Remember What ‘Newsies’ Taught Us About The Fat Cats, Buddy
“Pulitzer and Hearst, they think we’re nothin’.
Are we nothin’?”
Newsies came out in 1992, a year brim-full and overflowing with great movies. Unforgiven won Best Picture at the Oscars, beating out amongst others Scent of a Woman and A Few Good Men. Marissa Tomei won Best Supporting Actress in the saucy role of Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny. Best Cinematography went to Philippe Rousselot for his work on A River Runs Through It. This was the year of Reservoir Dogs and Wayne’s World, Glengarry Glen Ross and White Men Can’t Jump. Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor in Malcolm X. Perhaps most excellent of the lot, ’92 was the year of The Muppet’s Christmas Carol.
The case is strong for 1992 being the best movie year of the decade. Look at that list: so packed full of goods, we’re approaching embarrassing.
In this context, the wan response by critics to Newsies makes some sense. Fed a steady diet of inspired and illustrious content, a movie musical by Disney about turn-of-the-century newsboys of New York looks, on paper at least, obscure and pointless. Who is this film for?
The answer, when Newsies opened, was not much of anybody. The film banked just $2.8 million at the box office, a small fraction of it $15 million production costs. With the Disney brand, adult movie goers largely assumed the film was meant for kids, but kids (understandably) were none too interested in musical outbursts on the logistics of unionizing circa 1900. Yes, it stars Christian Bale. Still, Christian Bale hadn’t become Christian Bale just yet.
But in its second life at the video rental store, Newsies found an enthusiastic suburban fan club. I don’t know how many tweens and young teens from non-religious families took to the movie, but I’ll tell you this: anyone who attended a youth group or Christian middle school could belt out “Carrying The Banner,” and thought, admiringly, that “noy-verse” is how slick New York kids described themselves when feeling anxious.
(Consider now that a Disney movie aggressively promoting labor unions and damning big biz titans as universally corrupted won the hearts and minds of millions of middle-class Christian parents and their progeny. What a world we must have had back then; even having lived right through the 90s, they feel politically unfathomable from the standpoint of 2022.)
I can’t say for sure what the moms and dads were thinking, but I suspect a movie without any sex or swear words that you could also argue, if you were willing to stretch, taught kids something about history sounded like a solid option for movie night. Additionally, Robert Duvall as Pulitzer, bearded and bumbling around doing weird dances and barking at underlings, probably pulled its own draw.
As for the youngsters, I can tell you what my friends and I were thinking, but you already know. A movie starring Christian Bale alongside dozens of fellow fit young men and old teens, nary a female character in sight, youthful bravura and hustle the name of just about every song number game, well… this is not a hard sell for an adolescent girl squad. Hit play on the swoon-fest, rewind and repeat. Ain’t it a fine life indeed, fellas.
For his part, Roger Ebert gave Newsies a dismal one-and-a-half stars, suggesting “the fact that old man Pulitzer once tried to cheat newsies out of a tenth of a cent” must have been “the very definition of underwhelming” for the many children in the theater on the day he saw the movie. Well, yes. It would take a wildly precocious 8-year-old to appreciate the economics and obsolete jargon of this lyric: “Cuz it’s two for a penny/If I take too many/Weasel just makes me eat ’em after.” (The strike on which Newsies is based occurred in 1899 over Joseph Pulitzer’s decision to hike the price of his newspapers for the boys who sold them, rather than buyers and subscribers. After two weeks, the sides agreed to a compromise: newsboys would pay the higher rate, but the paper would buy back any copies they couldn’t sell.)
Ebert also dinged the movie for its supposedly exaggerated portrayal of New York flavor, but I think his case is weak. In real life, a boy named Kid Blink led the strike negotiations, alongside Little Mikey, Young Monix, Barney Peanuts, Crazy Arborn, and Scabooch. “‘Newsies’ is like warmed-over Horatio Alger, complete with such indispensable cliches as the newsboy on crutches,” said Ebert. But not incidentally, Crutch Morris was, in fact, among the list of prominent named strikers. Truth, at least when plucked from NYC, is often more colorful than fiction.
