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Milos Forman
James Cagney, Howard E. Rollins Jr., Brad Dourif
Writing Credits:
Michael Weller

A young black pianist becomes embroiled in the lives of an upper-class white family set among the racial tensions, infidelity, violence, and other nostalgic events in early 1900s New York City.

Box Office:
Domestic Gross

Rated PG.

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 155 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 11/16/2021

• Audio Commentary with Director Milos Forman and Executive Producer Michael Hausman
• Workprint Version
• “Remembering Ragtime” Featurette
• “Ragtime Revisited” Featurette
• Deleted & Extended Scenes


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-Marantz SR7010 9.2 Channel Full 4K Ultra HD AV Surround Receiver;
-Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player
-Chane A2.4 Speakers
-SVS SB12-NSD 12" 400-watt Sealed Box Subwoofer


Ragtime (Paramount Presents Edition) [Blu-Ray] (1981)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 17, 2021)

Adapted from the successful EL Doctorow novel, director Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ragtime hit the big screen in 1981. Set in the first decade of the 20th century, the film initially introduces us to former showgirl Evelyn Nesbit Thaw (Elizabeth McGovern) and her wealthy husband Harry (Robert Joy).

A nude statue for which Evelyn apparently modeled gets posted in public, which upsets Harry. He confronts Stanford White (Norman Mailer) - who is also Evelyn’s former lover - and demands its removal but gets nowhere. Eventually Harry kills White and goes to trial.

In the meantime, we meet a suburban New York family that includes Father (James Olson), Mother (Mary Steenburgen), and Younger Brother (Brad Dourif). Their lives get turned upside down when a Black infant appears on their property.

The police find Sarah (Debbie Allen) nearby, but she refuses to confirm if the baby’s hers. A doctor establishes her maternity, however, and Mother decides to take in both Sarah and baby temporarily against Father’s wishes.

Essentially the movie follows dual story lines. We see what happens to Harry in his trial, but mostly we follow Evelyn’s point of view. Harry’s mother (Eloise O’Brien) bribes her to lie in court to exonerate her son. For a million bucks, Evelyn agrees to do so and also to divorce Harry after the trial. Eventually, Younger Brother meets her and they become a couple, though in an erratic fashion that bothers him.

Back in the suburbs, piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard Rollins Jr.) comes to find Sarah. He’s the baby’s father, and he claims he abandoned her solely because he lacked the financial wherewithal to care for her and the child. He now has a steady job, so he tries to get back Sarah.

Coalhouse becomes the major focus of much of the movie’s action after Sarah agrees to marry him. He heads out in his new car but some racist firefighters harass him. They eventually damage his car and Coalhouse tries to force the authorities to get them to fix it.

This goes nowhere and leads to frustrations. Ultimately Coalhouse engages in terrorist tactics to exact justice, all of which leads to a standoff with police during which he negotiates with Chief Rheinlander Waldo (James Cagney).

That synopsis badly simplifies the story, but Ragtime juggles too many situations and characters for me to take the time to provide greater detail. As with virtually all Forman flicks, the focus remains on the personal domain and it concentrates on the relationships of the characters. If we were to establish an overall theme, it would have to be the casual racism seen.

By that I don’t mean the scenes with the firefighters, as led by Chief Conklin (Kenneth McMillan). He’s a loud, blustery bigot without the slightest sense that he does or says anything wrong. Instead, the movie looks at the quieter, more “accepting” form of racism.

The movie comes set in an intriguing period from that point of view, as civil rights campaigns just started to emerge around that time. Blacks had left slave status behind for decades, but they’d not gotten the broader liberties or acceptance that would allow the actions of the 1950s and 1960s. There was a growing awareness of racism but society lacked the same sense of injustice seen in later decades.

Ragtime uses Coalhouse’s experiences to show these elements. The movie uses a mix of approaches to show his frustration and all the obstacles in his way.

To its credit, the flick doesn’t make him a saint. None of the movie’s characters come without flaws, and that goes for Coalhouse.

Many stories of this sort would present him as a fully noble and right-thinking personality, but this one makes sure we see his issues. We empathize with him but don’t fully buy into his methods.

Even his goals don’t come across as simplistic. On one hand, we could easily see Coalhouse as a martyr for his race, the one Black man who’s willing to fight for what’s right and not just go along with what the whites will hand to him.

Even Black leaders like Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) advocate slow progress, not the radical measures Coalhouse uses. Is this realism or stagnation? The movie doesn’t really espouse a point of view, which means we get both sides of things.

Beyond its philosophical and sociological overtones, Ragtime manages to be a darned entertaining flick. It balances the various storylines well and deftly integrates them.

We see the connections among the various parties, and it doesn’t bother to become too explicit. It allows the viewer to connect the dots and respects our intelligence.

Despite the large roster of characters, Ragtime draws them well. We get a good feel for them naturally and they grow smoothly. The flick loses some plot threads and personalities at times, but it usually keeps things going in a concise manner.

I can’t call Ragtime Forman’s best flick, as it lacks the grandiosity and lyricism of Amadeus or the incisive deftness of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Nonetheless, it summarizes a dense story into a fairly tight package and makes it all quite entertaining. It’s definitely an above average flick.

The Disc Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B/ Bonus B

Ragtime appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became a strong presentation.

Sharpness seemed solid. The movie remained nicely crisp and detailed from start to finish, as very few instances of softness appeared. Overall, the picture was accurate and well defined.

Jagged edges and moiré effects created no concerns, and edge haloes remained absent. Grain felt natural, while print flaws remained absent.

