This was the movie that spawned the idea of doing a blog. Though released in 1992, I didn’t see Newsies until I was in junior high, about ten years later. My music teacher, Mrs. Ellenberger put it on in class for a few days. I remember my friends liking it; I believe the rest of the student populace didn’t really care. We thought the actors were cute; I know Spot Conlon was a favorite, the newsie from Brooklyn. We learned a choral arrangement of one of the main songs Seize the Day as part of junior high choir. Later, in college as part of my Historical Development of the English Language course, I did a paper on the accents in Newsies (because yes, I am that big of a dork and always tried to incorporate films and stories I loved into class projects. I referenced Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean in separate papers in my Intro to Writing course).
I didn’t realize at the time that it had several well-known stars among its cast, not the least of which is Christian Bale (Batman in Christopher Nolan’s ‘verse; as well as voicing Thomas in Pocahontas and a list of other movies) in the starring role of Jack Kelly. Kenny Ortega directed and was one of the choreographers of the movie. Yes, the same man who directed High School Musical, which took over my same group of friends when we were in high school. The music is composed by the great Alan Menken. Ann Margaret (Carol’s mother in Santa Clause 3) appears as vaudeville star Medda Larkson; Bill Pullman (Lonestar in Spaceballs, famous for the Independence Day movies, he’s also the commander in Disney’s Tiger Cruise original movie) is Bryan Denton, a reporter; and Robert Duvall (General Robert E. Lee in Gods and Generals and over a hundred other films) is the evil Mr. Joseph Pulitzer. One of the other newsboys, Mush, is played by Aaron Lohr who was Portman in The Mighty Ducks franchise, part of the “Bash Brothers,” and also in RENT as Steve and voiced Max in A Goofy Movie (I recognize him more from Mighty Ducks, a favorite movie of mine when growing up)
The premise of the story is based on the 1899 newsboy strike in New York City, claiming to be “based on actual events.” “Based,” yes. Historically accurate? Not so much. Carrying the Banner explains the life of the newsboys. They’re out in the elements every day, hawking newspapers for bigwigs like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer for a few pennies. “We need a good assassination/we need an earthquake or a war. How ’bout a crooked politician? Hey stupid that ain’t news no more!” Jack Kelly is the leader of this group of newsies; he protects the smaller and weaker newsies and is well respected by the rest. At the distribution center for the World newspaper, owned by Pulitzer, brothers David and Les Jacobs join the newsies for the first time. Les is in awe of Jack, nicknamed Cowboy. David (who looks like the kid from Growing Pains, but is not) agrees to a partnership with Jack to learn to sell “papes,” though he is disgusted by the spit handshake. Jack’s first piece of advice is “headlines don’t sell papes, newsies sell papes.”
On their whirlwind first day, David and Les follow Jack running from the warden of the local refuge, Snyder. Jack escaped from the refuge previously and Snyder is out to put him behind bars again. They also learn that Jack wants to get out of New York and once he’s saved enough, he’ll take a train out west to Santa Fe “to be a real cowboy,” as Les eagerly puts it. We meet Medda, the vaudeville star and friend of Jack, and the boys eagerly listen to her serenade the crowd with Lovey Dovey Baby. David invites Jack over for dinner where the rough and tumble newsie puts on his best manners for David’s parents and sister. Turns out, David and Les are only working as newsboys while their father is off work due to injury; once he gets his job back, the boys will be back in school. (Cue the looks exchanged between Jack and Sarah.) Jack declines staying overnight and croons Santa Fe, wistfully thinking about the freedom out West; “I want space/ not just air/ let ’em laugh in my face/ I don’t care.”
When the newsies return to work the next day, they’ve found out that overnight, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, owners of the newspapers have decided to up the price the newsies pay for papers by ten cents a hundred, so they, the owners will make more money. When one of Pulitzer’s advisors argues that it would be rough on the boys, Pultizer fires back that “they will view it as a challenge,” and be grateful for it. No, as Racetrack comments, Pulitzer is just a tightwad and the man even admits he wants to know how to get more of the money off the streets.
The boys argue amongst themselves that it’s unfair and they have no rights. Then they get the idea to strike from a local trolley strike that had been dragging on for weeks. As Jack pumps up his friends; are they going to take what they’re given, or are they going to strike? First, they have to organize. If only a handful decide they aren’t selling, other newsies could simply come in and take their work. “Even though we ain’t got hats or badges/we’re a union just by sayin’ so,” Jack (taking the more educated David’s words) tells the boys. There’s a lovely play on words during The World Will Know; world in the traditional sense versus the New York World newspaper owned by Pulitzer; they occasionally throw in references to the New York Journal owned by Hearst. “We’ve been hawkin’ headlines/ but we’re making ’em today…now they’re gonna see/what ‘stop the presses’ really means.” “And the world will know/ and the world will learn/ and the world will wonder/ how we made the tables turn/ and the world will see/ that we had to choose/ that the things we do today/ will be tomorrow’s news.” The dancing has an element of fight to it, which is fun and interesting to watch. So, hurrah, the Manhattan newsies are going on strike; they still have to spread their plan to the rest of the newsboys in New York.
