Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”
Title: Newsies 1
Source materials: Newsboys Strike of 1899
Budget: $15 million
Box office: $2.8 million
Plot: In 1899, 17-year-old Jack “Cowboy” Kelly is one of many struggling newspaper hawkers in New York City, selling copies of the New York World on the streets of Manhattan. When David Jacobs and his younger brother Les join the “newsies”, Jack notices David’s intelligence and Les’s marketable cuteness and self-servingly takes them under his wing.
Unlike most of the newsies, David and Les are not orphans or runaways; they have a home and family, and go to work in order to help their family get back on their feet financially, as their father was fired from his factory job due to an injury. Jack is invited to the Jacobs’ home for dinner, becomes enamored of their sister Sarah, and sings of his desire to escape to Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as laments his loneliness due to lacking a family of his own.
Attempting to outdo his business rival William Randolph Hearst, New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer raises the prices that the newsies must pay to buy newspapers from his distribution centers. Angered, Jack and David galvanize the other Manhattan newsies to go on strike. While the others spread the word to newsies in New York’s other boroughs, Jack and Les confront Pulitzer and are thrown out of his office. Bryan Denton, a reporter for The Sun, takes an interest in the boys’ story.
Jack and David take their cause to the Brooklyn newsies, but their leader, “Spot” Conlon, is reluctant to join the strike. This dejects the Manhattan newsies, but David riles them up until they ambush the distribution center and destroy all of the newspapers. Disabled newsie “Crutchie” is captured by Pulitzer’s enforcers, the Delancey brothers, and placed in an orphanage and juvenile detention center called the Refuge, run by the sketchy Warden Snyder, who neglects the orphans so that he can embezzle money given to him by the city for their care.
The newsies try to ward off strikebreakers, but the struggle turns violent and turns out to be a trap set by the Delancey brothers. Just as the newsies are about to be arrested, Spot Conlon arrives with the Brooklyn newsies and the two groups unite to repel the police. Denton puts the story on the front page of The Sun, and the newsies plan to hold a rally. Snyder informs Pulitzer that Jack is an escapee from the Refuge, giving Pulitzer legal cause to have him arrested. Jack has breakfast with Sarah on the roof of the Jacobs’ apartment building; he tells her of his desire to flee to Santa Fe, and wonders if she would miss him.
The police break up the rally and arrest the newsies, but Denton steps in to pay their legal fines. Snyder testifies against Jack and reveals to the others that Jack’s real name is Francis Sullivan; his mother is deceased and his father incarcerated. Jack is sentenced to four years of rehabilitation in the Refuge. Denton is reassigned as a war correspondent and can no longer report on the strike.
Jack is taken to see Pulitzer, who offers to waive his sentence and pay him a salary if he will work as a strikebreaker. When Pulitzer threatens to have the other newsies thrown into the Refuge, Jack complies. The boys attempt to rescue Jack, but he tells them to leave.
The newsies are shocked and dismayed to see Jack report for work the next day. When the Delanceys attack the Jacobs children, Jack steps in to save them, knowing this will break his deal with Pulitzer. The newsies learn from Denton that their strike has had little effect on public opinion, since the city thrives on child labor and Pulitzer has ordered newspapers not to report on the strike.
Using an old printing press of Pulitzer’s, they publish a “Newsie Banner” which they distribute to child workers citywide. Denton shares the paper with Governor Theodore Roosevelt, exposing the mistreatment of children at the Refuge. Numerous child laborers join the strike, bringing the city’s workforce to a standstill. Jack and David confront Pulitzer, who finally gives in to their demands.
Roosevelt has Snyder arrested, releases the children from the Refuge, and thanks Jack for alerting him to the situation. He offers Jack a ride, and Jack asks to be taken to the train yards so he can head to Santa Fe. The newsies are disheartened by this, but Jack returns shortly, having been convinced by Roosevelt that he still has things to accomplish in New York. As the newsies celebrate his return, Sarah and Jack kiss, and Spot gets a ride back to Brooklyn from Roosevelt.
Background: Walt Disney Pictures tapped its film financing partner, Touchwood Pacific Partners, to fund the production of the film. The production had a $15 million budget, and was directed by choreographer Kenny Ortega in his film directing debut.
Changes from the Source Material: The actual Newsboys Strike of 1899 lasted from July 20 to August 2. The leader of the strike was a one-eyed young man named Louis Balletti, nicknamed “Kid Blink”, who spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent that was often phonetically transcribed when he was quoted by newspapers. Kid Blink is featured in the film as a minor supporting character, while the role of strike leader is given to the fictional Jack “Cowboy” Kelly. Kid Blink and another real-life newsie, Morris Cohen, were the inspiration for Kelly. The actual strike ended with a compromise: the World and Journal agreed to buy back all unsold copies of the newspapers. The history of the newsboys strike of 1899 is told in David Nasaw’s book Children of the City: At Work and at Play (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985; Oxford University Press, 1986).
