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.

  • In at least one case, a major character is just completely abandoned. The focus of the film's first 30 minutes is a man named Harry K. Thaw, a historical character who publicly assassinated the famous architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer). Thaw goes to trial and is never heard from again. Although he seemed to be the "star" of the film for the first half-hour, it turned out that Thaw had only existed to introduce the character of Evelyn Nesbitt, a showgirl who was Thaw's wife and White's former mistress, and who was the second most important character in the film after Coalhouse Walker. If I had been in charge of this script, I would have dispensed with a lot of the preliminaries and would have started the movie with a bang - literally - Thaw's murder of White.
  • In another case, an irrelevant character is elevated to major status. The character of Tateh was important to the book. He was an impoverished Jewish immigrant who became a rich and powerful film director, and his story said a lot about America at the turn of the century. Although syrupy, his tale was a good one, and the character was portrayed beautifully by Mandy Patinkin, but there is simply no room for this storyline in the movie. It exists virtually independent of the other characters. Tateh never intersects with Coalhouse Walker, and he never needs to intersect with Evelyn Nesbitt. He touches other major characters only peripherally. It would have been a simple matter to cut Tateh completely from the script and, in fact, it should have been done.

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:

(1) The film is no less long and rambling after the cut. It wouldn't be noticeably different with the scene restored. Cutting the running time from 2:41 to 2:35 was not significant enough to warrant losing some good material.

(2) The scene would have plugged up a gigantic hole in the film's narrative. At one point, after Younger Brother has been stalking Evelyn Nesbitt for a while, he musters up the nerve to speak with her, and she is petrified to see him. He makes some comment to the effect of "you must think I'm crazy after what I've done", but we don't know what the hell he is talking about, or why she is so scared. The reason is in the deleted scene - she caught him peering at her naked body while he was hidden in a closet.

(3) the scene has merit in many other ways besides the flow of the plot.

  • It was essential to the character development of Younger Brother.
  • It's both erotic and amusing to see Elizabeth McGovern undressed by another women with Younger Brother watching from the closet.

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.

While that is the main plot, it takes a while to get there. It kicks off with a storyline about a former showgirl and model who posed for a nude placed atop Madison Square Garden. Her conservative husband demands it be taken down, and ends up shooting the man responsible for mounting it there. The showgirl eventually gets involved with a member of the same family that has taken in Walker's girlfriend and baby.

I found Ragtime a little long, and confusing in the first act, but with many rewards, not the least of which was the great look of the film, and the Grammy nominated sound track.


DVD INFO (Link to the immediate left. The one to the far left is the paperback)

  • It is not a deluxe special edition, but it is an excellent DVD
  • The widescreen (2.35) transfer is enhanced for 16x9, and is quite good. I found a few scenes to be slightly dark, but the transfer is otherwise excellent.
  • Director Milos Forman gives a full-length commentary
  • There is a short featurette, mostly consisting of Forman and Brad Dourif reminiscing about working with Cagney and others.
  • There is a deleted scene which has never been seen before.



see the main commentary

The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for eight Oscars, including cinematography and adapted screenplay. As you can guess from my comments, I agree with the former, disagree with the latter. It was nominated for seven Golden Globes, including Best Picture (Drama Division) and Best Director. It was shut out at both award shows!

The People Vote ...

  • The numbers for 1981. Ragtime grossed only $17 million. To lend perspective, the total American movie industry in 1981 grossed $2.3 billion. In 2004, the total was almost exactly four times that amount. In 1981, a $35 million gross would crack the annual top 20. Today it takes about $115 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says. "I suppose it is a B-. It is a good film - 8 Oscar nominations - and it accumulated a respectable box office for its time, but the damned thing could have been truly superlative. Tuna says, "This is a C+. Those who like epic period pieces should enjoy this one."

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