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Blending truth and fiction, “Ragtime” – Paramount Presents, stands up today

Updated: Mar 3, 2022


Howard Rollins Jr. received an Oscar nomination as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a piano player, harassed by racist fire chief Willie Conklin (Kenneth McMillan) and his men.

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Blu-ray, Digital Copy; 1981, PG for nudity, violence, and language; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV (4K), Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: “Ragtime Revisited: A Conversation with Larry Karaszewski and Screenwriter Michael Weller

BASED ON E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling 1975 novel, “Ragtime” is set in and around New York City soon after the turn of the 20th century, and it deals with societal ills that still plague our country today.

Directed by Miloš Forman (“Amadeus,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Man in the Moon,” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt”), with an impressive cast that includes the legendary James Cagney, Howard E. Rollins Jr., Debbie Allen, Mary Steenburgen, James Olson, Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, Mandy Patinkin, Donald O’Connor, Pat O’Brien, Moses Gunn, Jeff Daniels and Kenneth McMillan, the film seamlessly combines real and fictional events and characters. It received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Supporting Actor for Rollins Jr. and Best Supporting Actress for McGovern, plus Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Screenplay Based on Another Material, and two for Randy Newman for his score and song, “One More Hour.”

“Ragtime’s” central plot involves a gifted piano player named Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Rollins), who learns his baby son and Sarah, the baby’s mother (Allen), are sheltering in the home of a wealthy white family. The family consists of “Mother” (Steenburgen), her husband, “Father” (Olson), and her “Younger Brother” (Dourif). Determined to earn a living so he can marry Sarah and take responsibility for his child, Walker succeeds in finding steady employment. On the verge of realizing his dreams, a seemingly small incident changes everything. Driving his brand-new Model-T Ford through a small town, the young man is ambushed by local racist firemen, led by their captain (McMillan), who taunt Walker and befoul his car. When the firemen refuse to clean his vehicle, Walker – despite the intervention of a well-meaning cop (Daniels) – manages to get himself arrested, and later plots a dangerous and public revenge.

(1) The architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) is at a fancy dinner party when someone barges in and shouts his name. (2) The intruder is Henry Thaw (Robert Joy), who intends to get revenge on White for publicly demeaning his wife, Evelyn Nesbitt. (3) A newborn baby is discovered on the property of a wealthy family by their maid. (4) The family (James Olson, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif) come out to investigate. (5) The baby’s mother, Sarah (Debbie Allen) is apprehended by the police and brought to the family’s home.

Several side stories involve showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (McGovern) and the famous architect Stanford White (played in a surprise cameo by Norman Mailer); another sidebar deals with “Tateh” (Patinkin), whom we first meet cutting out silhouettes on the Lower East Side, but who becomes a silent movie director.

Cagney plays New York Chief of Police Rhinelander Waldo, who must figure out how to solve the dangerous situation created by Walker. Other cameos include Robert Joy as Nesbit’s husband; Moses Gunn as Booker T. Washington; Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison as members of Walker’s gang; Fran Drescher as Tateh’s wife; and Richard Griffiths as a judge’s assistant. “Ragtime” is total entertainment, beautifully designed with impressive attention to period details. The film has aged very well and addresses still-relevant issues.


Paramount Presents this 40th Anniversary two-disc set consisting of the theatrical version of “Ragtime” and an almost 3-hour long “Director’s Cut Workprint” version from a 2K master. The 4K remastered theater version (2.39:1 aspect ratio) looks terrific, with deeply saturated color, fine detail, excellent depth and contrast, and rich natural film grain. Skin tones are perfectly natural.

Paramount also ported over the 4K digital with Dolby Vision onto Apple TV, accessible with your digital code. The 4K has a more reddish hue and from a seating position, it looks slightly sharper. But, once examined much closer the film grain has been reduced or smoothed out, which is a common artifact of the Apple TV platform.

The six-channel DTS HD soundtrack is also very good, with effects always realistic and dialogue clear. Optional English subtitles are provided. Newman’s score is well-balanced and appropriately bold.

(1) Famed MGM song and dance man Donald O’Connor plays a nightclub dance instructor. (2) The murder trial of Evelyn’s husband mad millionaire Harry K. Thaw (Robert Joy), with his defensive attorneys played by British actor Richard Griffiths and legendary actor Pat O’Brien. (3) Mother’s younger brother (Brad Dourif) attends the trial and has an attraction for Evelyn Nesbit Thaw (Elizabeth McGovern).

4K Digital vs. Blu-ray

Top and left: The 4K digital images from Apple TV (iTunes), have a more reddish HDR hue, while the film grain is smoothed out. Bottom and right: The Blu-ray images have a more coarse film grain look. Which do you prefer?


The bonus features are only on the Blu-ray disc, which includes “legacy” interviews with Forman (who died in 2018), producer Michael Hausman, and various cast members; and a director/producer commentary. The new features contain some deleted and extended scenes, with one especially long featuring another figure from history, Emma Goldman.

“Remembering Ragtime” is a recent conversation between “Ragtime” screenwriter Michael Weller and Forman collaborator Larry Karaszewski. Weller says he was not initially keen on doing the screenplay because he had been working on a stage play at the time. In addition, he says he found Doctorow’s book “tricky and glib.” Forman was so eager to have Weller do the film, he waited for the writer to finish his play. When Forman told Weller he “wanted to make a piece about someone standing up to an indignity,” Weller became interested in the project. He felt it was “important for us to find a way to understand Coalhouse Walker as a guy whose personal pride was diminished in a way for everyone to understand.”

Karaszewski compares the story in “Ragtime” to those of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Man in the Moon,” and “Larry Flynt,” all of which have “someone [who] stands up against arbitrary rules.” He discusses Forman’s motivation, coming from his background in Czechoslovakia and the power structures he suffered under from the Nazis to the Communists. Weller recalls how close he and Forman were during the writing of the screenplay: “Miloš and I were one person for two years!”

He notes how painful it was for him and Forman to cut the long scene with Emma Goldman (Mariclare Costello). Karaszewski refers to the instances of what we would now call terrorism by Walker and his gang, and admits, “Ragtime would never be made today.”

— Peggy Earle

(1&2) Hundreds of extras were used for the on-location filming in New York City, as Evelyn and others find a horse blocking the street and children enjoy the cool waters from a hose. (3-5) Father answers the door and finds Coalhouse Walker, Jr wanting to see Sarah and his baby son. (6) Coalhouse and Sarah reconcile their differences. (7) Coalhouse plays the piano in the parlor.


(1) Younger Brother confronts Evelyn with his obsessive attention. (2) A whistle-stop campaign tour for Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks. (3) Walker visits Sarah, who has been gravely injured. (4) Walker and his gang have taken possession of J.P. Morgan’s mansion, and threaten to blow it up unless the police give in to Walker’s demands. (5) New York City Police Commissioner Waldo (James Cagney) tries to reason with Walker. (6) Walker is left alone in Morgan’s house, tormented over whether or not to give himself up.



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