erik lundegaard


Wednesday July 14, 2021

Movie Review: Ragtime (1981)


Do not read this review fast.
It is never right to read movie reviews fast.
— A.O. Scott Joplin

E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime”is one of my favorite novels, Milos Forman is one of my favorite directors (“Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Hair,” “Amadeus”), so it’s a shame Forman’s adaptation of Doctorow doesn’t quite work. It’s a tough ask. The novel is so sprawling in its use of fictional and historical characters, and so precise in its writerly voice, its ironic, class-conscious narrator skewering the age, that I don’t know how you’d get it all on screen. 

It’s mostly historical characters that get glossed over. There’s no J.P. Morgan or Henry Ford, let alone Emma Goldman, while the Great Houdini is relegated to newsreel footage. The storyline of Father (James Olson) accompanying Perry to the Pole is completely cut, which makes sense to me, since it seems superfluous. Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) is expanded in terms of overall real estate but she’s reduced by becoming a shallow, comic figure. In the book she’s sadder and deeper. The best of her—the love she feels for Tateh’s daughter—is ignored for comic nude scenes and catty eye rolls. The fictional Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) is also reduced. The depths of his Old Testament despair, with his hair and beard turning white, gets truncated, as does riding the trolleys to the end of the line—and there’s nothing at all on the 1912 Lawrence textile strike—so selling the picture book on an early morning in Philadelphia isn’t this glorious moment of redemption and release. It’s just sorta nice.

I like that, early on, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) plays piano to accompany newsreel footage. It’s a good way to both introduce our most important character and include some historical figures. It’s also an anachronism. Newsreels weren’t a thing in 1906.

Handsome as fuck
The movie mostly reduces Doctorow’s myriad storylines into two. The first is the real-life murder of architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) by Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh (Robert Joy), which was huge news at the time. Newspapers called it the Crime of the Century, to which Doctorow reminds us “…it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.”

The murder was over a woman, of course, Nesbit, a model/chorus girl/actress who had originally been wooed by the superrich White and wound up married to Thaw, the scion of a coal and railroad baron. Neither man is an angel. White was 30 years older than Nesbit, and he possibly drugged her for their first sexual encounter, but he’s generally regarded as a kind man. Thaw was a horror show. He whipped Nesbit for sexual pleasure. Doctorow describes him as having “the face of a ventriloquist’s dummy.”

The flashpoint in the movie is that White places a statue of Diana atop Madison Square Garden (1890-1925), which he designed, and rumors swirled that a naked Nesbit was the model. This is barely mentioned by Doctorow, and historically impossible, as that particular statue of Diana, by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was unveiled in 1893, when Nesbit was 9 years old. Nevertheless, in the film, Thaw demands its removal, White ignores him, and in June 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Thaw shoots White three times in the head. The scene is graphic. I flashed on the JFK assassination.

The second storyline, the main one, concerns the rise and fall of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.

Shortly after we’re introduced to the family—Father, Mother (Mary Steenburgen), Mother’s Younger Brother (Brad Dourif), and the boy (Max Nichols)—basically the narrator of the novel but a nonentity here—the family maid finds a Black baby crying in their garden in New Rochelle, NY. After the police are called in, we get the racism of the day. “These niggers drop babies like rabbits,” says one official, and in the background, you can tell, they lose Mother’s Younger Brother, who is lonely, moody, and fairly progressive. They lose Mother, too, who is simply kind. In the novel, Father is away on the Perry expedition so Mother is forced to make decisions on her own. Here, she takes control in front of him, which, given the times, I don’t buy—particularly since she decides they should keep the baby. When Sarah (Debbie Allen), the half-mad mother, is discovered nearby, the family takes her in as well. And eventually Coalhouse, the father, shows up.

When I first saw “Ragtime,” I assumed Howard E. Rollins Jr. was going to be a big star. He’s handsome as fuck, with large, expressive eyes and cheekbones you could cut glass on, and he embodies the rectitude and righteous anger of Doctorow’s character. Three years later he starred in Norman Jewison’s “A Soldier’s Story,” where I thought the same thing: star. Never happened. One assumes he encountered the racism of our day. Or maybe the homophobia of our day? A cocaine addiction didn’t help. I didn’t see him again until four years later when turned up as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of “In the Heat of the Night,” opposite Carroll O’Connor. By then, he was no longer handsome as fuck. Eight years after that, he died of AIDS-related lymphoma, age 46. It was Denzel, the villain of “Soldiers Story,” who became the star.

