When Newsies was first released, I was one of millions of people who didn’t go to see it. Despite ubiquitous advertising, both critics and audiences didn’t respond very well, and people stayed away in droves. I remember joking with a coworker at the time that Newsies was sure to sweep the 1992 Oscars.
In the intervening years, I read the autobiographies of Harpo and Groucho Marx, which sparked an interest in turn-of-the-century New York. Harpo 11 was and Groucho was 9 in 1899, when Newsies is set. Although the Marx family was certainly poor, they were not so desperate that the boys had to shill newspapers, but they were both working at the tender ages of 11 and 9. Harpo was delivering sausages for a butcher, and Groucho was answering the phone in an office. In their memoirs, they both have fascinating stories about how they were able to survive by outwitting neighborhood bullies and hiding minor transgressions from their bosses.
So even though I was bored by another Disney film, Mary Poppins, a few days ago, I finally watched Newsies, in order to get a little bit more perspective on the Marx Brothers. I actually enjoyed it. There are song and dance numbers, but not too many of them, and I sometimes felt that the producers couldn’t make up their minds about if they wanted to make a musical or a straight dramatic film. I would have preferred the latter, but the songs were tolerable as the story between them was good enough. Howard Ashman, who wrote the book for Little Shop of Horrors signed on to write the lyrics, but had to pull out as he was too ill with AIDS. Undoubtedly the songs would have been better in his hands. Christian Bale, who was in the process of transitioning from a child actor to an adult performer, has gone on record saying that he regrets staring in this, but is better than some of the stuff he has appeared in recently.
As could only be expected from Disney, the true story has been altered, and a happy ending tacked on, but this more or less gives and accurate impression of the problems the newsboys faced and how they went about striking to improve their situation. At the beginning of 1898, newsboys, who were not actually employees of the publishers, would buy packs of 100 papers for a discounted price of 50 cents, which they would then sell for 1 cent a piece. If they sold all 100 copies, they would earn 50 cents for themselves, but they often did not sell out and unsold papers were not refunded, leaving them with a profit of around 30 to 40 cents. With the onset of the Spanish American War, newspaper circulations soared and it was much easier for newboys to sell out their packs of 100. Papers raised the price to the boys to 60 cents, and they could still expect a profit of 40 cents a day. After the war ended, circulations fell again and many papers lowered the price back to 50 cents. All papers except those owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. This is the main point the boys went on strike against in 1899. The movie simplifies things by largely omitting Hearst and focusing on Pulitzer as the villain, who raises prices to 60 cent simply to increase his profits. In the film, the boys succeed in getting the price lowered back to 50 cents. This did not actually happen in the real strike, although the papers agreed to refund unsold papers, which the strikers were happy with. What does come through in the film is the fact that hundreds of boys across the city went on strike, bringing attention to their plight and improving their conditions.