Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ragtime wasn't a big success in 1981. The main storyline is about the conflict that
society has given the name 'terrorism,' and the movie refuses to condemn it out of hand. The
advertising capaign promised a nostalgic story of a bygone age with big stars, like
The Great Gatsby, and the
Milos Forman scored a huge coup in wooing James Cagney from retirement for a major part. The closest
the new DVD box copy (with its image of a proud American flag) comes to mentioning Ragtime's
focus on racism, injustice and violent civil crimes is a mention of a "transitional America." That's
misleading to consumers adverse to politically challenging entertainment. Not only that, but just
as with Forman's previous Hair, Ragtime is rated PG even though it has copious
nudity on display. Talk about a double threat to the "new morality"!
Ragtime distills E.L. Doctorow's sprawling novel down to two or three major plotlines but
does adequate service only to the tale of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black man who
wouldn't back down.
A well-to-do New Rochelle family is split when it takes in a homeless black woman
(Debbie Allen) and her child; all initially looks well when her estranged boyfriend, Coalhouse
Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) reappears with a good job and an offer of marriage. The 'younger
brother' of the family (Brad Dourif) falls in love with the notorious playgirl Evelyn Nesbit
(Elizabeth McGovern) as she awaits the outcome of her husband Harry Thaw's murder trial - Thaw
killed famous architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) out of jealousy.
Coalhouse is returning
to the city in his new Model T when he's harassed and humiliated by a team of volunteer firemen
led by Irish-American lout Willie Conklin (Kenneth McMillan), and a dreadful series of events stemming
from Walker's refusal to swallow his pride escalates into a violent debacle. Police
Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo (James Cagney) has to step in to restore order when Coalhouse and
his gang use force to take over a J.P.Morgan library.
This is an exquisitely mounted production, filmed in New York and in England. It is by far
Dino DeLaurentiis' most prestigious film - scene after scene is filled with hundreds of beautifully
costumed extras at parties, political gatherings and in the Jewish neighborhood of the lower East
side. And it's not fluff or window dressing; director Milos Forman makes excellent use of his
resources. The film's time frame is a bit confused as the Thaw-White affair happened in 1906
and the first Ford Model T appeared two years later. Only a year or two passes but by the end of
the film WW1 has been declared.
Director Milos Forman neatly delineates the wide range of social situations. The
elegant parties and nightclubs (complete with authentic fully-costumed stage revues) contrast
with the realism of the Jewish neighborhood - brief scenes which for credibility outdo even
Godfather Part II. We also get a good look at the rough & tumble of New York politics and how it
functions from the street level - the volunteer fire department - all the way up to the top.
Ragtime presents its unnamed New Rochelle family as a rather stiff patriarchy. Father (James
The Andromeda Strain) expects to
be informed of every detail in his household and takes offense at any inkling of disrespect. Wife
Mary Steenburgen (early in her screen career and beautifully cast) turns to mild rebellion over
humanitarian concerns; she's the one who takes in Sarah (Debbie Allen) and her abandoned
baby, forever involving the family in the ever-more-radical events to follow.
Unfortunately, conservatives and bigots will just see this as another good reason to never become involved
in the problems of needy blacks.
Ragtime was nominated for eight Oscars but won none. Its most worthy actor is surely Howard
Rollins Jr.. His Coalhouse Walker is the center of the film and showcases the theme of black rights
without grandstanding or claiming to personally embody the spirit of black America. That happens
by default through Michael Weller's pointed script. Coalhouse's murderous campaign for revenge
only becomes clear when his band of gunmen have little hope of surviving. How his story will go
down in history becomes of primary importance to him. To the press he's a boogeyman, an angry racial
anarchist. Only the firemen and the police know the reason behind it all. The end of the seige is
only a partial victory for the police, because Walker's friends will live to spread the truth. As
for the political gamesplayer Rheinlander Waldo, he's able to defuse what the government fears most,
the dreaded anarchy and rebellion of a black uprising. The last thing they'll allow is for Coalhouse
Walker to receive his day in court and explain why he became an outlaw. The status quo will be maintained.
