Newsies

Newsies. Walt Disney Pictures 1992.

Before watching the movie:

This looked like a bland musical in a setting I wasn’t very interested in until I recently heard it discussed as a unionization success story, which is pretty topical. I also have more understanding of the newspaper landscape of the late 1800s and the media dueling media empires of the day.

It also still looks like a kind of bland musical, but I haven’t looked too closely.

After watching the movie:

In 1899 New York City, legions of children, mostly homeless, work for a living selling newspapers. In Manhattan, the Newsies all look up to Jack Kelly, an older boy in and out of the youth jail known as the Refuge. David and Les Jacobs begin selling papers while their father heals from a factory injury, and Jack sticks himself to them, noting shy David’s intelligence and young Les’s cuteness and figuring both can be useful. Meanwhile, up in his tower, newspaper giant Joseph Pulitzer tasks his executives at The World with coming up with a way to boost sagging profits caused by his war with Hearst’s Journal, and the idea he likes best is increasing the wholesale cost of the papers from 50 cents per hundred to 60 cents per hundred, while maintaining the retail cost at one cent, effectively stealing revenue out of the Newsies’ pockets. Fed up with being kicked around by those in power and inspired by a current trolley strike, the Manhattan Newsies decide to form their own union, led by Jack and masterminded by David, who is too timid to speak his ideas himself, and go on strike. The Manhattan boys spread the word to the other boroughs to refuse to sell Pulitzer’s papers or let any scabs cross the picket line. The Sun reporter Bryan Denton, looking for a story, decides to follow the boys’ effort to stand up for their rights and raise awareness of their cause, but Pulitzer and the moneyed structures of power in New York bring down every kind of pressure they can on the kids, and especially Jack.

I can’t shake the feeling that this is a throwback to the live action movies Disney was making in the middle of the century. I can see it sitting alongside Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Johnny Tremain. I also can’t figure out how they decided to make it. Did they have a good thing going with songs composed by Alan Menken in the animation department and decide to try making an old fashioned live action musical?

I didn’t read extensively on the historical strike, but it doesn’t seem as notable as the movie made it out to be, as it was far from the first of its kind and ended in a compromise where they didn’t get the price reverted, but did get the printers to agree to buy back unsold papers, which may be a bigger win. They also chose to focus on Pulitzer only. Hearst made the same move, but he’s only mentioned as Pulitzer’s rival and poker game buddy, not seen. Though that just makes room for a high rate of wordplay based on The World. Also it’s not entirely surprising to learn that the real leader of the strike, Kid Blink, was demoted to a chorus member to make room for their fictional hero they had more room to craft an arc for.

I was surprised that there were all of twelve original songs, because it doesn’t feel like it’s stopping for songs that often. Christian Bale is not a singer, but he’s kind of passable. I listened to Jack’s “want” solo from the Broadway adaptation and that performer is definitely better, but Bale is fine. The choreography for that solo is also highly distinctive in that it looks like the moves for a full chorus lineup, but Jack is alone on the set, so he just looks a bit deranged.

I get the sense that in 1993 the message about one voice becoming a thousand voices for change wasn’t necessarily specifically about labor movements, but after a generation of rising corporate giants and eroding workers’ rights, that’s in the national conversation again. As the roar rises from the streets below, the unionizers’ ranks grow and grow. The execution of this movie is a bit awkward and, despite being a period piece not quite thirty years old, already kind of dated, but the story of the movement inspires, maybe more now than then. Not as fun a movie as I’d like, but important.

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