Paramount // 1981 // 155 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // November 16th, 2004
The passion, the violence, the birth of America's Gilded Age.
Many of us have been patiently waiting for this day, and at long last Paramount brings director Milos Forman's film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's best-selling novel Ragtime to DVD. So, do we finally have reason to celebrate?
New York, 1906. Father (James Olson, The Andromeda Strain), Mother (Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood), and her Younger Brother (Brad Dourif, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) live contentedly in their New Rochelle home. Then one day fate intervenes, and their maid finds a newborn baby -- a black newborn baby -- in their garden. The baby's mother, Sarah (Debbie Allen, Fame), is discovered hiding in the basement of a nearby house. Mother, not wanting to see the baby taken away by the state and Sarah sent to prison, decides to take them into her family's home.
While following the trial of millionaire Harry Thaw (Robert Joy, The Shipping News), who murdered architect Stanford White (The Executioner's Song author Norman Mailer), Younger Brother becomes infatuated with Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern, She's Having a Baby), Thaw's wife. He and Evelyn begin having an affair, but she soon disappears, leaving an emotionally unstable Younger Brother behind.
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr., A Soldier's Story), a young black pianist who is the father of Sarah's child, arrives at the family's home. He asks Father to allow him to see Sarah and the baby. Coalhouse proposes to Sarah, and she agrees to become his wife. An elated Coalhouse drives home in his new Model T, but volunteer firemen use two fire wagons to block his path. Coalhouse leaves his car behind and finds a police officer (Jeff Daniels, Speed); when he returns with the officer, the firemen have moved his car and thrown horse manure onto the front seat. Coalhouse demands the car be cleaned; Conklin (Kenneth McMillan, Dune), the fire chief, refuses. The policeman tells Coalhouse to drive the car away and forget the incident ever happened. Coalhouse refuses to leave, and is arrested for disorderly conduct. Father bails Coalhouse out of jail; Coalhouse's life then takes a disastrous turn, leading him to conduct a campaign of violence against local fire stations.
Protesters gather outside the family's home, so Father takes them to the coast, but he soon returns to the city at the request of New York Police Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo (James Cagney, Mr. Roberts). Waldo hopes Father can reason with Coalhouse, who has barricaded himself inside the J.P. Morgan Library, refusing to come out until justice is served.
E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime (which was also adapted into a Broadway musical a few years ago) is a mosaic of turn-of-the-century American life, an inspired juggling act in which fictional characters find themselves crossing paths with actual historical figures (including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, and Booker T. Washington). Robert Altman was originally signed to direct the film version, and in his prime (read: Nashville) he probably could have pulled off a straightforward adaptation. Altman, however, dropped out of the project (rumors abounded of a feud between the director and producer Dino De Laurentiis -- not hard to believe given each man's reputation) and was replaced by Milos Forman (Amadeus). Forman brought along screenwriter Michael Heller, his Hair collaborator, and the two discarded much of Doctorow's plot, choosing instead to focus on the story of Coalhouse Walker. (Forman was born in Czechoslovakia and at the age of eight lost his parents in a Nazi concentration camp; he came to the United States following the 1968 Soviet invasion of his homeland. It's easy to see why he identified with the tale of a man who refuses to back down after being unjustly wronged.) I've read reviews of this film in which critics have decried Forman's approach, but I disagree. Forman doesn't make epics (for all its historical trappings, Amadeus is still the story of two men), so it's doubtful he could have done justice to Doctorow's sprawl. (In fact, there's evidence to support this assertion in the film itself, and we'll cover that momentarily.)
I'll admit, after having read Doctorow's novel, I was a bit uneasy about seeing the film; I enjoyed the novel so much I thought I would only be able to judge the film against the book. It has now been ten years since I read the book, and, after finally distancing myself from it enough to view the film objectively, I'm ready to offer up the following: Ragtime is great film. (It's also rather hard to discuss its plot without spoiling many of its surprises, so I won't dwell on it, as you're best served experiencing the story, both in the novel and the film, for yourself.) Boiled down to its essence, the plot of Forman's film chronicles the story of Coalhouse Walker, his near-fanatical pursuit of justice, and how this affects a handful of people drawn into his life by circumstances (for the most part) beyond their control. Admittedly, the film does take time winding up, as Forman takes a cue from Doctorow in introducing the major players (the novel opens with Houdini crashing his car outside Father's house) and then weaving them together before Coalhouse takes center stage. Forman then really begins to work his magic, as he telescopes the story down to (for him, at least) a more manageable form. Suffice it to say, Coalhouse's story makes for a very engaging experience.
The cast, with one exception, is outstanding, but I believe two of the actors deserve special recognition. (Strangely enough, both are no longer with us.) Howard Rollins, Jr. was a relative newcomer when he was cast as Coalhouse, and he does a fantastic job here; he's asked to carry the film for much of its length, and carry it he does. The arc (or, if you like, journey) of his character requires a careful controlled performance; it would be easy for an actor to resort to histrionics while portraying such a character, but Rollins avoids this pitfall. There's a brief, quiet, powerful moment near the film's end in which he questions God for filling his heart with rage and leading him to that point in his life, and the sheer dignity of his performance in the scene is astounding. Forman was able to coax James Cagney out a twenty-year, self-imposed acting retirement (he had provided some narration for films in the interim, but hadn't stepped in front of a camera) for the role of Rheinlander Waldo. (De Laurentiis allowed Forman to cast the film as he saw fit, as long as the director provided him with one big-name star, which the producer said was necessary to sell the film overseas. Forman offered the role of Harry Thaw to Jack Nicholson, who agreed and then suddenly became unavailable. Forman then took an open dinner invitation from Cagney as a way to get the legend back on the screen.) Physically Cagney does little more than sit behind a desk, talk on the phone, or stand by a window, but he's still a force. Waldo is a man who looks like he wants nothing more than to go home and be left alone, although he knows this will never happen. There's a certain gruff resignation in Cagney's demeanor, but that mischievous gleam in his eye is still there -- just wait until you see him dress down McMillan's character. I found myself watching his scenes with a stupid grin of my face. Sadly, this was Cagney's last big screen appearance, although he did star in the made-for-television film Terrible Joe Morgan three years later.
