Scoop's 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.
Scoop's Notes on the
Coalhouse Walker is not a historical character, but he
has a mighty high-falutin' literary pedigree. His name and story come
from Heinrich von Kleist’s 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
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.
Scoop's 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
- 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.