Watching HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (a show focused on prohibition-era Atlantic City) not long ago, I couldn’t help but be struck by the performance of Stephen Graham as Al Capone. This, I realized, might be the first Hollywood production ever to get Capone right.
Looking at Graham’s boyish face, you immediately recognize that he’s nothing like the Capone of screen legend – the versions of Capone played by actors as varied as Paul Muni, Rod Steiger, Robert De Niro, and Jason Robards Jr. Unlike these grizzled heavies, Graham looks the way Capone would have looked as he rose to national prominence: like a kid. The Al Capone who took over Chicago in 1925 was 26 years old. He was all but gone from the city by the time he was 30. And when he emerged from his eventual prison sentence a syphilitic wreck, he had just turned 40.
If you’re surprised by this, it’s only because what we know, or believe we know, about Prohibition is mostly what we’ve picked up from movies, TV, gossip columnists, and other sources who (unlike the commendable producers of Boardwalk Empire) tend toward the romantic --and, sometimes, the conspiratorial.
This is why so many people believe Joseph P. Kennedy was a bootlegger, when in fact he brought liquor into the U.S. legally, and sold it only after Repeal. Or that Eliot Ness was the noble federal agent who nailed Capone, when he had virtually nothing to do with it, wasn’t terribly effective at much of anything else, and died a semi-drunk. Or that to get a drink at a Prohibition speakeasy you had to look through a peephole and repeat a password; in fact, by 1926 or 1927, if you lived in a major city in the east or Midwest, you could walk into a speak, put your money on the counter, and get a drink instantly, no questions asked.
What we do know about Prohibition is that it was one of the unlikeliest episodes in the nation’s history. The very fact that it took one constitutional amendment (the 18th) to launch it and another (the 21st) to kill it suggests that nothing else in the American past was remotely like it.
Daniel Okrent is a best-selling author of several critically-acclaimed works, most notably Last Call (Scribner, 2010) and Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (Viking, 2003), a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist. In book publishing, Okrent worked as an editor at Knopf, Viking, and Harcourt Brace. In 2009, he served as the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Lecturer on the Practice of Press and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.