Ragtime (1981) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Notes on the Film
I think of Ragtime as one of the great might-have-beens in film history. It started with rich source material: a long, witty, brilliantly observed and complex novel about the changes which took place in the United States after the dawn of the 20th century. That novel interwove its fictional characters with real historical people and events in a way that was both beautiful storytelling and incisive commentary about the changes which characterized that time. The story's backdrop included the emergence of cars, the birth of the film industry, the changing roles of women and black people, and the inchoate stages of the most powerful economy the world has ever known. The director of the film was Milos Forman, who is brilliant with period pieces. Amadeus, anyone? The cast was one of the best ever assembled, combining some of the best actors of 1981 with some promising newcomers, and some screen legends like Donald O'Connor, Pat O'Brien, and James Cagney, who came out of retirement just to play this role. The cast was so deep that even the tiny roles were filled by people who would later become stars, like Jeff Daniels, Samuel L. Jackson, and Fran Drescher. There was even a successful "gimmick" casting to fuel the publicity engine, as novelist Norman Mailer played a noted architect.
All of the auspices were favorable.
And, in a way, the film is a great one. I sincerely believe that if you watch the second half of this movie, you will think that you must have missed part of one of the greatest films ever made. If you watch the first half of this film, you will sit back in your easy chair with the supreme confidence that you are about to have one of the greatest viewing experiences of your life. Yet in both cases, you would be wrong. It is a good movie, but not a great one. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. The two halves do not fit together well, and when they are attached, the make the film rambling and much too long.
What went wrong?
The most obvious problem was that the immense scope of the book needed to be pared down further. The novel managed several main stories of approximately equal weight, and introduced several main themes, all of which it treated with approximately equal heft. After it introduced each character and theme, it held them in reserve, reintroduced them periodically, wound them together, and incorporated each of them into the grand scheme, like independent musical signatures being woven into a long and complex ragtime number. Ragtime was the key symbolic element, because the development of ragtime music symbolized the changes of the era, and the symphonic elements of the plot reinforced the structure of a good rag.
That was all very nifty, but was also very literary, and not easy to transfer to celluloid. A movie cannot generally manage such gimmicky structural devices and, more important, is not of nearly infinite duration, as a book theoretically might be. I might enjoy spending two or three weeks reading The Name of the Rose, but the film version is allowed only a couple of hours from my life. The general consensus is that movies must generally be compressed into a running time between 90 and 120 minutes, except for grand spectacles like Spartacus or Lawrence of Arabia. The screenwriter came close to figuring out the solution, but could not quite get there. He correctly determined that the key was to focus on one of the stories, and let the others come to the front only during the points of intersection with the main thrust. Forman and Doctorow chose to focus on the story of Coalhouse Walker, a successful and elegant black man who lost everything important to him because his pride caused him to escalate a routine daily humiliation into a war against the system. Some redneck firemen hassled him one day and eventually ended up defacing his new Model-T Ford. He wanted justice, and he wanted that justice to treat him exactly as it would have treated a white man in the same circumstances. Unfortunately, justice did not want him back. He went through the standard channels and could not receive the recompense he deserved, so he ended up waging a war on white society until the authorities would finally meet his demands. Walker's tale was a great yarn, and provided the ideal focus for the film.
Because the scriptwriter just couldn't part with some of Doctorow's treasured creations, the Coalhouse Walker story takes forever to get started, but then becomes virtually the entire focus of the film's second half. The resulting film is 155 minutes long, and by the time it is over you will be wondering whatever happened to the characters you originally thought to be the focus of the film, back when the film started and you were much younger.
With Tateh cut completely and Harry K Thaw reduced to a supporting character, the film would move smoothly and arrive at its focal point sooner. The story could be retooled ever so slightly so that it always revolves around the two major characters (Nesbitt and Walker). The Little Brother character would connect the two main characters, and the resulting shorter film would still deliver the same points and all the emotional resonance of the existing film, but would do so in 110 tight minutes instead of 155 slack ones.
I like Ragtime. In fact, I like it a lot ...
... but it should have been a great, great movie, and it just rambles too much to reach that height.
