The year is 1906, and the new medium of the moving picture is gathering in popularity and generating a new kind of public figure, the celebrity who thanks to great achievements or scandal becomes the focus of the nation's, even the world's, interest, if only for a while. All of these celebrities, be they the President Teddy Roosevelt or the escapologist and magician Harry Houdini, have their renown fuelled by the ability of the audience to attend a picture house and get to see what they look like and how they interact; they cannot hear them, obviously, but the fascination is contained in those strips of celluloid. And one former showgirl is about to be very famous...
E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, a kaleidoscope of actual historical figures, made-up characters and those somewhere in between, all intermingling in rat-a-tat prose that was at once witty and stark, was so widely praised at the time that for a while afterwards it became fashionable to label it overrated, though the amount of research that had patently gone into its creation could not be ignored. It was not a case of Doctorow going online and picking and choosing from what the search engines deigned to find for him, this would have to have been the fruits of toil in the library to make sure everyone involved matched up, both the invented folks and the real-life movers and shakers.
Naturally, a film had to be made, as then, as is the case now, a bestseller has to find a buyer for the movie rights whether it is adapted or not, and Robert Altman sniffed a Nashville-sized hit for himself out of the novel's material. Yet he could not make the piece transition from page to screen; although not a particularly long book, it was incredibly dense and intricately manufactured as far as its plotting went, with characters dropped for a few chapters, picked up again later, and referenced as if all things were interconnected whenever the media came to call. Unwilling to let this go, the producers hired Milos Forman, who had recently suffered a flop with the too-late version of musical Hair.
It was not a bad fit, as this slotted into his healthy cynicism about what makes societies tick that had been evident from his earliest work back in Czechoslovakia. Here he was dedicated to conjuring up the mood of the early twentieth century with some excellent art direction and production design and a remarkable cast, some more famous than others, who perfected the attitudes of the era to a tee. It didn't matter that as with the source, much of this tended towards the fanciful, it seemed authentic, so if a movie could win awards for its adherence to the time, then Ragtime would have cleaned up. As it was, it flopped, proving not something audiences generally would flock to see in 1981.
This was ironic because if it had been released in 1906 it would have been precisely what audiences would have wanted to see. That shifting nature of who retains their public profile was a strong element of the work, and even in '81 you would be hard pressed to find someone who recalled the "Crime of the Century" of the sensational murder of wealthy architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer), and the woman who seemed to be its catalyst, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern making sure all who did watch this would remember her, at least). Houdini would still be famous, Roosevelt still lauded, maybe J.P. Morgan would be retained as a byword for millionaires, but they were left out of the movie, which preferred to take on the factual Nesbit thread and the fictional Coalhouse Walker (the tragically shortlived Howard E. Rollins Jr) plot.
That feeling of a society believing itself to be new and civilised, when actually a primitive violence of thought, deed and emotion lurked not very far beneath the surface was brought out in both, Walker's angle being his outrage at the racism that brings him to devastating loss and his subsequent terrorism. James Cagney showed up, restrained and even melancholy as the Police Chief having to deal with him, but almost every performance was a gem, it was just a pity that as a whole it felt piecemeal and less vital, more staid, unlike the book. There was a feeling of careful respect and sympathy to the past, to these people from decades before who thought they were so important yet were mere blips in history, here today, gone tomorrow, that was not necessarily present in Doctorow's text which was freer for him to play around with his timelines and creations. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but more cheek would have made for a sparkier experience. Randy Newman's music was one of his first soundtracks to demonstrate his skill with the form, though how close to ragtime it was is debatable.