Friday, July 09, 2010


Milos Forman's 1981 film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is remembered these days, if it is thought of at all, for James Cagney's final big screen performance, for Randy Newman's beautiful score and for Elizabeth McGovern's nudity.  It was an expensive, lavishly mounted production, but largely miscalculated, with overcast English settings failing to convince as early-twentieth century New York, a dull performance by Howard Rollins in a key part, and good actors (Brad Dourif, Mary Steenburgen, Donald O'Connor, Kenneth McMillin) given too little time to make an impression.  Individual scenes are lovely, and Newman's music gives it a sense of melancholy it might otherwise lack, but one can't help but imagine while watching it what the film's original director, Robert Altman, would have brought to it.

So why am I bringing it up at all?  I stumbled across the original teaser trailer for it on YouTube, and...well, just take a look.

Consider what we are shown on screen: Raucous parties, dancing, shootings, explosions, savage beatings, passionate embraces.  But what do we hear?  Soft music, and a cool, detached narration, describing not so much the film as the era in which its set.  It's a distinct tone this trailer has, and in its chilly reserve it is truer to the spirit of Doctorow's novel than the film itself.

That's the thing: this is an advertisement undeniably unique to this particular movie.  Clearly, if Ragtime had been produced today (not that it's possible to imagine anyone funding such an expensive white elephant now), the trailer would play up the action-oriented elements (and possibly the sex), and every explosion would be presented in teeth-rattling THX sound.  There'd be some onscreen crawl, shock cuts--it would make this particular movie look like every other movie.

And some generic source music borrowed from a hundred other trailers.  That would be a necessity, though, since the final score for the film probably wouldn't be completed yet.  That's one of the most amazing thing about this preview: Like most trailers of the era, the music featured is actually used in the movie itself.  This was a teaser, likely released to theaters a few months in advance of the picture's release, yet the movie was already substantially completed, with its musical score already in place.  In the case of Ragtime, there was almost certainly still a lot of fine-tuning going on in the editing room--the final cut still feels incomplete--but it wasn't still being tweaked by CGI monkeys mere days before release, like almost everything made these days, major studio pictures and indies alike. 

Ragtime isn't a great movie, but this trailer gives you every reason to believe it might be.  It's a sad reminder of the days when movies were sold individually, on their own merits, instead of generic product.