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
The newsies’ singing and dancing attracts the attention of Bryan Denton (Bill Pullman), a reporter from The New York Sun, just back from covering the war in Cuba where he “charged up San Juan Hill with Colonel Teddy Roosevelt.” Denton writes a front-page story, “The Children’s Crusade: Newsies Stop The World and The Journal” about the strike. The newsies are jubilant. They believe that if “you’re in the papes, you’re famous; you’re famous, you get anything you want.” They count all the things you could get as a newly crowned celebrity with the catchiest tune of the movie, “King of New York.” For Denton, that means “an editor’s desk” and new assignments:
In nothing flat / He’ll be covering / Brooklyn to Trenton / Our man Denton
In the song, Denton also sings about the reporter’s role, “protecting the weak” and “when I’m at bat, strong men crumble.” The newsies are grateful, but Denton tells them, “You got yourselves on the front page. I just gotta make sure you stay there,” since The Sun is the only paper covering the strike. I’ve watched this movie at least twenty times, and I’ve never been sure what’s implied: Would it be better for Denton as a reporter that the story gets stays big so that he can maintain his A-1 position, or is he speaking as the newsies’ advocate, who knows that they boys need to stay in the headlines to get what they want? He also buys them lunch twice at the old timey Tibby’s Restaurant, and pays their fines when they’re arrested at a rally, so maybe he’s more in the ally camp.
Soon, things fall apart. Pulitzer orders “a printing ban on all strike matters” and leans on City Hall to have Kelly arrested. Despondent, the newsies come to Denton for help. Turns out, he’s packing his bags: “I got reassigned as The Sun’s ace war correspondent,” he tells them. He explains that he has no choice but to go, because if he doesn’t accept this assignment that is obviously much better than the one he’s on now, he “would be blackballed from every paper in the country. I’m a newspaperman,” Denton says. “I have to have a paper to write for.” (The quiet rectitude that Pullman displays in this role totally foreshadows his portrayal of the president in Independence Day.)
Because of Pulitzer’s city-wide order to keep the strike out of the papers, Denton’s editor killed his article, “The Dark Truth: Why Our City Really Fears the Newsies’ Strike.” He explains that “the city thrives on child labor. A lot of people make money that way. They’re terrified that the newsies’ strike will spread.” It’s a journalistic trope here, connecting a particular injustice with systemic corruption.
But Denton inspires the newsies to keep fighting: “Sometimes all it takes is a voice, one voice that becomes a hundred, and then a thousand, unless it’s silenced,” he says. He puts aside his worries about job security and helps the newsies publish a newspaper to call child laborers of New York to join in the strike. While they print the paper on an old Pulitzer press, they sing “Once And For All,” but there’s no dancing, sadly. (Kenny Ortega was probably afraid that one of the kids would get their feet caught in a Linotype machine.)
Denton also visits now-Governor Roosevelt to deliver a fresh-off-the-press copy of The Newsies Banner with the story “How We Can Stop the City,” which mobilizes the underage workers and exposes the corruption at the children’s jail, “House of Refuge; House of Shame. Scandal Hidden from Teddy On Visit.” Roosevelt, who’s quite chummy with the reporter whom he calls Denty, is outraged by news and heads straight to New York to deliver justice and depose the evil warden.
In the meantime, Pulitzer realizes that his standoff with the newsies has paralyzed business in the city, and gives into the strikers’ demands. It’s too bad that Alan Menken ran out of songwriting juice by this point, so we have to settle for a reprise of “Carry the Banner,” with the victorious newsies rhythmically waving their papers and reaffirming the sentiment they declared at the beginning—that their life is a mighty fine one, indeed. Who would disagree?
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