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Ragtime has emerged as a classic film. Its astonishing array of great
performances--literally a score of them, from Howard Rollins's truly tragic
stand for human dignity at the film's center to James Cagney's historic
return to film at the end of his life and the end of this motion
picture--would almost alone qualify this as a great motion picture. But
Michael Weller's breathtakingly complex and complete dramatization of
Doctorow's sprawling novel, the gorgeous production and costume designs and
the superb direction of Milos Forman seal the deal. This is a magnificent
tapestry of American life at the beginning of the American century.
Lavishly entertaining, genuinely heartbreaking and a dandy history lesson to boot, Ragtime has joined the pantheon of great, epic movies.
I finished reading Doctorow's novel just before it was announced that
production had started on the movie. I remember thinking, "How the hell do
you make a movie of a book where the central characters are named 'Mother,'
'Father,' and 'Mother's Younger Brother?'"
Milos Forman showed how: In a word, beautifully.
And "Ragtime" is beautiful, stunning in its recreation of early 1900s New York, utilizing a script which somehow ties together the central events and their effects on its main characters as well as one of the finest, most haunting soundtracks (Randy Newman, who went so far as to compose several original 'ragtime' numbers) in the past twenty years, topped off with a first-rate cast.
James Cagney was the big news, of course, and deservedly so: Emerging from twenty years of retirement, he showed that he'd not only not lost anything but had added to his expertise. Add Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, James Olsen, Howard Rollins, Keith McMillan and even Elizabeth McGovern (each of them perfectly cast), to name but a few, and you see where Forman wasn't missing a bet.
"Ragtime" suffers, ultimately, due to lapses in editing -- the most grievous lapse the cutting of a short scene which explains Commissioner Waldo's motivation behind the action he ultimately takes with Coalhouse Walker. Some cuts are always necessarily (especially in a movie as sprawling as this), yet that cut -- and several others -- flaw this beauty of a film.
But not fatally. Not at all. More than twenty years later, "Ragtime" is still gorgeous.
I never saw this film until 2005 and after I had become a big James
Cagney fan and wanted to see the movies of his I had missed. Thus, I
had to check this out, especially since it was his first film he had
made in over 20 years.
En route to getting a glimpse at the 80-year-old star, I found out (1) he wasn't on screen until 45 minutes were left in this 155-minute movie; (2) his absence didn't upset me that much because I was absorbed in this interesting story (plus, to be fair, I was told in advance he didn't appear until the last part!), (3) the sets, clothing, etc. of this "period piece" were fantastic to view.
Anyway, in my opinion, the star of the film was a guy who hardly got any billing: James Olson. He is the key figure in this story and very interesting to watch. Actually, just about everyone is interesting which makes for good storytelling. Nonetheless, Olson's fine performance is unfairly overlooked.
Howard Rollins was good as the black "victim" of the profane slob Kenneth McMillian and Elizabeth McGovern certainly kept ones attention although I wasn't quite sure how her character tied into the story.
By the way, to rate this movie "PG" is ludicrous since McGovern is seen in a 3- to-4-minute scene casually talking away with bare breasts for all to see. And - contrary to a popular rumor - nothing of her was cut out of the DVD.
Meanwhile, Cagney showed he hadn't forgotten how to act. It was a pleasure to see him again, just a few years before he would pass away. It's a cliché, but I doubt if anyone was in his class as an actor and a dancer, a tough guy or a comedian. He was the best and went out in style here, too, although he did do one last made-for-TV film a short time after this.
Back in the day when Hollywood was grinding out B westerns it wasn't
unusual at all to see famous folks of the west in stories that had
absolutely nothing to do with their own lives or to see many famous
people interacting when they never even met in real life.
Ragtime revives some of that dubious tradition in filming E.L. Doctorow's novel about the Teddy Roosevelt years of the first decade of the last century. Teddy figures into this briefly as does his Vice President Charles Fairbanks. Booker T. Washington is here too, as are the principals of the Stanford White murder, and New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.
