In 10th grade, a friend of mine and I “convinced” our history teacher to let us watch “Newsies” (Kenny Ortega, 1992) in class because it was tangentially related to the Industrial Revolution, and because we had started, briefly, to gloss over the history of the U.S. Labor Movement. (I say convinced, but now, as a teacher who writes lesson plans, I can probably guess that it wasn’t actually a hard sell—especially because we were responsible for coming up with the questions that went along with it, and because a functional movie day is basically like a freebie in terms of planning.) But, our reasoning was this: it’s loosely around the same time period (end of the century, sure, but associated!) and it is actually based (sort of) on real events, and also, c’mon, it’s Christian Bale, can we just watch Batman sing for a little bit?
“Newsies” is about a group of newsboys who, when the distributor sale price of the newspapers increase following the increasing greed of Joseph Pulitzer (more on that later), decide to go on strike.
The narrative of “Newsies” focalizes primarily on Jack Kelly (Christian Bale), a former kid-convict who famously rode out of the Refuge (explained helpfully to David Jacobs (played by David Moscow)—and the audience—as “a jail for kids”) on the top of Teddy Roosevelt’s stagecoach and who is the preeminent newsie. David (“Dave,” or, in Bale’s approximation of a New York drawl, Day-fff, also, “Davie,” to his mother, and “and Goliath” to journalist Bryan Denton, played by wonderfully charming Bill Pullman) comes in as a close second for who this movie seems to think the lead is, but at the end of the day, audiences are not treated to musical interludes about David’s longing, they’re given—and very effectively, at that—songs about Jack’s longing.
While this movie has a driving narrative about workers’ rights and the absolute need to stand against corporate greed (which, LOL, Disney) which remains compelling more than twenty-five years later, the newsie strike functions as the scene against which that longing—which is very much situated in childhood fantasies about what it means to be a grown up in conflict (at times) with the reality of what adulthood asks of us. Though the framing of this move allows for the potential of David as co-lead, from the very beginning, his life is couched in a more familiar “real” to the audience than Jack’s, and David really acts as a stand-in for the audience, or as an entry point to Jack’s own life as a newsie, because that world is so entirely inaccessible to Ortega’s assumed audience population for this movie. It begins with two newsies, Racetrack and another, arguing over a cigar, and the first song of the musical, introducing us to the characters who are to be most immediately impacted by the future in-movie decisions of Pulitzer and the other newspaper men. David and his younger brother Les very clearly are not becoming a part of the group of newsies until later, once the audience themselves has already had a chance to be immersed in the song and dance (literally) of the day-to-day actions of the boys. Jack, on the other hand, is who the boys look up to and ask for advice from. And while David too undergoes some narrative changes over the course of the film, his development primarily involves his becoming less sheltered (it’s huge that he spits into his hand at the end to seal a deal, because at the beginning he thought that it was gross). He doesn’t face significant moral or character challenges, and his crisis of faith right before the climax of the film comes as a direct result of the actions of Jack, not because of any choices he has to make. So, this all in consideration, and teenage-Jill’s fondness for Christian Bale in mind as I continue to write this (because this isn’t a serious academic paper!), the real focus of “Newsies” is not on being an educational musical about the plight of the working child in the late-1800s (one, this is Disney, and two, some of it is straight up factually incorrect—sorry, Mr. Pulitzer), though it makes for a good story. Nor is the film’s focus on the ability of a predominantly middle class, privileged audience to be able to identify with and learn some genuine solidarity with members of the working class by becoming a part of them (there’s a great “Two Broke Girls” line about this, somewhere). The driving force behind “Newsies” and its continued vitality comes from the fact that it has always been extremely difficult to be 17 years old.
Jack Kelly’s nickname among the newsies is “Cowboy,” and this, from the start, is a little childish (they all, presumably, have nicknames, and we know most of them only by these nicknames). To be fair, this movie takes place at the time of the western expansion, and the opening shot features a few really young boys (probably newsies) hanging out on a statue of Horace Greeley—which is inscribed with the the phrase, “Go west, young man,” often credited to the writer. At first, this comes across in his costume: a cowboy hat instead of the typical newsboy cap, a red bandana tied around his neck. But it gets carried through the music with a kind of rallying sound as he leads the villainous Delancey brothers on a quick chase into a quick beat-up to the cheers of his fellow newsies (“Go get ‘em Cowboy!” turning to “You got ‘em Cowboy!” at various points through these group songs). It’s not that Cowboy is just an affectionate nickname that the keeper of the newsboy lodging house has for Jack, but something that has become woven into who he is. When David asks who he is, Les is quick to say, “They call him Cowboy!” and then later, when David asks him why, Jack explains that it’s because he’s going to go west, to Santa Fe, and he takes out a rolled up pulp comic book as an illustrative tool. His parents are out there, he tells David. They’re just trying to find the right place and then they’ll send for him to join them.
