Release Date(s)1981 (November 16, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Paramount Presents #28)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime contains several stories with some actual people and events of the early 1900s. This lavishly produced motion picture ties its characters together in interesting ways on a sprawling canvas that stretches between New York City and the suburb of New Rochelle.
The most prominent storyline focuses on a proud, ambitious black man, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard Rollins), seeking justice when his car is vandalized by thuggish white firemen. Other storylines feature chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), involved in one of the biggest scandals of the early 20th century; the tense relationships among members of an upper-class white family (James Olson as Father, Mary Steenburgen as Mother, and Brad Dourif as younger Brother); a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), who makes a modest living cutting out and selling silhouettes but is destined for bigger things; and Sarah (Debbie Allen), a black unwed mother.
Director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and screenwriter Michael Weller (Hair) blend these stories at a leisurely pace, artfully leading up to how the stories will converge. The first half of the film is nicely balanced among all the characters. In the second half, the balance tips toward Coalhouse. Having been denied all legal means to obtain justice, Coalhouse turns to terrorism to get the restitution any white person would receive and call public attention to the unjust treatment black people routinely suffered. It’s this sequence that features James Cagney, making his first screen appearance in 20 years. Cagney plays Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, who oversees the police presence when Coalhouse and accomplices threaten to blow up the Morgan Library.
Despite the large cast of characters, the film portrays each of them in depth, as people rather than representations or cliches. We have the well-to-do white suburban family whose lives gradually change after they take an abandoned black baby into their home; a shallow former fashion model bored with the propriety of her wealthy husband’s milieu and basking in her new notoriety; an immigrant realizing the American dream; a jealous husband incensed by a nude statue his wife posed for being exhibited for all to see; a famous magician and escape artist; and a world-renowned architect. That director Milos Forman not only tells all of these stories, but tells them well, is quite an achievement. At just over 2 1/2 hours, the film never seems cluttered or rushed because there’s always something interesting happening.
Rollins shoulders a considerable responsibility since Coalhouse is on screen for such an extended time on such an emotional tightrope. He elicits our empathy as both the polite, well-dressed, successful jazz musician before his self-respect is violated even more than his property, and as the obsessed mastermind of a plot to avenge the wrongs against not only himself, but also his race.
Cagney dominates the last third of the film as Police Commissioner Waldo. With a curled mustache and heavier than in his earlier films, he’s quite a presence as he calls out orders to a bevy of cops as his Waldo monitors the situation at the Morgan Library. There’s a trace of his gangster-film patter in his voice and an expression that conveys that he’s the man in charge. This would be Cagney’s final film.
As Sarah, Debbie Allen turns in an emotionally wrought performance, and in a small but important role as a cop who tries to rectify the wrong done to Coalhouse as far as he can, Jeff Daniels exhibits intelligence and a good heart. Kenneth McMillan plays volunteer fireman Willie Conklin, who initiates the vandalism on Coalhouse’s car, as the bully you love to hate—bigoted, ignorant, and corrupt. McMillan’s physical size, belligerent expression, and sly or apoplectic or pleading dialogue delivery all contribute to a living, unforgettable character.
Other effective supporting actors include Donald O’Connor (as a song-and-dance entertainer), Norman Mailer (as Stanford White), Moses Gunn (as Booker T. Washington), Jeffrey DeMunn (as Houdini), and Robert Joy (as Harry Thaw).
Ragtime was shot by Miroslav Ondricek on 35 mm film using J-D-C cameras and lenses, and framed at the aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, Ragtime comes to Blu-ray for the first time in the US as part of the Paramount Presents “remastered from a 4K film transfer.” The new restoration provides greater clarity and vividness. The picture is sharp—practically pristine—with colors rich and deep, especially in the costumes of the chorus girls, the period fire vehicles, Evelyn Nesbit’s dresses, costumes on the women in a Madison Square Garden sequence, and the picturesque home of the New Rochelle family. Actual and simulated archival black-and-white footage helps to establish events of the era. There’s excellent detail in wallpaper patterns, flower arrangements, and a crowded tenement street. Blacks are deep and velvety. There are no dirt specks, scratches, emulsion clouding or other visual distractions.
The soundtrack is provided in English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. Available subtitle options are English and English SDH. Dialogue is crisp and sharp throughout. Mandy Patinkin’s accent suggests his character’s east European origins but is easy to understand. Music plays an important part in creating the right period flavor. Randy Newman’s score is bouncy and upbeat, helping to keep the pace brisk. In the street scenes, the sound mix blends voices, pushcart hawkers, horses, early automobile noise, and music, creating a busy aural canvas. Explosions are extremely loud and occur during relatively quiet sequences, providing shocking moments.