Enter Spot Conlon, leader of the Brooklyn newsies, and makes other newsies “nervous.” Jack, David, and another newsie, Boots, trek out to Brooklyn where there’s Irish music in the background and boys diving off the piers…just because (or maybe it’s to show off their toned physiques…teenage girls did appreciate it). Spot’s voice holds power amongst the newsies of New York and he wants proof before he throws his lot in with Manhattan. And the rest of the boroughs are waiting for Brooklyn’s backing before they join.
They get their opportunity to prove themselves the next morning, David urges them to Seize the Day (probably the most famous song from the film) before facing off at the distribution center again. “Wrongs will be righted/ if we’re united/ let us seize the day…proud and defiant/ we’ll slay the giant.” The police arrive and most escape, except for Crutchy. One adult has been paying attention to the newsies efforts; Bryan Denton, reporter and previous chief war correspondent [the Spanish-American War that ended the previous year, since they never tell us specifically] for the New York Sun. We’re shown the refuge that evening when Jack attempts to break Crutchy out. The boy was beat pretty badly and refuses to be carried. Jack explains to David that the more orphans Warden Snyder has in his refuge, the more money the city sends him, the more he puts in his pocket (hmm, we know corruption when we hear it).
Another day, another fight at distribution led by a reprise of Seize the Day. This time, the World is aided with thugs. Racetrack calls out to Jack, “it’s the Crib!” The gates have been locked and the police are keeping people away. The “bad guys” are almost winning, until back up arrives. Pretty much everyone’s favorite line in the movie: “Never fear, Brooklyn is here!” The newsies beat back the thugs and topple the newspapers. Denton writes a front page article for the Sun which features a photograph of Jack, David, Les, Spot, and several other leaders. Denton treats the boys to a celebratory lunch and the boys eagerly share what being on the front page means. It means they’re famous. Racetrack spouts that being famous means you get whatever you want, “that’s what’s so great about New York!” These boys are King of New York, “fortune found me/fate just crowned me” and they give credit to Denton and feature a bit of tap dancing.
But bad news; Snyder sees the article and picture of Jack (slightly aided by Cructhy giving him Jack’s name) and goes in search of the boy. The other newsies and the owner of the lodge house help keep Jack out of sight, but he chooses to safely sleep on the roof of David’s apartment. Sarah wakes up early and gives him breakfast and we get the only bit of romantic development in the whole movie. Jack isn’t used to having people care whether he stays or goes.
While the newsies plan a big rally to keep their strike going, Pulitzer wants an example made of the boys, especially Jack. Hearing that Jack is a wanted criminal, he pressures the Mayor to send police to break up the rally and further sweetens the deal with the promise of a poker game with the other newspaper owners. The newsies hold their rally at Medda’s hall and David urges the boys to stop hitting the other boys who continue to sell the newspapers; it’s playing into the adults’ hands. Jack simplifies by saying “we’ve got no brains,” and no respect. Spot agrees and Medda cheers everyone up with High Times, Hard Times. Snyder and the police arrive and it’s chaos. Everyone is trying to protect Jack, they’re leader; David even urging him to go once they’ve gotten Sarah and Les to safety. Denton even tries to help, but a well-placed punch sends Jack into the arms of officers and he’s carried out.
The boys appear in court in the morning, Spot jokingly objects “on the grounds of Brooklyn,” and they’re saved from a fine or jail time by Denton. But Jack is tried separately and Snyder convinces the judge (again, more corruption) to incarcerate Jack until he’s twenty-one (he’s now seventeen). Furthermore, Jack Kelly is an alias. His real name is Frances Sullivan; his mother is dead and his father is imprisoned in a state penitentiary. The judge rules in favor of Snyder. Denton meets with the rest of the newsies and informs them that he has been reassigned; his old war correspondent job. The Sun didn’t print the story on the riot, meaning in essence, the riot didn’t happen (what really happened what Pulitzer pressured the owner of the Sun during their poker game). David is mad. New plan; they break Jack out tonight and no longer trust anyone.
But Jack has been taken to Pulitzer, who offers him a deal. Jack works for him until the strike dies, which is will, particularly without him. And then Jack can leave, with money in his pocket; more than he’ll ever make as a newsie. And a lesson on power of the press; Pulitzer holds the power and newspapers being the main way anyone found out about anything in that day, he tells them what to think. Jack realizes Pulitzer is scared; Jack threatens Pulitzer’s power. And he won’t take the deal. Until Pulitzer threatens David’s family. The man sends the teenager to think about it and Jack runs off with David for a minute, but sends his friend away. He won’t say why, only refrains Santa Fe to himself as his mulls over his choices.