Songs: Alan Menken’s longtime collaborator, Howard Ashman, was too sick to work with Menken on this film, and he would eventually die on March 14, 1991. Menken brought in lyricist Jack Feldman to help.
- “Newsies Prologue”
- “Carrying the Banner”
- “Santa Fe”
- “My Lovey-Dovey Baby”
- “Fightin’ Irish: Strike Action”
- “The World Will Know”
- “Escape from Snyder”
- “Seize the Day”
- “King of New York”
- “High Times, Hard Times”
- “Seize the Day (Chorale)”
- “Santa Fe (Reprise)”
- “Once and for All”
- “The World Will Know (Finale)”
- “Carrying the Banner (Finale)”
Cast: Christian Bale returns as Jack “Cowboy” Kelly aka Francis Sullivan.
David Moscow as David Jacobs. He played the young Josh Baskin in Big. He also appeared in Honey and Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane. Bill Pullman as Bryan Denton. He made his film debut in the 1986 film Ruthless People, and has appeared in Spaceballs, The Accidental Tourist, Sleepless In Seattle, While You Were Sleeping, Casper, Independence Day, Lost Highway and Lake Placid.
Robert Duvall as Joseph Pulitzer. He has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning for his performance in Tender Mercies. Duvall has starred in numerous films and television series, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Bullitt, True Grit, MASH, THX 1138, Joe Kidd, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Network, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini, The Natural, Lonesome Dove, The Handmaid’s Tale, Days of Thunder, Rambling Rose, Falling Down. The Man Who Captured Eichmann, Phenomenon, A Family Thing, The Apostle, A Civil Action, Deep Impact, Gone in 60 Seconds, Open Range, Gods and Generals, Secondhand Lions, Broken Trail, Get Low, Jack Reacher, A Night in Old Mexico, The Judge, and Wild Horses. Ann-Margret as Medda Larkson. She is best known for her roles in Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, The Cincinnati Kid, Carnal Knowledge, The Train Robbers, Tommy, Grumpy Old Men, Grumpier Old Men, and All’s Faire in Love.
Ele Keats as Sarah Jacobs. She appeared in Frankie and Johnny, Alive, Equilibrium, and Insidious: Chapter 3. Max Casella as Racetrack Higgins. He is known for his roles on the television series The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Doogie Howser, M.D., Vinyl, Cro and the voice of Daxter in the Jak and Daxter video game series.
Jeffrey DeMunn as Mayer Jacobs. He is known for playing Captain Esteridge in The Hitcher, Sheriff Herb Geller in The Blob, Andrei Chikatilo in Citizen X, Harry Terwilliger in The Green Mile, Dale Horvath in The Walking Dead, and Chuck Rhoades, Sr. in Billions. Deborra-Lee Furness as Esther Jacobs. She rose to fame in 1988 when she starred in the movie Shame. Other roles includes Halifax f.p., The Flying Doctors, Stark and Angel Baby.
Kevin Tighe as Mister Snyder. He appeared in Ellery Queen, Cos, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Graduate, Road House, City of Hope, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Jade. I Love a Man in Uniform, Lost, and Salem. Michael Lerner as Wiesel. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Barton Fink. Lerner has also played Arnold Rothstein in Eight Men Out, Phil Gillman in Amos & Andrew, Mayor Ebert in Godzilla, Mr. Greenway in Elf, and Senator Brickman in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Critical Reception: Leonard Maltin called it Howard the Paperboy.
Legacy: Disney Theatrical Productions produced a stage musical based on the film that played at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey starting on September 25, 2011 through October 16, starring Jeremy Jordan as Jack. The characters Denton and Sarah were combined in the musical to create a new character called Katherine Plumber, a plucky young female reporter who is secretly Pulitzer’s daughter.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre. The show went on to earn eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, winning Best Choreography and Best Original Score.
My take: I know this is a cult favorite, but it’s a real turkey. At least the dancing is interesting, yet it seems like there is dancing… just ’cause. The songs are not Menkin’s best and neither are the Newsies voices (Pullman’s voice is surprisingly good). Bale’s New York accent is probably the least laughable. Not being familiar with Pulitzer, I have no idea what Duval is doing. There are some shows better suited to the stage.
Available on Disney +?: Both the original film and a filmed version of the stage musical are available on Disney+.
Next Week: It was supposed to be Cool Runnings, but it will not be available on Disney+ until January. So we’re going to do The Three Musketeers instead.