US Release Date: 11-20-1981
Directed by: Milos Forman
- James Cagney, as
- New York Police Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo
- Brad Dourif, as
- Younger Brother
- Moses Gunn, as
- Booker T. Washington
- Elizabeth McGovern, as
- Evelyn Nesbit
- Pat O'Brien, as
- Donald O'Connor, as
- Evelyn's dance instructor
- James Olson, as
- Mandy Patinkin, as
- Howard E. Rollins Jr., as
- Coalhouse Walker Jr.
- Mary Steenburgen, as
- Debbie Allen, as
- Norman Mailer, as
- Stanford White
- Jeff Daniels, as
- P. C. O'Donnell
- Fran Drescher, as
- Samuel L. Jackson, as
- Gang Member No. 2
- Bessie Love, as
- Old Lady
- Ted Ross, as
- Black Lawyer
- John Ratzenberger, as
- Jack Nicholson as
- Actor on Beach
James Cagney made his last film appearance in Ragtime.
In 1981 there seemed to be a last hurrah for several classic era male stars. James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire and William Holden all made their last theatrical film appearances that year. In Ragtime, On Golden Pond, Ghost Story and S.O.B respectively. As a huge fan of James Cagney's, Ragtime was the one that I remember most anticipating.
Taken from the book by E.L. Doctorow, directed by Milos Forman and produced by Dino De Laurentiis this movie has quite a pedigree. It also boasts an amazing cast that includes (besides Mr. Cagney) Elizabeth McGovern, Mandy Patinkin, Mary Steenburgen, Howard E. Rollins Jr., Debbie Allen, Pat O'Brien, Donald O'Connor, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson and even silent film star Bessie Love.
Set exactly one hundred years ago in 1906 Ragtime is mostly about two families that come together and affect each other. One of the families is white the other is black. Coalhouse Walker, a black man, is humiliated by some volunteer firemen, who are jealous of seeing him drive around well-dressed in a nice new automobile. Things just keep on escalating in a battle of wills and eventually the entire police force is involved. Not much chance for a happy ending here.
This is an epic though so much more is going on than just that. There are many different characters and the time period is painstakingly recreated. Donald O'Connor is wonderful as a song and dance Vaudevillian of the era. Mandy Patinkin also adds much color as a poor but ambitious Jewish entrepreneur. This movie is beautiful down to the smallest detail. It is paced rather slow but it so richly unfolds.
Of all the movies I saw during my adolescence, this one and Apocalypse Now stand out the most clearly in my memory. I'm happy to say that both movies hold up very well today and may, in fact, have improved with age.
Elizabeth McGovern and Donald O'Connor in Ragtime.
The 1970s and early 80s was a golden time for the historical television mini-series. Roots, Centennial, Shogun and others were all released during that period. I bring this up because this movie, released in 1981 and based on the sprawling E.L. Doctorow novel, seems to be crying out for the miniseries treatment and there's certainly enough characters and storylines to warrant one. Amazingly, several storylines were slimmed down from the book while others were removed completely and there's still too many for just one movie, despite it's 2 hour and 20 minute running time.
Director Milos Forman and writer Michael Weller simply try to cram too many stories into one film. Maybe Robert Altman, who was originally slated to direct this movie, could have pulled off the multi-story arcs with more grace, but here they just seem piled on top of each other, without smooth enough connections.
Much of the first portion of the film centers on Elizabeth McGovern playing real life "chorus girl" Evelyn Nesbit and the trial of her husband for the murder of one of her ex-lovers. Dubbed "The Trial of the Century" at the time, it was the scandal of the year. I quite enjoyed this portion of the movie, but it has very little to do with the rest of the movie. Evelyn is mostly absent from the latter half of the film. Sure, she meets two characters involved with the other storylines, but you could lift her from the movie and you'd still have a complete film with just a small amount of editing.
Likewise, Mandy Patinkin could have been removed without disruption. His character is interesting, but given such limited screentime that he's never fully explored and might as well have been left on the cutting room floor.
The story of Coalhouse Walker and his journey from being an up and coming musician who ends up a terrorist holed up in the NYC Library is the real story of this movie. His involvement with the unnamed middle-class white family is one of the more intriguing angles of the film. Father is clearly uncomfortable being involved with Coalhouse, particularly after he goes on his vengeance fueled rampage, and yet he tries to help him anyway. The scene between him and Coalhouse in the library is one of the tensest in the film.
You certainly can't blame the cast for any of the movie's flaws. The younger cast led by Elizabeth McGovern and Howard E. Rollins all do great work. The inclusion of Pat O'Brien and Donald O'Conner is nice, but their parts are really just glorified cameos. Cagney, on the other hand, more than justifies his casting. Despite being 81 and wheelchair bound, the crusty old timer proves he still had it in him to deliver a solid performance. My favorite line of his comes when he's talking to the racist Fire Chief, when he tells him, "That library over there is worth millions and people keep telling me you're a piece of slime."
This is a movie that should either have been shorter, removing some of the storylines and focusing on the main one, or been longer, perhaps adapted for television as a miniseries so that it could have told all of the stories in the detail they deserved. As it is, this movie is bloated and meandering. Parts of it are great, but the different story threads are never sewed together in a satisfying enough manner.
Howard E. Rollins Jr,, Debbie Allen and Mary Steenburgen in Ragtime
The story of chorus girl/gold digger Evelyn Nesbit is entertaining enough, but light weight. "This little piggy went wee weee wee wee all the way to the bank." When I first saw this film as a teenager, I was struck by McGovern's nude scene. I had seen nude actresses on screen before but she is naked for an entire scene. It made quite an impression on my horny one track teenage mind.
I agree with Scott, that the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr. is far more interesting. Howard E. Rollins Jr. as Coalhouse Walker Jr is one of the most sympathetic characters ever put on screen. He is, at first, overly polite and nicely honorable. He smiles easily and wears his emotions on his sleeve. He gives to others and expects to receive as well. After some bigots treat him wrong, he is told by both whites and blacks to just let it slide, but he will not stand for it. He has honor and demands to be treated as such.
After Sarah gets hurt trying to help him, Coalhouse Walker Jr. loses his last thread of patience. Once a man full of life, Coalhouse Walker Jr allows hate to enter his soul and he begins taking lives. It is a sad but very realistic story arc. Rollins gives a very moving performance, "Lord, I'd hoped I'd have the courage to know what I should do now. You must see how sick at heart I've been... and how I've performed this thing with little appetite."
Rollins's career never lived up to the promise of his performance here. Perhaps he was never offered many other good roles, but this, his film debut, will always stand as his greatest film moment. He would later find success on television's In the Heat of the Night. He died young at 46 from AIDS related lymphoma in 1996.
Milos Forman directed Ragtime with an amazing eye for detail. The sets, period clothes and old news reels easily draw the audience into the time period. James Cagney filmed the entire movie in a wheel chair, yet Forman never lets you know it. Ragtime runs longer than it needs to but it contains some great work.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1981)