Ragtime (1981)

On the commentary track for Paramount’s new Ragtime DVD, director Milos Forman discusses his desire to make the film based on the story of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (the achingly brilliant Howard E. Rollins, Jr.): “This man is just forced to swallow his pride. That’s something which I lived part of my life in — the Nazi society, and a big part of my life in the communist society and that was your daily bread to swallow your pride. So, that was the emotional hook for me.” In the film, Coalhouse takes matters into his own hands after a gang of racist firefighters destroys his car and no one with the power to help him will even give him a second look. At first his demands are simple — repair the car and return it to him; this doesn’t happen and so, he sets about murdering firemen and burning down their firehouses until he gets what he wants.

Profound as Coalhouse’s story might be, Ragtime is about far more. Set in early 1900s New York, at the beginning of America’s so-called Gilded Age, the movie is about the radical and long-lasting changes, including the onset of the industrial revolution, and increased importance of civil rights and sexual equality issues. As in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the characters in Forman’s film each represent those changes, with Coalhouse just one in a complex and compelling mix.

At the center of that mix is an unnamed middle class family, including Mother (Mary Steenburgen) Father (James Olson), and Mother’s Younger Brother (Brad Dourif). Mother represents the changing roles of women at the time, challenging Father’s more traditional views. When their housekeeper finds a black child abandoned in the yard, Mother insists they keep it and employ its mother, Sarah, (Debbie Allen), who is eventually tracked down, so as not to break up the family. Coalhouse soon arrives on the family’s doorstep, announcing he is the father of the baby, and Mother is thrilled. She sets about convincing a skeptical Sarah (whose doubts about Coalhouse are never fully explained) to marry Coalhouse.

The more control Mother achieves in her household, the more she sees her husband’s rigidity. She finds herself longing to escape her marriage, and more than ever when she meets filmmaker, Tateh (Mandy Patinkin). Mother’s Younger Brother also battles Father’s rigidity, refusing to settle into his pre-arranged role as a manager in Father’s fireworks company. He’s a romantic, in love with model, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), who isn’t half as enamored of him and he is of her, and, feeling as out of place in the family home as Mother, takes up with Coalhouse on his disastrous mission.

With so much going on here — both Tateh and Evelyn’s own stories take up significant screen time — it’s perplexing that Forman all but ignores it in his commentary in favor of stories about casting and set design. At one point he notes that a director can never really enjoy his own films as he “always knows what’s coming next.” Even during poignant scenes, including Coalhouse’s eventual breakdown, as he leans over a plunger that could blow up the historic J.P. Morgan Library as well as himself, Forman chooses to discuss sets and scenery.

Even his anecdotes about the cast are not very enlightening. The exception is his recollection of hiring James Cagney: Forman gleefully relates how Cagney would only agree to do the film if he didn’t have to sign a contract and if he had the option to change his mind up to three days before shooting. Though even this story loses its fascination when repeated almost word for word on the commentary and in the DVD’s 18-minute documentary. The documentary, “Remembering Ragtime,” is as disappointing as the commentary, with half of it taken up with the repeated Cagney material, and the other half with talk of sets and casting — at this point, though, little else is expected. (One bright side to the documentary is the appearance of Dourif, the only actor interviewed.)

Though Ragtime is a wonderful film with much to say about U.S. history, Forman gives no indication on the DVD beyond a brief comparison between Coalhouse’s experiences to his own, growing up under communism in Czechoslovakia, as to his intentions for the film. The DVD suffers because of this, but the movie, on its own, is still a sprawling and, for the most part, effective history lesson. And the sets are beautiful.