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Ragtime

Updated: Jul 5, 2023


Some of our greatest American novels can be the most difficult to adapt to the screen. Frank Herbert's "Dune" certainly proved difficult for David Lynch, although I'm one of the few that find that film a hugely enjoyable guilty pleasure.

EL Doctorow's sprawling novel of early 1900's America, RAGTIME should have proven very cumbersome, but Director Milos Foreman (Amadeus, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) and screenwriter Michael Weller (Hair) exceed all expectations with their 1981 film adaption.

We meet a wealthy white family leading what appears to be an idyllic life. Father (James Olson) is successful and a man of tradition. His wife (the terrific Mary Steenburgen of "Time After Time") is simmering though, finding her voice in a time when women were mostly silent and horribly undervalued. Her brother (Brad Dourif as eccentric as ever) is an impulsive, repressed man lusting after celebrity heroine Evelyn Nesbit (an impossibly young Elizabeth McGovern).

Layered on top of that story is another that will soon deeply intertwine with theirs.

Coalhouse Walker (a brilliant performance by Howard E. Rollins Jr) a successful ragtime piano player madly in love with Sarah, who has run off with his baby and hidden in Mother and Father's attic.

In scenes that are almost unbearable to watch, Coalhouse proudly drives his new Model T to visit Sarah, and on his return, is trapped and harassed by an entire fireman brigade, led by the despicable Willie Conklin. Between his performance here as Willie and his role as Baron Harkonnen in Lynch's previously mentioned "Dune", actor Kenneth McMillan was the go to horrific bad guy of the 80's.

After that episode and the vandalization of his new car, the justice system and racial inequality of the early 1900's, turn Coalhouse into a raging, violent seeker of justice.

We also meet new immigrant Tatah (Mandy Pantikin) as he arrives in the US. His story as a struggling artist to something much more pops up throughout the film and is always welcome. Watching how the characters on different paths overlap is just as enjoyable as it was in Doctorow's novel.

The great James Cagney is fantastic in his last film role as NYC Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. He's funny, powerful and everything you'd expect Cagney to be in his first film role in nearly 20 years. 81 at the time, he delivers.

Fellow film legends Pat O'Brien and Donald O'Connor also have key roles and Moses Gunn (Logan's Run) also shines as Booker T. Washington. His and Coalhouse's faceoff is beautifully written.

There are a lot of characters, explosive violence, intolerance and horrific racial injustice that resonates all too powerfully 120 years after the events depicted here.

Foreman effortlessly juggles fictional and historical characters, settings and storytelling into a seamless immersion into the time and place depicted. Randy Newman (The Natural, Toy Story) weaves in a great orchestral score from the opening moments to the climax.

Later adapted into a huge scale Broadway musical, it translated perfectly into that format and seeing Brian Stokes Mitchell in his Tony Award winning role of Colehouse remains one of my lasting memories of live theatre.

This is a great film, one of the best dramas of the 80's and an undervalued classic. It gets an A+ and a spot in my all-time Top 100 films.

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