Ragtime is the 28th release in the Paramount Presents series. The 2 discs sit inside a clear amaray case alongside a Digital copy included on a paper insert. New artwork is featured on the front and stills and a quote from the film is included on the reverse. Everything is housed within a slipcover featuring the same new artwork, but also folds out to reveal the film’s original poster art. The following extras, a mix of new and existing materials, are included:
DISC ONE: THEATRICAL VERSION
- Audio Commentary with Milos Forman and Michael Hausman
- Remembering Ragtime (SD – 18:32)
- Ragtime Revisited (HD – 21:11)
- Deleted Scene (SD – 10:19)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (HD – 17:06)
DISC TWO: DIRECTOR’S CUT WORKPRINT VERSION
- “Director's Cut” Workprint Version (HD – 174:02)
Audio Commentary – This 2004 commentary is shared by director Milos Forman and executive producer Michael Hausman, who discuss the film’s cast, music, production design, and costumes. Forman talks about how he convinced James Cagney to come out of retirement to play the role of the police commissioner. Overall, however, the commentary has a rambling quality, with considerable dead air. The Remembering Ragtime featurette is far better because it’s edited well, contains good information, and features other key filmmakers. In the commentary, solid content suffers as both men appear to be winging it, giving it a spontaneous feel.
Remembering Ragtime – Milos Forman, Michael Hausman, art director Patrizia Von Brandenstein, and actor Brad Dourif discuss aspects of the making of the film in this vintage featurette. Forman, who grew up in a communist country, identified with Coalhouse Walker seeking justice and retaining his dignity. Forman didn’t have a plan until he knew which actors would be playing the characters and which locations would be used. East 11th Street between Avenues A and B in Manhattan was re-dressed to approximate the crowded tenement life of the early 20th century. Additional scenes were filmed in London. Forman and producer Dino Di Laurentiis wanted a big name in the film so it could be sold in Europe. Jack Nicholson expressed interest but eventually backed out. James Cagney, who hadn’t made a film in 20 years, was approached and agreed only on the condition that he would not sign a contract and would be able to back out up to 3 days before his first scene was scheduled. Howard Rollins, who was suggested by an agent and was a teacher just prior to filming, aced his audition and got the key role of Coalhouse Walker. Forman knew Brad Dourif from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and thought he’d be perfect as Younger Brother. Jeff Daniels was cast in the small but important role of a policeman who tries to defuse a tense situation between Walker and the group of firemen who vandalized his car. Daniels conveyed both intelligence and a good heart, and wasn’t a cliche of the brutal, minority-hating cop. Elizabeth McGovern was very confident in her role as Evelyn Nesbit and Mary Steenburgen “could not do anything and not be ladylike.” Mandy Patinkin nailed the role of Tateh, the immigrant artist. E.L. Doctorow’s book depends on a “truth of place, a sense of place.” There was a tremendous wealth of resources for recreating period locations and costumes.
Ragtime Revisited – Larry Karaszewski and Michael Weller, the screenwriter of Ragtime, have a conversation in this new featurette. Forman approached Weller to write the screenplay but Weller was writing a novel at the time. He felt that the book was “a bit tricky” to adapt and wasn’t eager to take on the job. E.L. Doctorow had written his own screenplay but it was too long and unwieldy. Forman wanted to make a film about someone standing up to indignity, so he and Weller focused on the character of Coalhouse Walker. The film is about an outsider trying to get a fair shake as he encounters arbitrariness and unfairness. “If you’re going to take a stance, it’s going to cause a lot of friction.” Seeing the film recently, Weller was impressed with how patiently Forman built each storyline to make it seem real. According to Weller, Forman is a “hugely nourishing person.”
Deleted Scene – This lower resolution deleted scene comes immediately after Tateh throws his wife out of their apartment. In a black-and-white (deleted) continuation of the scene, social activist Emma Goldman throws a rock at the apartment window, shattering it and rallying the crowd as she talks about how women have no voice. When the police arrive to break up the crowd, Goldman grabs Evelyn Nesbit, who was watching the street drama, and takes her to her apartment, with Younger Brother following them and managing to hide inside. Goldman explains to Nesbit how she’s being exploited until Younger Brother is discovered and Goldman accosts him.
Deleted and Extended Scenes – 22 newly-discovered cut or extended scenes in black-and-white are shown. They’re not identified and run one after another, with just a second or two of black separating them.
Director’s Cut Workprint – This never-before-seen version of the film, located on the Disc 2, features footage devoted almost entirely to the Emma Goldman sequence from Disc 1. Though interesting, it seems extraneous and was wisely eliminated from the theatrical release. Other additions provide somewhat more depth to characters but do not dramatically affect the scenes. There are also a few sequencing differences. For instance, in the workprint, the New Rochelle family is not introduced until after Harry Thaw shoots Stanford White. This version was sourced from a print preserved by the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation.
Not included from the French Region B Blu-ray release by Arte Editions is the documentary Forman Versus Chytilova, the American Tapestry interview with Milos Forman, and the film’s trailer.
Ragtime portrays the worlds of the affluent and immigrants discovering the miracle of opportunity in their new home, and reflects vitality, innocence, corruption, power, and new discoveries. It offers a fascinating look at interesting characters in an era when possibilities seemed endless. Its attention to detail and interweaving of many characters in seemingly disparate stories that converge dramatically are artful and entertaining.
- Dennis Seuling