It's quite a blend because Roosevelt and Fairbanks ran for re-election in 1904 as Fairbanks is shown delivering a campaign speech. He wasn't even Vice President then, just a Senator from Indiana. Fairbanks was running for Vice President because Roosevelt had no Vice President in his first term. He succeeded to the presidency when Willima McKinley was assassinated.
The Stanford White murder took place in 1906 and was then called the crime of the century. Many such murders right up to O.J. Simpson were given that dubious distinction. And Rhinelander Waldo was not NYPD Police Commissioner until 1910 and he was much younger than James Cagney.
Still and all E.L. Doctorow's book is made into a fine film which got a whole bunch of Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director for Milos Forman and Supporting player nominations for Howard Rollins, Jr. and Elizabeth McGovern.
The main story is about Coalhouse Walker, Jr. a black ragtime pianist and his Sarah. She has his baby and they'd like to get married. But a whole lot of things, some of them peripherally connected to the true events and people previously mentioned that lead him and a gang to take possession of the Morgan Library and threaten to blow it up.
Howard Rollins was a real tragedy. This was a great start to a short, but brilliant career that included his long running role as Virgil Tibbs in the TV series In the Heat of the Night and the film A Soldier's Story. He died way too young from AIDS contracted from a lot of intravenous drug use.
Elizabeth McGovern is the famous Evelyn Nisbet, the girl on the red velvet swing which was the title of another film that dealt with the Stanford White murder. McGovern's performance is probably closer to the real Evelyn than Joan Collins was in that earlier film. She's basically a goldigger who juggled two men, her husband Harry K. Thaw and her upscale lover, society architect Stanford White. Her circus act led to White's death, Thaw's commitment to an insane asylum and a vaudeville career for her.
Ragtime was eagerly awaited because of the anticipated return of James Cagney to the screen after being off for 19 years. Cagney is clearly aged, but he gets through the role because unlike that television film Terrible Joe Moran, he's not the center of the film, though he's first billed. Note that he's sitting down during most of his performance and when he has to stand the camera is a discreet distance. It's nothing like the bouncing Cagney of old, but light years better than Terrible Joe Moran.
This was also the final joint appearance as it turned for the team that invented the buddy film, James Cagney and Pat O'Brien even though they have no scenes together. O'Brien is Harry K. Thaw's attorney and Mrs. O'Brien plays Thaw's mother under her maiden name of Eloise Taylor. She was an actress before she married Pat, but gave up her career to raise their four children.
Author Norman Mailer plays Stanford White, fulltime architect and hedonist and Robert Joy plays the demented millionaire Harry K. Thaw and both fit the parts perfectly. Maybe one day we will have a definitive film version just concentrating on the murder and it's aftermath for the three principals.
Milos Forman gave us a remarkable evocation of an exciting time in American history. It seemed that America had limitless possibilities then. I doubt they'll be saying that about the first decade of this century.
In the beginning of the Twentieth Century, many dramas cross in a wonderful
panel, showing the formation of the American society. Evelyn Nesbit Thaw
(Elizabeth McGovern) is the wife of a millionaire, and pivot of a crime
committed by her jealous husband. Her mother-in-law is a hypocrite old lady,
who convinces Evelyn to lie in court for money, to avoid her son to go to
the electric chair. Evelyn commits perjury, but the mother-in-law does not
pay her the promised amount. Mary Steenburgen is a correct woman, having a
very moralist husband. Her brother (Brad Dourif) is honest and idealist. The
family hires Sarah, a black and single mother, with her baby. The father is
the pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.), who progresses in
his career and comes back to Sarah, proposing her to get married with him.
