Before Christian Bale became Batman, he was Jack Kelly, a newspaper boy with a dream in his heart and calluses on his feet, in the Disney musical Newsies. Yes! Kelly was a superhero of sorts, too—a singing, dancing, teenaged labor agitator who led a band of agile young news vendors in their efforts to extract better wages from the news barons who dominated turn-of-the-century New York. If you think that a tale about best practices in newspaper distribution is perforce a dull one, well, you’re obviously not Newsies director Kenny Ortega. His movie features almost a dozen highly choreographed musical numbers by ace Disney tunesmith Alan Menken, urchins swinging from ceiling fans and turning backflips down alleys, a rouged Ann-Margret performing the world’s least erotic fan dance, and a cast of adorable man-children dressed in newsboy caps. Yellow journalism has never seemed so lovable.
The movie opens in 1899, when “the streets of New York City echoed with the voices of newsies, peddling the newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and other giants of the newspaper world. On every corner you saw them carrying the banner, bringing you the news for a penny a pape.”
Their lot appears to be a tough one, and yet, as the movie begins, the newsies reassure the viewer, in song, that selling newspapers is a fine life, indeed. (“Every morning, we goes where we wishes/ We’s as free as fishes.”) This declaration is part of the opening ensemble number, called “Carry the Banner,” in which the boys show off not only their moves, but also their media savvy.
Watching a writer put up the day’s headline, “Trolley Strike Drags On For Third Week,” the newsies smell a stinker. To make a good headline, Kelly explains, you need “catchy words like ‘maniac’ or ‘corpse’ or um, let’s see, ‘love nest’ or ‘nude’.” But none of that matters, Kelly says in his broad, cartoonish New York accent, because ‘headlines don’t sell papes; newsies sell papes.” Like some proto-Huffington Post/Drudge Report, they turn the scant into the scandalous.
“Extra, extra, Ellis Island in flames!” Jack shouts as he peddles papers at a boxing match.
“Wait, what, where’s that story?” asks David, a newbie newsie.
“Page nine,” Jack calls out. “Thousands flee in panic!”
David reads: “‘Trash Fire Next To Immigration Building Terrifies Sea Gulls?’ You’re just making up things, all these headlines.”
“I don’t do nuttin’ the guys who write it don’t do,” Jack explains. “Anyway, it ain’t lyin’. It’s just improving the truth a little.”
Nearby, ensconced in his palatial office, Joseph Pulitzer admires Hearst’s headline, “Nude Corpse on Rails Not Connected To Trolley Strike.” Played by Robert Duvall as a cigar-smoking tightwad, Pulitzer is the villain of the Golden Age of yellow journalism. “Power of the press is the greatest power of them all,” he says, “I tell this city how to think. I tell this city how to vote. I shape its future.” Pulitzer decides to charge the newsies more to distribute papers and colludes with Hearst to make the rates universal across the city.
Why would Hearst go along with this increase? “As newspaper men, he and I would cut each other’s throats to get an advantage,” Pulitzer explains. “But as gentlemen and as businessmen, we often see eye to eye.” The New York of the newspaper tycoons runs on backroom deals and greased palms. At one point, the mayor of New York visits Pulitzer’s office, and easily acquiesces to the publisher’s demands to arrest an escapee from a juvenile facility run by a corrupt warden.
Inspired by the trolley workers, Jack Kelly leads the newsies to launch a strike until the price comes down. Awesome, time for another song; this one is called “The World Will Know.”
And the World will know / And the Journal too / Mister Hearst and Pulitzer / Have we got news for you / Now the world will hear / What we got to say / We been hawkin’ headlines / But we’re makin’ ‘em today