol, which resulted in roughly 10,000 deaths during the Prohibition era. That's right - 10,000. That's probably a little known (absolutely terrifying) fact!


Another popular drink that also turned deadly was medicinal Jamaica Ginger. The government recognized Jamaica Ginger as a potentially illegal alcohol source, and in order to make it legal, those in charge demanded that solids be added to make it harder to drink; the weight of the mixture was even regulated by the Department of Agriculture.  Always looking for ways to circumvent the laws, bootleggers teamed with scientists (can someone make a movie about that) and discovered that adding a plasticizer to the drink enabled it to pass government tests AND retain its drinkability. Some smart scientists and bootleggers! However, doctors soon realized that the plasticizer was toxic and caused paralysis, mostly in the outer extremities. Thus, Jamaica Ginger received a bluntly accurate moniker: Poison Jake.

California's own Jamaica Ginger.

Death or paralysis be damned for many, though! Despite the ban on alcoholic beverages and the government’s attempts to keep it out of the public’s hands, it wasn't too hard for people in the 20s to obtain alcohol in a legal way. Wine elixirs for health purposes were popular, even though they may not have tasted great with herbs and the like added for the 'healthy' angle.  Prescriptions for alcohol also proved easy to acquire, as Miller showed the audience a prescription for whiskey written in the 1920s (and a simple Google search reveals many more like it). It wasn't clear why the whiskey was recommended from a medical standpoint, but one can guess... 

Not sure if 'bitter' wine sounds appetizing, but people did what they had to do back then. Also, I wonder what 'red pills' are?

At-home remedies, both legal and illegal, were fashionable as well. Wine bricks, meant for juice, found popularity during the Prohibition years due to their low price and easy methods - simply dissolve in water and ferment! Though there were specific instructions on the bricks to prevent the owner from taking that second fermentation step, the path to making one's own wine was all but perfectly laid out for the consumer.  For those who liked to prepare liquor in their own home, distilleries were on the rise during the 1920s too; some people even built elaborate underground systems to avoid detection! 

Question: Where would I purchase one of these wine bricks today?

One exception to the Volstead Act concerned the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Ironically, sacrificial wines, such as the ones made at the famous San Antonio Winery in Los Angeles, saw a surge in popularity as church attendance rose. The same went for those in Jewish communities, though Rabbis were the only people who were technically allowed to handle alcohol, Miller noted. As a result, the number of Rabbis during this time grew as well. Hmm....


Aside from the horrible failure of their attempts at scientific circumvention of the law, bootleggers came up with a few tricks during this period for the consumption and transportation of alcohol. Though beer use during Prohibition jumped sharply, towering over spirits and wines, Miller pointed out that spirits were easier to conceal, transport, and provided more ‘bang for your buck,’ as was evident in The Roaring Twenties; obviously, trucking large beer barrels would be a bit more suspicious. One smart way bootleggers tried to hide liquor was behind broken electrical systems in cars. As soon as the police realized the systems didn’t work, however, the jig was up (wonder how they thought to look there in the first place, though?). This was just one example of the many ways bootleggers played the system; montages in The Roaring Twenties would highlight several more methods. 

Bootleggers thought of the darndest hiding places!

By 1932-33, there were signs that Prohibition would be coming to an end soon. Though officially only given 15 days notice, breweries faced no shortage of beer at 12am the day Prohibition ended, The Los Angeles Times noted.  In fact, since many of the breweries still operating produced near beer, it was quite easy for them to simply keep the alcohol in that they would otherwise take out to create the Prohibition substitute.  As a result, brewery trucks were ready at 12:01am the day Prohibition was repealed. Down at the Los Angeles Brewing Company, actor Walter Huston delivered a short speech while actress Jean Harlow broke a bottle over the first truck that was sent off.  And with that, Americans (legally) regained their right to alcohol.

Jean Harlow christening a brewery truck to celebrate the end of Prohibition.