I do think the movie lets off Coalhouse too easily for abandoning Sarah and the baby. “I wasn’t living any kind of life I could ask a woman to share with me,” he says. Right. So he drives her to such despair she abandons the baby in a garden? In the novel, she actually buries it. Their relationship is a bit odd, too. He’s smart, she’s not; she crumbles quickly, he never does. But joy flashes in his eyes when he’s with her so we don’t question it. He plays piano for the family and they don’t question it, either. I wish Coalhouse had called out the titles of the songs, as he does in the novel, followed by “… composed by the great Scott Joplin,” but Joplin gets no such namecheck here. The scene is still great: Coalhouse gently chastising the family by telling them the piano is in need of tuning; the look of fondness in his eyes as he plays and the look of amazement in theirs; how his music is taken over by the soundtrack, which wells as he ascends to the attic room to reconcile with Sarah.

The connection between our two storylines is Mother’s Younger Brother. He winds up the unlikely paramour of Evelyn Nesbit during Thaw’s trial, and the unlikelier sixth member of Coalhouse’s gang after the firehouse incident; after he tells the gang: “I can make bombs.”

I should mention a couple of the movie’s edits—one good, one bad. Here’s the bad. After the reconciliation, Coalhouse invites the family (including Mother’s Younger Brother) to his wedding the following weekend. Then we cut to Mother’s Younger Brother making an embarrassing, last-ditch effort to see Evelyn Nesbit in New York City, which seems to take place later in the week. Then we cut to the incident with Wille Conklin (Kenneth McMillan) and The Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company. Except that’s in New Rochelle, Coalhouse only visits once a week, and he’s obviously returning from visiting Sarah. So wouldn’t that have been his wedding day?

It’s a horrific incident. The firetrucks are horse-drawn, Coalhouse has a brand new Model T Ford with a custom PANTASOTE top, and the firefighters resent him and it. So they block his way. When he goes to get a police officer, they defecate in the front seat. When the police officer (Jeff Daniels) arrests him instead, and he spends the night in jail, they take the time to destroy the car. His search for satisfaction—from white bureaucrats to Black lawyers—leads nowhere. Then Sarah tries to help. Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-president, Charles Fairbanks, comes through town on a whistlestop campaign tour and she tries to speak to him on Coalhouse’s behalf. She’s beaten by cops. In her attic room, wounded, Coalhouse visits and they talk quietly of their wedding, then we hear church music and cut to a church service. As the camera pans down, we see it’s not Sarah’s wedding but her funeral. That’s the good edit.

How about a shout-out for the casting director? A lot of the minor characters here went on to great stuff. Coalhouse’s gang consists of Dorsey Wright, who played Hud in Forman’s “Hair”; Calvin Levels, who has only 32 credits but seems familiar to me (that “M*A*S*H” episode, maybe?); Frankie Faison, the future Commissioner Burrell of “The Wire”; and a baby-faced Samuel L. Jackson in one of his first feature films. Among the policemen in the film we get Jeff Daniels, John Ratzenburger/Cliff Claven, and Andreas Katsulas, who became the one-armed man in “The Fugitive.”

And, of course, James Cagney.

Top of the world
Cagney had unofficially retired from the movies in 1961, after a bad experience on Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and he more or less stayed that way. He did some narration in lesser stuff (“The Ballad of Smokey the Bear,” “Arizona Bushwackers”), mostly as favors for friends, but that was it. In 1974, he was feted by the American Film Institute and published his memoir around the same time. He was done. So how did Forman talk him out of retirement?

He was a neighbor of the Cagneys, and one evening during dinner he was discussing Doctorow’s novel, which he’d optioned. “As he did,” John McCabe writes in his Cagney biography, “Jim, because of growing sciatica, was sitting with his head slightly lowered, listening, and whenever especially interested, he raised his leonine head and looked intently at the speaker. Forman saw him do this several times and said to himself, ‘My God, if I could get him interested in the film…’” Cagney’s wife, Willie, was interested—she thought it would be good for her husband’s health—so eventually he signed on to play Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. It was huge news. A last hurrah for a Hollywood legend. 

“Fire.” “Sir?” “Fire.”

Is it much of a hurrah? Cagney was 81 at the time, and, along with the sciatica, suffered from diabetes and the aftereffects of several small strokes. He has trouble turning his head, some of his lines appear to be dubbed, and his sight is diminished—meaning his long-standing acting motto (“Look in the other actor’s camera eye and tell the truth”) doesn’t serve him well. Overweight, and with a handlebar moustache, I’m reminded less of the young, rat-a-tat Cagney, that firecracker of an actor, than Burl Ives’ snowman in the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph” special. There's something swaddled about him. 

It was still a good idea. Not only had Cagney lived through the ragtime period, he kept returning to it in film. “The Public Enemy” began in 1909, the brunt of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” takes place in the aughts, while two of his lesser-known films—“The Strawberry Blonde” and “Johnny Come Lately”—were set in this exact year: 1906. Put it this way: Cagney read “Ragtime” less for its acclaim than because he’d actually known Evelyn Nesbit. That blows my mind.