This turns out to be not so much a lie—David calls him a liar, but I think that’s unfair—but a fantasy. Jack’s dad is in jail. The audience doesn’t know much about Jack’s parents beyond this. We do know that he’s been on his own for a while, and that the adults in his life are mostly ineffectual at helping his escape his situation as a child: his own father is in jail; his mother is absent and probably dead; the warden of the Refuge has a vested interest in keeping as many children imprisoned as he can; Medda, his father’s friend, is a vaudeville performer, and unable to provide for him; and Jack, it seems, has been on his own for long enough that he’s stuck in a cycle of continuing on the way he has been. When his new business partner—hell, friend, at this point—David, who is extremely normal, asks him about his parents, the fantasy presents itself easily: my parents are out west, like so many others, making a new place away from this awful dirty city where there are strikes and murders and starving children, and I’m just waiting for them to let me know when I can join them. The point isn’t whether or not Jack has told this fantasy before, but that it fits in with David’s expectations of Jack, and therefore the audience’s expectations of Jack. Neither we nor David have any reason to expect anything else.
The first few notes of the song “Santa Fe” start as Jack starts leaving David’s family’s apartment. Jack asks what happened to David’s father, who’s out of work, injured. It’s a cautionary tale; unlike the striking union workers, David’s father has no union, so when he got injured on the job, he had no protection and they fired him (though he’s sure that he’ll get the job back as soon as he’s healed up! David is not so optimistic; he provides the theory to Jack’s labor praxis in the film). It’s bedtime; David’s father, Mayer, says, “It’s time to come in now.” David starts to, and Jack turns to leave from where they’ve been standing on the fire escape, when David thinks, and then says, “Jack, why don’t you stay here tonight?”
It’s such an open invitation: David wants only at this point to be Jack’s friend. They’ve outrun the warden of the Refuge together (without David knowing why exactly Jack was there to begin with), they’ve made some money, they’ve gone to a vaudeville show, they’ve had dinner.
Jack has made physical distance between himself and David already by the time the suggestion is made, but Bale’s physical gesture is great here because it adds a cagey-ness to the rejection: hands already gripping the railing, his body curves, back arching in a way to provide protection and more space as he pauses in the climb down. A pause in the throat, then, “No, thanks. I got my own place.” The tension is alleviated somewhat—”Your family is real nice, Dave. Like mine.” A smile. Dave doesn’t catch up on any of that tension at all though! It’s incredible. He’s just excited—he has a friend, who he can’t imagine not having a family like his, who thinks his family is nice (approval! From someone who’s good at their job!), who he’ll see the next day. He doesn’t let the space remain, and closes it by offering his hand out in a shake.
“Carrying the banner,” David says, and there’s so much to unpack here about the assumptions that David makes here, but I think that most of that has to do with the pacing of this movie, where, because of how brief it is, everything happens at an accelerated pace. It’s still funny, for this kid who just started selling newspapers, to claim that slogan, and Jack still gives a slight little Christian-Bale-chuckle, and then, almost immediately after David is gone inside and the family is settling in for the night, his expression makes this wonderful, sad shift. It’s not a mopey expression, but rather it’s sad because it is familiar. He keeps the smile on for his friend and without any subtly, it goes away, as though taking off a mask, and makes a quick stop to neutral, like there’s been this great emotional effort, a reminder: other people get to have families, normal families, and other people get to not be great colossal screw ups. Jack Kelly doesn’t get to be other people. And this movie was good in that it casted actual kids in the roles of the newsies; Christian Bale was only 18 when it came out, and he genuinely looks young here, and lost, and it’s great.
He goes down the fire escape and “Santa Fe” starts, and the audience learns that Jack was being untruthful (I think that is a better way of saying than lying): he doesn’t have a family, as far as he’s concerned, and with the cockiness of a 17 year old, he says, “Who said you needed one? Ain’t you glad nobody’s waiting up for you?” The framing of this scene isn’t subtle (this isn’t, surprise, a subtle movie: just about zero of the films talked about in this series are). As Jack finishes descending the fire escape, he lands in front of a wall that has posters about the Wild West behind him. Whenever Jack is on his own, the scene is about his desire to get out of the east coast and go west. He almost, for a moment, seems aware of the impossibility of this: he sings “I’m free like the wind / like I’m gonna live forever / It’s a feeling time can’t never take away,” but then immediately says, “All I need’s a few more dollars / then I’m outta here to stay / Dreams come true / Yes they do / In Santa Fe.” The dance break within this song provides an interpretation of a rodeo (I’m doing Ortega’s choreography a disservice by not talking about it more), and the benefit of the setting of 1899 New York City is that the dirt road and use of horse-drawn carriages means that there are enough visual cues that can call up Western-motifs in the same way that theme parks might today. The song ends with Jack being able to steal someone’s horse and, wearing the cowboy hat, he asks Santa Fe to remember him. “Before my dying day / I want space / not just air / Let ‘em laugh in my face / I don’t care.”