Revisiting the movie with my own children, I’m still struck by its indispensable New York-iness. The attitude is incredible, the wisecracks, the banter. It recalls to mind fond memories of my grandma who grew up in Chicago and spent some time in NYC as a young woman. She had a line for everything, the queen of the clapback. I miss her. I miss back when people thought it necessary to develop a personality. Do you remember those days? Do you know anyone from them? Likes and emojis do not a personality make, is what I’m saying.
Anyway, I can still quote the lyrics from memory but I had forgotten how infectious is the rambunctious energy of this newsboy crowd. They make you want to be young again, to be in the mix of their fight against the Fat Cats. Their struggle seems impossible, and therefore grand. Poor, many of them orphans, many with criminal records, and all —despite their literacy—with little in the way of “education.” But they bring their street smarts together in song and dance, and lo and behold, the Goliaths fall, or are at least forced to the negotiating table.
Rallying the initial revolt, lead striker Jack Kelly (Bale) jumps up on a statue of Horace Greeley, and shouts a question to his fellow newsboys: “Pulitzer and Hearst, they think we’re nothin’. Are we nothin’?” The resounding communal answer: “NO!”
If I could manifest a remake, we’d see a band of disillusioned Amazon warehouse employees striking over their lousy working conditions. Or a group of feisty young techies who get radicalized by Jared Lanier’s sagacious take on data dignity. Or, if you’re looking to take this concept in a more unbathed and eccentric direction, a musicians co-op that forms to bring down the algorithm-ized monotony and creative deathtrap of Spotify.
The Zuckerbergs and Bezos clan behave as if the peon user—that is you, and me—is nothing. Our privacy, our dignity as human beings who need bathroom breaks and sunshine, our kids’ right to a childhood free from explicit sexual messaging and exploitation—it means nothing to them.
Are we nothing?
There’s an argument out there that corporations have been quick to jump on the social justice cause because it shields them from answering for their often unethical economic rapaciousness. I think, given their indefatigable devotion to profits, this is a common sense critique, although I won’t pretend to know the inner hearts of our CEO class. Improving our justice system is a cause with my full support, and if a cohort of Fortune 500 companies want to help speed that along, I’m not terribly concerned with their motivation for doing so.
However. I am perplexed at the general lack of pushback on mega corporations, the Silicon Valley ones particular. In the short 20-year span of their existence, FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) companies have committed monumental societal harm, from decimating privacy to promoting pedophilia to facilitating ethnic cleansing.
(I wonder if the void of protest isn’t much to blame on our web-based isolation, even pre-Covid. It is hard to get organized when everyone’s on a niche screen mission; communal spaces have shrunk to near nonexistence. If for no other reason than that, I’m with Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan—movie theaters may not only be our last collective experience of art, but one of the final stands of collective experience full stop.)
The newsboy strike was no anomaly. Even in the film, the idea is pulled from a trolley strike that headlines papers throughout the city for weeks on end. There came a point at which the working men and women (and boys and girls, it must be acknowledged) of New York City and beyond reached their limit of taking it on the chin for the man in the corner office. They worked, they worked hard, they wanted to work—this wasn’t a society that would suffer a slouch. But they were more realistic, I think, about the extent to which they were being played. “Ain’t that 10 cents worth as much to us as it is to Hearst and Pulitzer, who are millionaires? Well, I guess it is. If they can’t spare it, how can we?” Kid Blink asked the crowd of newsies during his 1899 rally speech.
That wealthy tech leaders send their own kids to tech-free private schools has long been a source of cynical amusement to me. Smooth talking, fleece-vested filthy rich moms and dads whose products go out by the millions to public elementary and secondary schools will vigorously shield their own sons and daughters from said tablets and MacBooks. What do they know that we don’t? A destructive product is fine for the little guy as long it makes a buck for the boss?
Yes, because to them, we’re nothing.
I wonder how long will it be before we have a better answer to the question:
Are we nothing?