Other aspects of the story aren't as successful. Our central unnamed 'family' splits up in the wake of
the Walker debacle. Mother defects to her new beau, Mandy Patinkin's Jewish filmmaker, a poorly prepared
development. We've seen her defy her husband but have been given no inkling that she'll leave him. Her
husband actually becomes more flexible, proving himself to be a man of conscience and understanding by
trying to help Coalhouse. Even he can't comprehend that the authorities (Waldo) will act as dishonorably
as they do. It's as if a key scene is missing. And finally, what kind of romantic ideal does Mother think
she's getting? Patinkin's Tateh has tossed his first wife aside in an old-world ritual of divorce (tearing
his shirt publicly), refusing to forgive her transgressions. He's less liberated than her husband. How
much respect will he have for a new wife as unfaithful as his first?
Although I've always thought Elizabeth McGovern was adorable and talented, Ragtime doesn't
make enough of her stint as the dumbbell Gibson Girl, the famed Girl in the Red
Velvet Swing. Perhaps it's an accurate telling but Evelyn Nesbit comes off as a valueless
golddigger primed to be abused by a succession of lovers and businessmen. It's refreshing to see
Nesbit portrayed as something less than the pillar of virtue in the old Joan Collins-Ray
Milland film, but she's unworthy of all the attention. In this context her nude
scenes are distracting - was Evelyn Nesbit just an opportunist tramp, as Harry Thaw's mother claims?
Brad Dourif's 'younger brother' character is also cheated for screen time. He makes a swift arc from
obsessed lover to political bomb-maker without a chance for us to really know him; the closest
similar character I can think of is Tom Courtenay's Pasha/Strelnikov character in Doctor
Zhivago, another idealist turned radical who relegated to a thin subplot.
Both Dourif and Kenneth McMillan (brilliant as a malignant racist) returned in DeLaurentiis'
Dune in even stranger roles. As I've explained, the central Mary Steenburgen/James Olson
relationship must have been chopped down somewhere along the line. Mandy Pantinkin's fascinating
street artist-turned animator and filmmaker surely merited more screen time as well. Only James
Cagney's solid turn as a hard-bitten police executive seems properly proportioned. Perhaps
his involvement is what kept the Coalhouse Walker subplot intact while the others were hacked up.
Dancer-director Debbie Allen has a handful of powerful scenes as Sarah. Norman Mailer, Pat O'Brien
and Moses Gunn also make good impressions in parts just larger than bits. Donald O'Connor is in
for nostalgia's sake as Nesbit's dance instructor. Jeff Daniels stands out as the police officer
who made Coalhouse's initial arrest. Samuel L. Jackson is barely visible as one of Walker's gunmen,
John Ratzenberger (of Cheers) gets one good closeup and the always reliable Bessie Love
(The Lost World, 1925) is a matron of a house commandeered by the police.
Paramount's DVD of Ragtime presents this impressive production in a beautiful enhanced
Panavision-wide encoding; it looks 100% better than the old Pan-Scan on cable TV, where most of us saw it.
Director Milos Forman and producer / asst. director Michael Hausman provide a commentary that's long
on star anecdotes and the shooting and short on analysis. Cagney insisted on a screen test, to make sure
he wasn't too feeble to play his role. The filmmakers also appear with designer Patricia von Brandenstein
in a pleasant interview-docu that goes over much the same kind of material.
Our curiosity for "missing" story details is teased by the interesting deleted scene included as an
extra. After Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) 'divorces' his wife, street agitator Emma Goldman speaks up,
comparing the scorned wife's non-crime to that of 'adultress' Evelyn Nesbit (whose wandering into
that neighborhood is never fully explained). Wishing to use Evelyn as a publicity front for her feminist
proselytizing, Goldman takes her up to her rooms and attempts to get her excited about women's rights.
Evelyn is too ditzy to care, of course. The scene goes strange when Goldman disrobes the Gibson Girl to free
her from her restraining corset.
The actress playing Goldman is never identified and neither is the reason for the scene's deletion. Again,
I think the nudity would have been an unnecessary distraction, and the entire interior part of the scene
would be a bothersome tangent in a film that already has too many plot holes. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Excellent --
Supplements: Commentary, short featurette, deleted scene
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 14, 2004
1. The deleted scene is
presented as a B&W workprint. McGovern's breasts are fogged out; with big studios it is policy not
to allow nudity in supplemental materials, as the actors have
the right to keep those scenes from being exploited out of context. Poor Nastassja Kinski, in
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson