Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Newsies and Labor Politics


In terms of improbably Christian Bale casting, I'm now torn about which is worse. I mean, casting Christian Bale as Moses, the Middle-Eastern religious leader who was absolutely definitely not white, is pretty bad. But then for years my standard has been the casting of Christian Bale as Jack Kelly, a down on his luck New York street urchin in the early 1990s Disney musical Newsies. And I can't figure out which one is less convincing.

But for all that Christian Bale is woefully miscast and the whole production feels like a school play rather than a gritty historical drama, Newsies remains one of my favorite childhood movies. Maybe it's because it's a musical and it's dang catchy. Maybe it's because I relate extremely closely to one of the secondary characters, a Jewish kid who likes school and can't keep his mouth shut. Or maybe it's because this charming, weird, silly movie is entirely about the rise of the proletariat and Marxism in action.

Truth be told, it's probably that last one most of all.

Newsies is based on actual real life historical events, but it detours rather strongly from them. The story focuses on the 1898 newsboy strike, when a huge contingent of New York's child labor went on strike in order to form a union and demand better working conditions from their capitalist overlords. The best remembered part of the strike was that of the nascent Newsboy's Union, which mostly picketed Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World. 

Newsboys were a pretty important part of New York culture at the time, since newsstands were illegal and the papers came out twice a day. Everyone bought their paper from the local newsie. Mostly the newsies themselves were homeless children who used this position to skim a little off the top and make a living for themselves. The problem came when the newspaper decided to increase the cost of the newspaper for the newsies, without changing the ticket price for the customer, as well as refusing to buy back an unsold papers.

It's a lot of background that gets into turn of the century working conditions and labor stipulations, but the really salient point here is that for these kids, selling papers was the only way to survive. And when the captains of industry decided they could squeeze a few more pennies from their labor force, the kids rose up and actually shut down the city of New York.

This strike actually helped lead to the institution of strict child labor laws and the introduction of child welfare. It's kind of a big deal. Granted, while the first strike was successful, subsequent strikes were less so, and eventually the position of newsie was eliminated by the creation of newsstands.

Still, it's an interesting part of American history. Not really what I would have picked for a plucky children's musical, but what do I know? I'm not a Disney executive.*

The musical follows a highly fictionalized and frankly kind of insulting version of the story. Gone is the gender and racial diversity actually present in the New York newsboy community at the time of the strike, and instead the main characters are all clean, sweet, fresh-faced white boys. There are a few token characters of color in the background, but all the girls are gone. There are literally only two female characters in the whole movie.

Our main character is Jack Kelly (Christian Bale struggling with a New York accent), a veteran newsie who decides to take a mouthy new kid under his wing. The new kids, David (David Moscow) and his brother Les (Luke Edwards), aren't like all the other newsies. They have parents and a home (albeit a two room tenement). David is only out selling papers because his father got hurt on the job and didn't have a union to protect him. David is now the sole breadwinner for his family while his father heals.

Jack, on the other hand, has no family to speak of, but he insists that he does have parents. They're just out west in Santa Fe. When he saves up enough money, he's going to buy a train ticket and go meet them. And that pretty much concludes our character development and background for this movie.

Like I said, the majority of the action in here centers on the strike. When Pulitzer (played hilariously by Robert Duvall) raises the price of papers, the newsies are dejected, but its not until David points out they could strike that they take it seriously. It takes Jack getting behind the idea for it to stick, but soon the whole thing is snowballing. Other boroughs of the city join in, and soon there's a city-wide newsie strike.

But the street urchins are hardly a match for the power of capitalism, and Pulitzer bribes the mayor as well as all the other newspaper chiefs to join him in resisting the newsies. The boys are broken and nearly crushed as Pulitzer sends goons after them, their families, their livelihood, even throwing some of them in jail.

Finally the boys decide that the only way to fight Pulitzer's power is with the power of the press. They get their reporter friend, Bryan Denton (Bill Pullman), to write up a bunch of articles on the use of child labor in New York, and then they print them out and have the newsies distribute. The plan works, and soon the entire city screeches to a halt as children everywhere walk out of their jobs and join the mob. Pulitzer agrees to their demands, and everyone is happy.

This is, as said above, a highly fictionalized retelling of the story. It's grossly emotionally manipulative, weirdly discordant in tone, and just generally a mess. I love it, though. I mean, it's silly and shallow and the boys all look far too freshly washed to be street urchins, and everything is so clearly a soundstage, and Christian Bale spends the whole movie sounding like he's got a mouth full of marbles, and the only girl in the movie is a prissy, prim, bland love interest, and I don't care because I love it so much.

It doesn't matter how outdated and clearly fake the whole thing is, whenever I hear the songs, "Seize the Day", "Carrying the Banner", or "The World Will Know", I want to grab my sign and join the picketing. This movie hits me where I live, where the workers of the world must unite against the oppositional forces of oligarchy that put profits ahead of lives.

What can I say? I've always been a soft touch.

So clearly there's a lot about this movie that doesn't really work. But there's even more that does. And for all that I think it's a cheesy silly film, there's a lot of value in making a movie about labor relations that can be really easily understood by children. Because that's what I was when I first saw this film. A kid. I was probably about seven, and I fell so in love with the movie that I actually wore out the library's copy. By the time we were all switching to DVDs, the tape would go all soft during the finale because I'd rewound it so many times to watch again as Jack and David got one over on Pulitzer.

For all that I really didn't understand the actual economic underpinnings of the movie (let's be real, all that stuff about profit margins and margin of loss is still confusing to me), I understood the struggle. It was patently clear that the kids in this movie were being exploited, and that was bad, and it was hard to fight back because they didn't have any power, but when they all worked together they were able to do something amazing.

And, yeah, that probably did contribute to making me the bleeding heart liberal I am today. But is that such a bad thing? No! I'd actually argue it's a really really good thing. I mean, this is a mainstream movie, a Disney movie for crying out loud, that actively and openly supports the labor movement. That calls out corporations and exploitative practices. That admits to the power of the people.

Heck, this is a movie that openly admits and supports the idea that a free and public press has the power to spur social movements forward. The idea that literacy and access to education will radically change how people think and act, and the idea that the only barriers standing in the way of progress are our own selfish interests. Plus it's a movie where the heroes are all homeless children and immigrants, standing up to the rich white capitalists of the day. So that's nice.

It's a movie that gives you hope. And it's a movie that calls up that part in all of us that wants to change the world for the better. As much as I think they could have made a better film if the writers had decided to just make a straight drama, without the songs or the stagey sets or the comic relief casting, I'm not sure it would have been better overall. Because Newsies is a clarion call to every kid I know. That says, "You can do mighty things, as long as you do them together."

And I don't know about you, but that is absolutely definitely something I want my kids to know.

Medda feels like she dropped in from a completely different movie.
*Unless they want me to be. I have my resume ready and waiting.

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