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Paramount Studios presents
Ragtime (1981)

"You speak like an angel, Mr. Washington. Too bad we're living on the earth."
- Coalhouse Walker Jr (Howard Rollins Jr.)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 30, 2004

Stars: James Cagney, Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, James Olson, Howard Rollins Jr., Mary Steenburgen
Other Stars: Moses Gunn, Kenneth McMillan, Pat O'Brien, Donald O'Connor, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, John Ratzenberger, Robert Joy, Debbie Allen
Director: Milos Forman

MPAA Rating: PG for (nudity, sexuality, violence, language)
Run Time: 02h:35m:01s
Release Date: November 16, 2004
UPC: 097360148640
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-BB+ A-

DVD Review

E.L. Doctorow's sprawling drama of the early 20th century, Ragtime, makes a confident transition to the screen in this adaptation directed by Milos Forman. The attention to period detail is striking, while the streamlined storytelling helps keep the film from being the constant name-dropping experience that one finds in the book. But it is perhaps best known for containing the last film appearance of James Cagney.

The film follows three disparate threads, all of which interweave and split apart from time to time. The first thread is devoted to the jealousy murder of architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer), who designed the second Madison Square Garden, among other buildings. The crime was committed by Harry K. Thaw (Robert Joy) in 1906, in a rage over his suspicions about the conduct of his wife, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern). The second thread is the tragic tale of black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard Rollins Jr.) and his efforts to find justice in a white man's world. The third tale centers on the unnamed family who owns a fireworks manufactory, played by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen, and her idealistic younger brother, portrayed by Brad Dourif. This family takes in Walker's abandoned fiancée Sarah (Debbie Allen) and infant son, and gets inextricably entangled in the first two threads.

The White-Nesbit-Thaw story has a good impact with its basis in historical fact; the structure makes it dominant spot throughout the beginning of the film, which helps establish the time and the mood nicely. Having been pulled in by the factual episode, the audience is ready to accept the other two fictional episodes without qualm. Nesbit's abuse at the hands of the legal system, as she tries to manipulate it, helps set up the impossibility of Coalhouse Walker's search for legal satisfaction against a racist volunteer fire department that vandalizes his Model T. Before long, the story has developed into a siege in the J.P. Morgan Library, under the jurisdiction of Police Commissioner Rheinholder Waldo (Cagney). The film plays a bit uncomfortably today, since it seems to imply that the legal system offers no fairness for minorities or women, and that terrorism may well be the only method of bringing attention to one's plight. That's particularly true in the counterpoint between Walker's violent approach to maintaining his pride and that of Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn), who sees him as setting the race back immeasurably. Walker has a measure of classical hubris in his pride, but he also has nowhere else to turn unless he is willing to suffer humiliation.

The cast is excellent, with Joy portraying an incredibly intense Thaw and Dourif in an early appearance making a great impression. Steenburgen is more than reliable as always. McGovern feels like a bit of a weak spot, but since she seems to be intentionally portraying Nesbit as somewhat flighty it's not bad. She doesn't, however, seem to quite fit into the period. Cagney is quite good despite his age and having been retired for two decades; he still has a good deal of the old twinkle in his eye, and he gives the character some depth that doesn't appear to be in the script proper through a tormented decision-making process. Quite a few actors who would later bloom into stardom make notable appearances as well, such as Fran Drescher, Jeff Daniels, and Samuel L. Jackson.

The use of carefully-selected locations really sells the picture; New York still had areas that had a turn-of-the-century flavor to them. The rest is made up with excellent set dressing that doesn't candycoat the appearance of the city a hundred years ago. The costumes and indoor designs are uniformly commendable and help sell the period piece nicely. Note that the film would certainly receive an R rating from the MPAA today due to the substantial nudity and sexuality; things were different back in 1981, almost as much as they were by comparison with 1906 in 1981.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture looks very good, with nice color and good black levels and excellent shadow detail. However, the transfer seems rather dark for the most part. I don't recollect whether that's how this looked in theaters in 1981, but it does make things a bit difficult to determine at times.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio selections include a restored 2.0 English mono, a French mono and a 5.1 English track. The mono sounds quite good, with only the most barely detectable background noise and hiss. The same is the case for the 5.1, which is artfully spread across the channels but tends to give a bit too much oomph to the bass channel for my tastes. The music sounds excellent throughout.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Milos Forman and producer/1st asst. director Michael Hausman
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:18m:20s

Extras Review: The keepcase doesn't bill this as a special edition, but Paramount does it up proud with a substantial documentary, Remembering Ragtime (18m:31s), that includes discussions by Forman, Dourif, and Hausman on Doctorow's take on the script and how Cagney took over for Jack Nicholson, among other stories. The comments of Forman and Hausman appear to be taken from the recording of the commentary, or possibly were edited into the commentary, since they are identical, verbatim. The commentary pauses in a few spots but otherwise is a substantial discussion of anecdotes, the cast, the novel and the historical background. It's nicely conversational and well worth listening to. Finally, there's a substantial deleted scene running 10m:12s featuring the deleted character of Emma Goldman and her discussions with Evelyn Nesbit. It probably was best cut since it brings the proceedings to a dead halt, but it's certainly nice to see even though it's presented only in a beat-up black-and-white print. The chaptering is thin for a film of this length. And where's the trailer?

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A well-crafted historical epic, with a bleak outlook for racial justice, and some first-rate extras. The transfer is somewhat dark but otherwise quite good.


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