An incident with a group of racists makes him fighting for justice in a
racist society. Rheinlander Waldo (James Cagney) is the chief of police, who
is involved in the incident. This movie is another wonderful film of Milos
Forman. Amazing the quantity of marvelous movies made by this fantastic
director. The reconstitution of the period is magnificent. The cast is
stunning. Elizabeth McGovern looks like a doll wearing those costumes. Her
nude scene is also great. My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil): `Na Época do Ragtime' (`In the Age of the Ragtime')
A short commentary: Having read through a few of the comments here, I
note that there are several which express disappointment that the movie
didn't do the book justice. Personally, having read the book some time
after seeing the movie, I can understand their point, but realistically
it's the type of book which would be nearly be impossible to do justice
to, as there are so many broad interwoven threads in the book that it
would require at least a 6 hour movie to even scratch the surface, and
even then, putting it all together into a singular coherent whole which
would hold the viewer's interest for that long would be quite a mean
feat indeed. So instead of looking at it as an attempt to fully capture
the book, it might be best to simply appreciate it for what it is,
rather than what it isn't. And I believe that on its own terms it
succeeds admirably, and remains one of my favorite movies of all time.
Another way of looking at this, as an introduction to the book, rather than vice versa it has some value on those terms. Perhaps if I hadn't seen the movie I might never have happened upon the book, and never known what I'd missed.
This a truly terrific period piece directed by Milos Forman(Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) and starring terrific cast. The film takes place in the very early 1900's and follows the lives of at least four different people/families. As the movie gets going, it begins to focus mostly on an African American man and his struggle to be heard in society after he is mistreated by a group of firemen. Everything that follows is equally powerful and fascinating as the man tries to find justice in the turn of the century America. This fine film is richly textured with turn of the century atmosphere, music and actual newsreels from the period which all contribute to this fascinating story. Also nice to see James Cagney one more time. This is a film that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in what life was like at the turn of century. A fantastic film. ***3/4 out of ****.
1906, to be specific, is when Stanford White was shot -- which of course
marks the beginning date bookmark of the movie.
The "declaration of war" -- WW I -- as announced in a Newspaper headline at the end of the film, bookmarks the end of the movie -- and of the era.
Not trivial points, since a good part of the interest of this movie lies it it's serving as a relatively rare window into this period. Which unlike the 1930s or the 1920s which the plot summary and first comment confuse it with, is not a period which is much portrayed in film.
I'd say it's a pretty good, although not great, "costume" film. The first half is much stronger than the second half, both in historical interest and in character development.
Worth seeing though. Perhaps try seeing it right after "Age of Innocence", which is set primarily in the New York of the 1870s (although entirely among the upper upper class, instead of the somewhat broader class look, and city/near country look of Ragtime).
RAGTIME Director Milos Forman Cast Inc JAMES CAGNEY Pat O'Brien Donald O'Connor This cast is a blast from the past We film for a few days at Oxford and for me it doesn't get any better than this. The scenes are interior of a big office and I'm dressed as a US cop. Pat O'Brien came onto the set first and shook hands with many of the Supporting Artists (Including me) ''How are you son, you look good'' he said.. Well that's the best way for me to start the day because now I felt good that this man had taken time to welcome all of us. Pat moved around the room chatting to cast and crew alike and we were all waiting for the main man to arrive on set.. The noise was quite deafening until someone said ''He's here''. You could have heard a pin drop as the main man entered the set. Everyone stood and applauded and waited for James Cagney to take his position on the set before silence resumed. There they were in front of me my two heroes of the black and white days of cinema. I think I've seen every film that James has made (Some of them many times) I feel sorry for the kids of today that never got to see he's early films and think a good film today has to be bombarded with special effects to make it work. Let me list some of films of James Cagney to let the kids of today and tomorrow know what they have missed. The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), White Heat (1949). Then in the 50s Love Me Or Leave Me (With Doris Day), Mr Roberts. (With a young Jack Lemmon). I could watch all these films again and never tire. This was to be James Cagney's last film and I would like to say, thank you Mr Cagney for entertaining me for so many years.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When RAGTIME was published in 1980 it was a big best seller,
establishing E. L. Doctorow as a leading popular novelist, and also
showing the way to Mr. Doctorow to future literary work set in other
periods of American history. It was optioned for the movies, and became
a hit of the 1981 film season. Guaranteeing it's success was the
announcement that after nearly two decades (except for some minor
television appearance dealing with conservation) James Cagney was going
to reappear in the film, in an important supporting part: the somewhat
corrupt New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.
