This month the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC opened a brand new exhibit, Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History. The exhibit contains many records from NARA’s holdings, including films digitized right here in our Motion Picture Preservation Lab!
Spirited Republic highlights how the United States government’s policies towards alcohol have changed over time, including the period from 1920 to 1933 when the sale of alcohol was prohibited by law. The end of Prohibition is covered extensively in the Universal Newsreel collection. Here we present to you a motion picture timeline of the United States as it transitioned from “dry” back to “wet”.
The 21st Amendment to the Constitution, ending Prohibition, was proposed by Congress on February 20, 1933. Prior to full repeal of the 18th Amendment, President Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which amended the Volstead Act to allow the manufacture and sale of beer with a 3.2% alcohol content. Previously, the Volstead Act had prohibited the sale of any beverage with an alcohol content above 0.5%. The signing of the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 22, 1933, led to much rejoicing . . . even among Congressmen.
Throughout 1933, individual states convened ratifying conventions to take up the proposed 21st Amendment. By the time of this November 9, 1933, newsreel release, 30 states had already ratified the amendment and its adoption was all but assured. It was on target for ratification by December 5th, with legal alcohol to begin flowing on December 15th. But as you can see from this newsreel, many people were already getting a head start . . .
On December 6, 1933, Universal released this celebratory newsreel story as repeal became law. Alcohol shipments shifted into high gear and revelers openly toasted its return. (Sadly, we do not have the narration for this film, but jump ahead to 49 seconds in the video to hear a rousing drinking song.)
The repeal of Prohibition was a great blow to the Temperance movement that inspired it, but though their voice was muted, these organizations did not disappear. A 1937 newsreel contained a story about the national convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, whose members stated their firm belief that Prohibition would return to the United States.
BONUS NEWSREEL! How do you make the perfect gin fizz? In 1935 Louisiana Senator Huey Long was featured in a newsreel about this New Orleans specialty. Even though he professes to be “strictly on the water-wagon,” Senator Long samples a New York bartender’s take on a gin fizz not one, but three times to confirm it’s the real deal. Before taking the first sip, he reminds the bartender that the only reason he’s doing this is “to help you out . . . I wouldn’t touch a drop of it if I wasn’t trying to help you find out if you’ve mixed it right!”