The idea that getting out of town as a solution to our problems is clearly not only a 17 year old issue (there are plenty of adults under the impression that if they were just somewhere else they could be happier, or something), but for Jack, because it is so tied to his identity as “Cowboy,” which itself is tied into those escapist Western Jim pulp fictions, this is a childhood fantasy. It’s a self-soothing function, and even the song and dance routine itself is coming directly after the stressor of seeing what it’s like for someone who maybe doesn’t have to escape New York to have a life that isn’t miserable. It’s not the city that causes the problem for everyone, but for Jack it very much is—and for Jack (and—in a not so small way either—for much of America), the idea of the West and the Cowboy really is what it means to Be Free (emphasis on those ideas with Capitalized Letters). And perhaps this is especially true for those of us on the Upper East Coast, where everything is so densely industrialized, where, though it’s significantly better now than it was in the 1800s, there is so much pollution and overpopulation and industrial-style poorness (I hesitate to use the word poverty here) that we tend to romanticize the West with its big open skies and its wide land. Many of us are unable to see beyond our own noses as teenagers to begin with, and many of us even as adults think the grass is always greener on the other side (to use the cliche), and Jack is no exception. He longs for whatever it is that the West can give him without the understanding (that many adults even lack) that the West can’t give it to him.
Ultimately, this is something that Jack does figure out for himself, but he has to have a conversation with TEDDY FUCKING ROOSEVELT to get to that understanding. Before that, he makes a deal with a devilish, union busting version of Joseph Pulitzer and becomes a scab, because, “For the first time in my life I have money. Real money.” David tries to get Jack out of jail after he’s been caught (for breaking out, but really for organizing) at a newsies rally hosted at Medda’s theater. The problem is, Jack does want David to stay safe, and David has gotten to Jack after Pulitzer has already offered the bribe to get Jack enough money to get out of New York. It’s really, in Jack’s eyes, a win-win. David feels betrayed: unlike Jack, he doesn’t have the moral choice to make, and he’s not in a position where he necessarily would want to leave New York in the first place. Unfortunately, Jack’s bad at communicating; him trying to tell David that he needs to stay out of jail comes across as condescending at best, and the limited timeframe he has before he has to get back to Pulitzer with his decision to cross the picket line. At this moment, there’s a refrain of “Santa Fe;” this is the closest Jack is to realizing that particular dream, but if he had in this particular way, there would have been some really unpleasant implications. For one, he would have had to live with the guilt of single-handedly ruining the newsies strike movement (as the narrative makes it clear that, while David has all of the theory of unionization and labor rights, Jack really is the driving force behind making any of it happen), and for another, he would have known that he was letting everyone who looked up to him down. And while he pretends that he’s able to brush it off, like he’s a hardened street kid who does what he has to do to look out for himself, this is inconsistent with his actions throughout the entire rest of the movie, from his very first introduction, to an attempted jailbreak of his fellow newsie Crutchy, and even his decision to become a scab in part to protect David and David’s family.
Fortunately for the cause of the newsies and unfortunately for Pulitzer, because the Delancey brothers still decide to go after David’s sister Sarah (who Jack is sweet on, and who is part of the deciding factor as to his staying in New York), the audience is treated to a pre-Batman Bale Beatdown, and Jack, David, and Denton team up to produce a paper detailing the struggle of the newsies and the working boys and girls of New York. 1990s Disney-Perfect ending secured, Jack is able to go ahead on the train to Santa Fe and Teddy even offers him a ride. David, Les, and Sarah are miserable—until everyone is shouting because Jack has made the decision to stay for a while. Apparently the man who later becomes the president most associated with the American West and with the National Park and conservation movement is exactly who would be the one to convince a young man to stay in New York City.
“The Newsies” (1992) is currently streaming on Disney+
Jill is a writer and academic whose scholarship primarily focuses on popular culture, trauma studies, conflict, and girlhood. She sometimes appears on the horror movie podcast "The Howling Hour." Her dream job is to be the kind of hermit rich, landowning folk in the late-Regency period would hire to sit on their highly cultivated "wild lawns."