Commentary

The History Behind Newsies 

The film, Newsies, was made in 1992 and opened to poor reviews at the box office. However, when it came out on VHS it became a fan favorite. The unexpected hit told the story of the 1899 newsboys strike through song and dance. The movie, starring Robert Duvall, Ann Margaret, Bill Pullman, and a young Christian Bale, has since become a hit musical on Broadway. The success of this movie is due to the compelling true story of underdogs striving to make their lives better. 

The film follows the story of Jack Kelly and his journey to become the reluctant strike leader. Jack, a 17 year old newsboy, is an orphan who dreams of a better life in Santa Fe. He hates his current life in the crowded, dirty, streets of New York City. He lives in a cramped boarding house with tons of other young boys in the same circumstances. These boys, many of which go by nicknames such as Racetrack, Boots, Specs, and, Mush, are very close and enjoy giving each other a hard time. They all work for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper,  The World, selling “papes” for mere cents. These boys are unexpected heroes who struggle, fight, and succeed, in gaining rights for themselves. (Newsies, film)

The movie begins with Racetrack (Race), describing the historical significance of this film he narrates, “In 1899, the streets of New York City echoed with the voices of newsies, peddling the papers 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. Poor orphans and runaways, the newsies were a ragged army without a leader, until one day all that changed.” (IMDB). The film goes on to describe the events leading up to the strike. The Newsboys complain about there current situation in the song, “Carrying the Banner” they make it to the newspaper distribution center where they find out Pulitzer has jacked up the price the newsies have to pay for papers. The poor boys can barely afford them as it is. A new newsie, David, and his brother Les, join the newsies and inspire the idea of a workers strike. Jack is skeptical of the idea, but reluctantly goes with David’s idea and becomes the voice in front of David’s ideas. All the while, hiding his troubled past with the law. (Newsies, film)

The boys decide that they will no longer deliver papers until the price goes back down. The newspaper editors struggle to come up with a compromise or a way to stop the boycott. Pulitzer, recruits the help of Mr. Snider, the man who runs “the Refuge”, a detention center for young boys. Snider, has a personal score to settle with the rebellious strike leader, Jack Kelly, who was the only boy to ever escape from the Refuge. When Snider begins to chase after Jack, he is forced to tell David about how he had been arrested and put in the refuge for stealing bread, and how he had escaped because of how he had been mistreated in his time there. He tells the tale of how he rode out of the refuge on none other than then-governor Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage. David does not hold his past against him, but instead helps Jack hide. (Newsies, film)

With the strike showing no signs of stopping, Pulitzer gets desperate. He calls a meeting of fellow newspaper owners and competitors including, William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Sun, the newspaper that has been covering the strike under journalist, Brian Denton. They have heard news of a strike rally at a theatre, hosted by Jack Kelly’s friend and mother-figure, performer Medda Larkin, and they make plans to stop it. The rally is raided and Jack along with other newsies are arrested. The other newsies are bailed out, but Jack goes back to the refuge. Pulitzer blackmails Jack into betraying his friends and selling papers again, going against the strike. His friends are crushed at this betrayed, but continue the strike. Jack eventually decides to go back to s friends, making him a fugitive but bringing about the turning point of the strike. The working children of New York City pull together and with the help of Brian Denton and Theodore Roosevelt, win better working conditions for themselves. Pulitzer is beat, and Snider is imprisoned for his abuse towards the children in the Refuge. Jack gives up his dream of Santa Fe, and instead chooses to stay with his new friends and make sure the union stays intact. (Newsies, film)

This is one of my favorite movies, because of the singing, dancing, and great story. Any movie based on underdogs who succeeded is inspiring. I feel that the movie stays true to the events that took place in 1899 but it does add its own twist. 

In 1899, it was not uncommon to see children, some as young as 7 or 8 working lbs now held by adults. Child labor laws did not yet exist although reform on this would soon be taking place. A popular job for children ages 7-18 was being a newsboy. Commonly referred to as “newsies” these boys roamed the streets selling papers cheap. They had to buy the “papes” from a distributor and then sell them. After the Spanish War, many newspapers lowered the prices the newsboys had to pay. Joseph Pulitzer and William Rudolph Hearst, owners of the New York World, and New York Morning Journal did not. The working boys earned less than those working for other newspapers, so they went on strike. Led by Kid Blink and Boots the strike was successful not in the way they planned though. The newspaper icons did not lower the price, but they did agree to buy back unsold papers, giving the newsies some profit. (Stern, Liz. “Blast From the Past: Newsboy Strike of 1899.”)

The movie stays historically accurate for the most part. The differences that were in it were: the leaders name was changed from Kid Blink and Boots, to the fictional Jack Kelly, and David.  However Kid Blink, and Boots were both minor characters in the film. The titles of the Newspapers were changed slightly and shortened to just The Sun, and The World. Medda Larkin and Brian Denton are both fictional characters, although they are both based on fact. Real-life newsboys often enjoyed spending any free time at theatre’s viewing vaudeville acts, and many journalists followed the strike. The similarities, are numerous. The movie’s date (1899) is accurate to the actual newsboys strike, and both newspaper owners,  Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst both did own newspapers in New York although the accuracy of their portrayal is questionable. (“Newsboys Strike 1899”)

This film remains one if my favorites. The music is amazing and the dancing is incredible. A major reason why I like it so much though, is the story. Children who had nothing going for them, were able to make a difference that not only changed their lives, but affected child labor laws today. Through this movie, I learned a lot about The Newsboys strike of 1899, and the power to change your own life if you work hard enough.

 

 

Works Cited

“Quotes.” IMDB.com. web. 6 March 2014

 

Stern, Liz. “Blast From the Past: Newsboy Strike of 1899.” historydetectives.nyhistory.org. 27 July 2012. web. 6 March 2014

 

“Newsboys Strike 1899” ows.edb.utexas.edu. web. 6 March 2014

 

Newsies. dir. Kenny Ortega. perf. Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, Ann Margaret, Bill Pullman. Walt Disney Pictures, 1992. VHS

 

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