Notes on the Historical Backdrop
Coalhouse Walker is not a historical character, but he has a mighty high-falutin' literary pedigree. His name and story come from Heinrich von Kleistís 1810 narrative Michael Kohlhaas, a morally complex tale about a law-abiding horse trader in the 16th century who eventually goes on a rampage of violence against a nobleman who illegally expropriates his horses. In the case of both Coalhouse and Kohlhaas, the affronted is an upright citizen who seeks redress through every legal means and obeys every law until it becomes obvious that he cannot receive justice through reason. In each case, his pride and his powerful sense of right turn him to criminal violence.
If you read the plot summary at the link above, you will see that the parallel between the two stories is quite strong. Each man lost his wife. Each man rejected an attempt at intercession from the most respected scholar and ethicist of his people (Martin Luther and Booker T. Washington). Each man demanded that his property be restored in its original condition. Herr Kohlhaas, however, came to as happy an ending as a man can achieve having lost his wife. He got his horses and he saw the nobleman imprisoned. Coalhouse earned his property and his pride back, but his campaign cost him his life.
The historical love triangle was substantially as pictured in Ragtime. Stanford White was the architect to the stars, having built lavish homes for the Vanderbilts and Astors, as well as famous public buildings. His continuing legacy to modern day New York is the Washington Square Arch. Harry K. Thaw was the 35 year old heir to a Pittsburgh mining fortune, and he had married Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, who had once been White's mistress. On June 25, 1906, during the opening night performance of ''Mamzelle Champagne'', Thaw shot and killed White in the roof garden of the old Madison Square Garden on East 26th, which White himself had designed. As the fatal shot was fired, the performer was singing "I Could Love a Million Girls", precisely as pictured in the film. As this article from Court TV verifies, Doctorow stayed very close to the verifiable facts in his portrayal of the murder case and its principals. White really was a generous and gentlemanly satyr with an eye for young girls, and Thaw really was a crazy man. The film mentions that Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was confined to a mental institution. The film drops the story there, but Thaw was released ten years later, and lived free for another thirty years, despite the fact that he was never able to get his tantrums under control.
Nesbit, by the way, had a brief career in vaudeville after Thaw was committed to the institution, but struggled the rest of her life and never was able to return to the luxurious lifestyle she had lived with both White and Thaw. As pictured in the film, Thaw's mother reneged on her promise to provide Nesbit with a million dollars for favorable testimony in the murder trial.
Notes on nudity, and the DVD
Would you be surprised to see a four minute topless scene and full frontal nudity in a PG film? I'll bet you would. Of course, a PG rating in 1981 did not have the same meaning it has in 2005, because the former encompassed both today's PG and today's PG-13. The division of the grade did not occur until July of 1984. That fact notwithstanding, it is still quite an unexpected pleasure to come across a PG film in which the beautiful lead actress (Elizabeth McGovern) is topless in clear light for such a long time, occasionally flashing even more than her breasts.
In addition to the nudity seen in the theatrical version of the film, McGovern performed a second long topless scene which was eventually deleted. In the big picture, assuming a major overhaul of the script as I suggested above, deleting that scene would have made sense. Given the existing theatrical version of the film, however, I would not have deleted the scene, for three reasons:
I'm not sure why, but the DVD shows the deleted footage in black and white, with McGovern's nudity digitally blurred. Fortunately for us, it was not quite blurred well enough, and we can use the pause button to pick up a pretty good look in the occasional frame.
Additional notes from Tuna in yellow
Ragtime is a period piece from Milos Forman centered in New York in 1906. The credits are rather impressive, and include names like Pat O'Brien, Donald O'Connor, Mandy Patinkin, Mary Steenburgen, Norman Mailer, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Cagney, who was lured out of retirement.
It centers around Coalhouse Walker
Jr, a piano player who finally lands a good job with a band, buys a
new Ford, and finds his old girlfriend (who has his son) living and
working at the home of a conservative family who took her in. After
proposing to her, he is harassed by a group of volunteer firemen,
who trash his car. The rest of the film is his attempt to get
justice, then revenge.
Return to the Movie House home page