Many of the remaining actors were unknowns at the time of the film's release, although there are a few exceptions. Mary Steenburgen had won an Oscar earlier in 1981 for Melvin and Howard, and Elizabeth McGovern, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work here, had made a splash in Ordinary People the previous year. Brad Dourif, who made his film debut in Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, appears in one of the last worthwhile parts he played before he started his Tobe Hooper-induced downward spiral (good thing Peter Jackson along and rescued him). Donald O'Connor (Singin' in the Rain) appears in a few scenes, doing what he does best. Jeff Daniels made his screen debut here; Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) and Frankie Faison (The Silence of the Lambs) portray two of Coalhouse's friends. The late Michael Jeter (The Fisher King) can be glimpsed briefly, as can John Ratzenberger (Cheers). Mandy Patinkin (The Princess bride) has a small role as Tateh, a young man who begins the film as a crafter of children's flipbooks and then transitions into the bourgeoning motion picture industry; his wife, Mameh, is portrayed by Fran Drescher (Saturday Night Fever), who actually puts her accent to good use. (It's a little odd watching the film today, as these faces are now so recognizable you'd think Mike Todd had produced it.)
There's one final person who worked on the film I'd liked to highlight before we move on to the technical aspects of this release. The score for Ragtime was composed by Randy Newman, and is further proof the Academy ignored him for far too long. Not to knock Vangelis's score for Chariots of Fire, but Mr. Newman should taken home the award for his work here. (He finally picked up an Oscar for Monsters, Inc.)
The disc isn't a technical knockout, but for the most part it's an admirable job, and is certainly better than I was expecting. The transfer is clean and sharp, although there is some non-obtrusive edge enhancement, as well as some grain in a few backgrounds. Color balance is excellent, and blacks are exactly that: black. (You'll notice both during the opening credits, as McGovern, in a red dress, dances with a man dressed in a black tuxedo.) Exterior shots have a somewhat soft appearance, but this is intentional and helps add a sense of nostalgia. The source print, a few nicks and scratches aside, was obviously in excellent shape; all in all, the cinematography of Miroslav Ondricek, who also photographed Amadeus, is very well-served. The audio doesn't fair quite as well. The remastered mono track sounds fine, albeit just a little thin. The Dolby 5.1 remix has good fidelity, and is nicely spread across the front channels; the surrounds and subwoofer generally only come into play during musical interludes, although the sub does rumble during a few explosions. There's a problem, however, with the track's dynamic range. The music is recorded at too high a level, which forced me to turn down the volume more than a few times. (As much as I enjoyed Randy's score, I could do without the accompanying headache.)
Extras include a twenty-minute featurette on the making of the film, a very dry, borderline-boring commentary featuring director Milos Forman and executive producer Michael Hausman (the two only seem to speak for about thirty minutes total, which leaves a lot of dead air), and a deleted scene. This scene, which runs about ten minutes, involves Evelyn's encounter with anarchist and Mother Earth publisher Emma Goldman. It's a good thing the scene was deleted, as it's heavy-handed and the dialogue is awkward. (Michael Weller was forced to invent much of the dialogue for the film, as Doctorow's novel contains very little; this scene contains Weller's only misstep in an otherwise superb effort.)
Although a great deal of the novel's success is owed to Doctorow's ability to juggle and interweave a large cast and overlapping plotlines, the film stumbles the few times it attempts the same feat. The early scenes, in which the characters walk in and out of each other's lives, are the weakest part of the film; you can almost sense Forman rushing to get them out of the way in order to get to what he believes is the heart of the story. When Coalhouse first appears, and the focus narrows down to his plight, the film gains momentum and a genuine sense of purpose; it does briefly falter a bit toward the end when Mandy Patinkin's character is spotlighted, but it quickly recovers when it shifts back to Coalhouse.
We also never really come to understand why Younger Brother joins up with Coalhouse, nor do we know anything about the other men who are helping Coalhouse; they suddenly appear late in the film, with no explanation as to who they are or how they came together.
Despite being a marginally talented author, Norman Mailer cannot act. The murder of his character brings with it a sense of relief, as the film is no longer weakened by his presence.
Ragtime the novel is a classic; Ragtime the film is a near-classic. Despite the film's minor flaws, the shortcomings of the extras, and the audio problems, this DVD is without question worthy of purchase. Just make sure you pick up a copy of the book as well.
Not guilty in the least. The court thanks Paramount for its efforts in bringing us the DVD release of this fine film. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 155 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary with Director Milos Foreman and Executive Producer Michael Hausman
* "Remembering Ragtime" Featurette
* Deleted Scene