Though Prohibition was over, not every part of the alcohol industry bounced back as well as the breweries. For example, the California wine business took a hit that would take decades to recover from.  Wine bottles were more expensive than the bricks that many were now used to, and the number of wineries, which numbered above 100 before Prohibition, dwindled to a dozen or so by 1933. It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that the wine industry rebounded for good. At that time, central California took over as California's wine country, and it's been that way ever since. 

Ernest Miller pouring some wine at the Egyptian Theater. (Picture by Margot Gerber/the American Cinematheque)

The Roaring Twenties (1939)


The Roaring Twenties follows the story of three men who meet in a trench during World War I: Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn).


At the end of the war, the men head their separate ways: Lloyd returns to his law practice; George, who used to work in a saloon, now becomes a bootlegger since Prohibition is in effect; and Eddie returns home to find his position as a mechanic is filled, so he takes a job as a cab driver. One evening, Eddie gets caught unknowingly transporting a package full of liquor to dance hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George). Panama tries to convince the arresting officer that Eddie isn’t a bootlegger, but he still goes to jail. Though she disappears for a while, Panama ends up saving the day by coming back around and bailing Eddie out. Sensing Eddie’s a good guy, Panama suggests that he team up with her in the bootlegging business. After some thought, Eddie agrees and brings Lloyd in with him as his lawyer.  

Innocent Eddie (James Cagney) gets caught handing off liquor to Panama (Gladys George). This unfortunate incident is the start of a brand new (illegal) career for Eddie.

Eddie soon runs into Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), a young woman he used to correspond with during the war. Though he met Jean when he returned home, at the time she was still in school; now she’s all grown up working in a chorus line. Eddie sets his sights on her, but she doesn’t return his affection.  


It isn't long before Eddie and his team take on fellow bootleggers, in this case Nick Brown (Paul Kelly) and his gang. While infiltrating Nick's shipment of booze on the high seas, Eddie discovers his old war pal George, who now works for Nick. Eddie recruits George and they turn Nick over to the feds...and then raid the federal warehouse that's storing Nick's liquor. On the way out, George shoot and kills one of the watchmen who happened to be an old army sergeant of theirs who he disliked. The group’s rapid turn to violence prompts Lloyd to quit the partnership, but not before George scares the life out of him: Lloyd knows all the business’ secrets, and it would be a pity if he were to ever reveal them to anyone. 

Eddie steps between a threatening George (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn). This partnership doesn't seem to be functioning smoothly by the looks of the gun in George's hand.

Eddie sends his old pal Danny (Frank McHugh) to set things straight between him and Nick, but that backfires and Danny ends up dead. In retaliation, Eddie and his gang show up at Nick's place, but unbeknownst to Eddie, George gave Nick a heads up; consequently, Nick and his men lie in wait for Eddie, but in the chaos, Nick is killed – by Eddie!


Eddie parts ways with the duplicitous George not long before the Stock Market crashes. In a cruel twist of irony, Eddie is forced to sell all of his George. Left with one single taxi to drive himself, Eddie picks up Jean as a passenger one day. Now married to Lloyd and with a child to boot, Jean invites Eddie over to dinner. That evening, Lloyd reveals to Eddie that George has been threatening him because he's working on the murder case that George was involved in.


Eddie originally refuses to help Lloyd against George, but he caves when Jean tries her hand at convincing Eddie. Jean’s conversation with a drunken Eddie in a bar, along with Panama’s urging, pushes Eddie to approach George. 

A desperate Jean (Priscilla Lane) tries to get a drunken Eddie to help her and her husband, Lloyd, as Panama looks on.

Predictably, the meeting does not go well, and Eddie ends up killing George. While escaping, Eddie is shot and collapses conveniently in front of a church.  Panama runs after him, and cradling his head in her arms, she tells the police officer who arrives on the scene: “He used to be a big shot.” 

Is the filmmaker trying to say something here?!

What a sad end for Eddie. If only he hadn't been randomly picked to deliver that package to Panama...

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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