Ragtime boasted a natural but frequently lively palette. The colors consistently seemed vivid and bright, and they appeared wonderfully rich.

Black levels also were deep and dense, while shadow detail seemed appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. This turned into a top-notch image.

As for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack of Ragtime, it presented a moderately vivid affair. Not surprisingly, the focus remained on the music, as the score displayed good stereo imaging and really added a lot of kick to the mix.

I noted reasonably good general ambience throughout the film, and some more heavily populated scenes – mostly on bustling streets – provided a greater level of activity. The surrounds seemed fairly passive throughout the movie, but they contributed a nice sense of reinforcement, particularly in regard to the music.

Audio quality appeared excellent. Speech came across as natural and crisp, with no signs of edginess.

Effects played a minor role in the film, but they always seemed accurate and well defined, with no issues related to distortion or other areas. The occasional explosion or blast managed surprising oomph.

Of course, the music remained the most important element, and the mix provided very solid reproduction of the score. The pieces of music sounded bright and vivid, and they boasted fairly good dynamic range. This was a more than adequate soundtrack for a 40-year-old character piece.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD from 2004? The Blu-ray’s lossless audio seemed a bit warmer and richer, but both soundfields showed similar scopes.

As for visuals, the BD appeared cleaner, better defined and more film-like. This turned into a significant upgrade.

The Blu-ray mixes old and new extras, and we open with an audio commentary from director Milos Forman and executive producer Michael Hausman. Both of them sit together for this running, screen-specific chat. They chat a little about the cast, the music, sets and locations.

When I say “a little” I mean “almost never”. The commentary does start out fairly well as we learn how Forman lured James Cagney out of retirement.

However, after that it goes almost nowhere. What notes we get tend to be extremely rudimentary, and we’re often left with the feeling of unfulfilled potential.

Occasionally Forman sounds like he’s on the verge of a good story, but these useful anecdotes fail to materialize. Instead, we find basic banalities and lots of dead air.

And I do mean lots! All of these factors conspire to make this a genuinely bad commentary and a true disappointment.

A more satisfying look at the production comes from a featurette called Remembering Ragtime. This program goes for 18 minutes, 32 seconds and presents interviews from Forman, Hausman, art director Patrizia von Brandenstein, and actor Brad Dourif.

They discuss how Forman took on the project, adaptation issues, locations and sets, the film’s look and visual elements, casting and the performers.

“Remembering” covers almost all of the territory examined in the commentary, which leaves us virtually no reason to listen to it, as Forman tells most of the same stories here. It became fairly redundant for me since I’d already taken in the commentary, but it’s definitely the preferred way to get this information.

It gives us all the necessary material in more than two hours less time. It’s not a great program, but taken on its own merits, it offers a fairly informative look at the film.

Carried over from the DVD, the disc includes one deleted scene. It lasts 10 minutes, 19 seconds as expands on the sequence in which Tateh boots his wife. It focuses on a protest from anarchist/proto-feminist Emma Goldman.

After she confronts Tateh, she then takes Evelyn back to her place to tout her cause. It also implies some lesbian desire on Goldman’s part, though it doesn’t explicitly develop that theme. It’s an interesting scene but not a necessary one, as it mostly points out Evelyn’s dopiness.

The remaining extras are new to the Blu-ray, and Remembering Ragtime runs 21 minutes, 11 seconds. It brings a chat between Forman collaborator Larry Karazewski and screenwriter Michael Weller.

They discuss how Weller came to the project, the script and the adaptation of the novel, working with Forman, and related topics. I like the chance to hear the writers compare experiences as well as more insights connected to Ragtime during this engaging conversation. Deleted and Extended Scenes go for a total of 17 minutes, six seconds. As you can tell from the running time, the sequences don’t usually last very long.

This means segments that add modest exposition and character material. While fun to see, nothing essential emerges.

On a second disc, we find a Workprint Version of Ragtime. Whereas the theatrical cut lasts 2:35:10, the “Workprint” spans 2:54:02.

With nearly 19 minutes of extra footage, the “Workprint” offers quite a few differences compared to the theatrical edition. The major change comes from the inclusion of the Emma Goldman sequence found as a deleted scene on Disc One.

That fills more than half the Workprint’s extra running time. I didn’t care for this sequence on its own and it doesn’t work any better crammed into the full movie.

Other additions seem less significant, as they tend toward fairly short character expansions. These can seem interesting but not especially substantial.

Note that some alterations in sequencing appear as well. For instance, in the “Workprint”, Harry kills White before we meet the unnamed suburban family.

I think the “Workprint” provides an intriguing alternate version of the movie, but I can’t claim I believe it fares better than the theatrical cut. While worth a look, it doesn’t clearly improve the movie.

Inevitably, the “Workprint” lacks the picture quality seen with the theatrical cut. Actually, most of it remains perfectly watchable, but the image looks considerably weaker than the main Blu-ray.

The added footage looks worst. Presented black and white, these shots tend to seem pretty ugly.

Audio comes to us via a Dolby TrueHD stereo track. It seems less impressive than the 5.1 mix on the main feature, but it holds up fine overall.

Ragtime examines society in the early 20th century with a lively tale. It manages to jump among various stories and characters well to create a good picture of the period. The Blu-ray offers very good picture and audio as well as a mix of bonus materials highlighted by an alternate cut of the movie. This becomes a fine release for an engaging tale.

To rate this film, visit the prior review of RAGTIME

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main