Actually RAGTIME had several "old time" faces in it. Cagney's pal, and frequent co-star, Pat O'Brien played Harry Thaw's lawyer Delphin Delmas. And in a smaller part, Donald O'Connor appeared as a singer and dance teacher who was part of the cast of "Mademoiselle Champaign", the musical that was being shown at the Madison Square Garden on June 18, 1906 (the night architect Stanford White was shot and killed by millionaire Harry K. Thaw).
Interestingly enough, when I first saw RAGTIME, it was at a theater that stood on Northern Blvd., in Queens. There were two theaters, one showing RAGTIME and one showing GHOST STORY, a film that starred Fred Astaire (his last film), John Houseman, Melvin Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The affect of seeing all these old time actors on the marquee of the theater was to make me look at the cars on the road to make sure they did not all have rumble seats and running boards.
The story was cut in the final movie that was shown. Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini, among other real characters, were in the shot film, but their sections were cut (in some DVDs theses sections are sometimes shown as extras). Houdini's role was rather important, for in the plot he was supposed to demonstrate an escape trick to the Younger Brother (Brad Dourif) that he was going to use later on to aid Coalhouse Walker's gang (Howard Rollins). Emma was supposed to represent the rise of labor as a force against the powers of the rich. She also was to undercut the blare of the Hearst Press regarding the White Murder Case, which was called the "Crime of the Century". "How can it be the crime of the century," Emma asks with amazement, when the century is only six years old?" J.P.Morgan and Henry Ford also appear, forming a club for themselves only as America's two richest men, and going to Egypt on an archaeological trek. Morgan's mansion and library (still there on East 32nd Street and Madison Avenue) and Ford's Model T play important roles in the story too.
Doctorow's novel was to show the growing pains of what is modern America, with the rise of American power under Teddy Roosevelt, the rise of immigrants and their contributions (Goldman, Tateh the future movie pioneer: Mandy Pantikin), the rise of African-American self-respect and struggle for equality (Coalhouse/Rollins; his wife Sarah/Debbie Allens), the power of the rich (Harry Thaw's crazy acquittal - the "Million dollar defense": Robert Joy; and the deus ex-machina appearance of Waldo/Cagney to settle the final confrontation).
The complications of the story are the collision of groups seeking equality and power, from the past (the rich, the family that hires Coalhouse's wife Sarah), the African-Americans, the immigrants (Houdini, Tateh). Inside the groups are conflicts. They younger brother becomes a committed revolutionary, while his older brother (James Olsen) is a remnant of conservative seeming sanity. Coalhouse finds his violent activism (which is due to personal tragedy caused by bigots) is opposed by America's leading African-American educator (Dr. Booker T. Washington: Moses Gunn). Washington believes in self-respect earned by a bootstrap approach that will gain the admiration and support of the better elements of the White majority. Ironically, after he has helped unman Coalhouse towards the end of the story, Waldo and the other whites push him aside as though they consider him little better than, say, a Pullman Car porter!
The film was well directed by Milos Forman. The acting was quite good, including Cagney who was rather infirm at the time, but who is shown to advantage, and has his last good part. It was nice to see him going out on a high note here. Rollins was very promising, and it is a pity that he died so young from A.I.D.S. with so little shown for his talent. I can go down the list, including a brief performance by Norman Mailer as the ill-fated White. But take special note of Kenneth McMillan (as Willie Conlin) who is the bigoted fireman who mistreats Coalhouse and causes the tragedies. He is pretty good as a malevolent slob (or piece of slime) who ends up a pawn in a final game of sudden death that ends the movie.
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