Come morning, we all discover he has taken Pulitzer’s deal. The newsies are furious, especially David. He calls his friend out and declares he has found the guts to attach his name to his words (instead of using Jack as a mouthpiece). Sarah finds Denton’s article and tries to give David hope, but her brother storms away. Les thinks Jack is spying and the older boys don’t have the heart to tell him the truth. Then the Delancy brothers, who have always picked a fight with Jack, go after Sarah and Les on the street. David jumps in, as does Jack when he hears Sarah’s yells. The brothers are about to completely knock David out when Jack breaks it up. He can’t be something he ain’t; smart. The teenagers go to Denton. His article tells how the city thrives on child labor; lots of people make money that way. And they’re worried that the newsboy strike will spread. Well now they have a plan. They use Pulitzer’s old press, which Jack knows about, and print their own newspaper, Once and for All. They get the newsies to deliver it to all the kids in the city; “can you read? Read this.”
“Joe, if you’re still countin’ sheep/ wake up and read ’em and weep/ you’ve got your thugs/ with their sticks and their slugs/ but we’ve got a promise to keep…This is for kids shining shoes on the street/ with no shoes on their feet everyday/ This is for guys sweatin’ blood in the shops/ while bosses and cops look away/ This is to even the score/ this ain’t just newsies no more/ This ain’t just kids with some pie in the sky/ this is do it or die/ this is war!”
Denton recruits the governor. The boys wait. So far no one has shown up and without everyone, they’ll lose. All the boys have forgone their put-together looks, all down to their undershirts even David. They reprise The World Will Know, and they are joined by a million voices. All the child laborers are marching. Spot leads Brooklyn. Jack is shown to Pulizter, with David. David points out to the man that he’s losing money every day with the strike; it’s costing him more than the tenth of a cent he’s trying to squeeze out of the newsies. Jack opens the window so Pulitzer can hear all the kids. The man shouts for them to “go home!” A lot of them don’t have homes. And they’re not going away. This is real power of the press. Jack cheekily answers Pulitzer when asked that they used his machines to print their paper. The previous leaders of the distribution center are led out in shame and Jack yells, with Les on his shoulders, “we beat ’em!”
The warden is driven into the crowd and Jack starts to make a run for it, but Denton cautions him he never has to run from the likes of Snyder again. The boys from the Refuge are released and Snyder is locked into the police wagon. Crutchy reunites with Jack and cheerfully tells him that the Governor came storming into the Refuge [previously, the Governor had toured the Refuge and the truth had been hidden; that is how Jack had escaped, underneath his carriage]. The Governor being none other than Theodore Roosevelt, whom Denton had befriended covering the war. And now Roosevelt is thankful to Jack and is offering to take him anywhere he’d like. Such as the train station. Jack rides off cheerfully and David and his family are sad to see him go. But David is now head of the newsies and takes his hundred papes as the reprise of Carrying the Banner starts. But a commotion: the carriage is back. As is Jack (and the score of Santa Fe). The boy thanks Roosevelt for his advice; he still has things to do and a family in New York. He greets David, who responds with a spit handshake and echoes “headlines don’t sell papes, newsies sell papes.” And Sarah gets a big kiss from Jack. Everyone is happy now and dances their way out (Spot hitches a ride back to Brooklyn with Roosevelt).
The film did not do well at the box office when it was released and Christian Bale has remarked he’s been embarrassed to admit he was in the movie musical. But it gained a cult following when it hit video (like my friends and I) and Disney decided in 2012 to transform it into a stage show. It did so well that way, they took it on Broadway and ran for two years and won two Tony awards. I did watch the performance when it was on Netflix. Several changes were made; such as switching Denton to a female reporter, Katherine Plumber [SPOILER: she’s Pulitzer’s daughter], cutting the role of Sarah and making Katherine Jack’s love interest. That story line is better developed than in the film, but I still don’t see the need for a romance. It’s also slightly awkward when there is a lot of “bromantic” undertones in the film and the stage show. Yeah, Jack reacts badly to Crutchy being in the Refuge in the show. And there are hints between Jack and David in the film (supposedly intentionally put there). I was not fond of the changes in lyrics in the stage show; I know the film soundtrack nearly word-for-word and I got attached. I will admit, it’s a good show and does follow the history of the actual strike better. But the film kicks up my nostalgia.
Overall, the film is fun, especially the music. I don’t know why Disney doesn’t show it more; it’s got Batman in it! Though they don’t show a lot of their older films, unless it’s part of the animated collection. It think it’s fun that it’s almost an entirely male cast, which brings a different element to the dances. As I pointed out, there’s a bit of a fight element; I don’t mind the rough and tumble bits. And yes, as a teenage girl, most of the boys were cute in this movie.
I have read a couple fanfictions on Newsies; there’s a trio of stories For Brooklyn by AmbrLupin that spotlights Spot Colin. Another is The Brooklyn Version, also about Spot by WinterhartZahneelCalina. His little “birdie” is actually a girl.
Next Time: Another New Yorker, The Greatest Showman