Did they expand the role for him? Rhinelander Waldo wasn’t much of a character in the book—he’s just mentioned in passing after Coalhouse’s gang takes over the J.P. Morgan Library in Manhattan. This is after they attack the Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company to get Conklin. He’s not there, so he becomes part of the demand: Coalhouse’s Model T returned to him in its original condition, and the life of Conklin for the life of his Sarah. They attack other firehouses, too. Why the J.P. Morgan Library? In the novel it’s a bit of a mix-up. They plan is to hold Morgan, the richest man in the world, hostage in order to get Conklin, but they go to the wrong place—his library rather than his residence—and anyway Morgan was abroad; so instead they just hold his priceless artifacts hostage. The hostage negotiator in the novel is New York D.A. Charles S. Whitman, who has presidential ambitions and decides “he had a few minutes to take care of this matter of the mad coon.” Things don’t go well. 

Neither here. Conklin is found, and brought before Waldo, red-faced and sweaty, and Waldo toys with him a bit. Other negotiators are brought in: Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn), and Father, fresh from Atlantic City, where the family, with Coalhouse’s baby, is recovering from the press attention. Eventually Coalhouse sees there’s no out for him, so he switches demands. Forget Conklin. He wants the Model T and the life of his men. Let them go free. Waldo agrees, since he figures it won’t be hard to track five Black men in a marked Model T. He doesn’t know about Mother’s Younger Brother (now adeptly called Younger Brother by Doctorow), who, several blocks away, takes the wheel, and they give the cops the slip. It’s the best bit that’s not in the novel.

Coalhouse’s surrender to the cops resonates even more today than when it was made. Leaving the Morgan Library, unarmed, with hands raised, he’s cut down—like Charles Kinsey, Jonathan Price, Terence Crutcher, countless others. In the novel, it’s a volley of shots, a regular shooting gallery a la “Bonnie and Clyde.” Here it’s just one shot from one cop—at the command of Rhinelander Waldo. That resonates in a different way. Cagney, the original gangster shot dead in the streets in “Public Enemy” and “The Roaring Twenties,” orders the same for the century’s first black revolutionary. After the shot rings out, Coalhouse pauses, then keeps walking forward, hands still raised. For a second you wonder if he’d been hit. Then he crumples on the stairs like Cagney did in “Roaring Twenties.” He’d just been too stubborn to fall. But there’s no one there to say, as Gladys George did for Cagney, “He used to be a big shot.” Instead, we get a few notes of ragtime, played plaintively on the piano by Randy Newman.

Telling the cop “Fire” is the last line James Cagney will ever say in a feature film. 

Like something closer to America
So the movie has moments but it’s not on the same level as the novel. I don’t think any cinematic depiction will ever be on the same level as the novel since you can’t capture that authorial voice on screen. The best attempt would be a miniseries. That might allow for the novel’s many interweaving storylines. I could see HBO having a go someday.

I knew about Cagney, of course, but I was surprised to see his Irish mafia pal Pat O’Brien playing Harry K. Thaw’s lead attorney. Like Cagney, it was his final film role. O’Brien and Cagney made eight movies together between 1934 and 1940, so it’s a shame they don’t get any scenes together. Cagney does have a scene with Norman Mailer’s Stanford White. At least White introduces the police commissioner to Harry K. Thaw, but it’s separate shots so one assumes they were filmed on separate days. Even so, Norman Mailer introducing James Cagney is a true colliding of my worlds. I was tickled just seeing it.

Beyond Rollins and McGovern, who were both nominated for supporting Oscars, there are standouts in smaller roles. I like Moses Gunn’s authority as Booker T. Washington, Ted Ross saying “I can’t taste it” as the Black lawyer, the privileged insanity of Robert Joy’s Harry K. Thaw, and the great, huffing, without-vanity performance of McMillan. Olson as Father is underrated: He brings a quiet humanity to the role. And it’s always a pleasure to see Brad Dourif. He had a moment when movies mattered.

Forman leaves a lot of loose ends that Doctorow ties up. In the novel, after their escape, Younger Brother travels south and becomes a revolutionary with Zapata’s army, where he’s considered brilliant but reckless. He dies within a year. During the Great War, Father is selling the armaments Younger Brother devised to Great Britain, but he’s aboard the Lusitania when it’s torpedoed by the Germans. Widowed, Mother marries Tateh, who has gone from picture-book making to film making. That’s what he’s doing in Atlantic City when he first meets the family. Doctorow has them move to Southern California, nascent Hollywood, where one day, watching Mother’s gentile son and Coalhouse’s Black son and his Jewish daughter playing together, he comes up with the idea for the “Our Gang” comedies. That’s cute but ... a bit overdone? I like that Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller let us connect the dots. Father doesn’t die, Mother simply leaves him for Tateh; and as Father watches from behind a lace curtain, we see the new family drive off—Jewish, gentile, Black. It feels like something closer to America.

Posted at 10:15 AM on Wednesday July 14, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s