Sunday, January 19, 2014

Newsies The Movie: Is It Historically Accurate? :Final

An evaluation for my English Comp class.

Newsies The Movie: Is It Historically Accurate?


            In 1899 a stand was made against the rising prices of newspapers by the boys who sold those papers, the newsboys (or newsies) made history.  Years later Disney decided to tell the story of the newsboys of New York by making a feature film about them.  The film, Newsies, told the story of the group of newsboys that began the strike.  Is the movie historically accurate though?
            In the year 1898 the price of newspapers in New York rose from 50 cents to 60 cents for 100 papers because of the Spanish American War.  Once the war ceased and most other prices began to lower, two newspaper owners did not want to give up their increase of income.  Joseph Pulitzer who owned the New York Evening World and William Randolf Hearst who owned the New York Evening Journal refused to bring the prices back down.  A handful of newsies were so distraught about the price that they decided to boycott.  Life was tough on the newsies.  Most of them lived in lodging houses with other newsies.  Selling their papers for a penny a paper they could make on average 26-35 cents if the headlines were good or the newsie knew how to sell.  It was easy for the small group to grow in numbers; holding rallies to convince more newsies to join they were quickly able to organize hundreds of others and form a massive strike.  They amassed a group of around 5000.  They marched the Brooklyn Bridge halting traffic for hours and causing paper deliveries to be difficult.  The newsies succeeded in making it hard for the papers to continue.  Pulitzer and Hearst finally had to agree that even though the price would remain the same for newsies they would buy back unsold papers which they previously refused to do.
            When Disney created the movie based on a true story of course certain facts would have to be left out as it is with any movie.  How accurate is Newsies though?  Were they able to keep to the basic premise and slip some clever details in or were they completely off the mark?  First, let’s look at the characters themselves.  Was there really a boy named Jack Kelly that led the newsies to strike along with his friend David Jacobs and went by Cowboy and wanted to move out to Sante Fe, New Mexico?  


           Jack Kelly unfortunately did not exist.  His character was a combination of two well-known newsie leaders, Morris Cohen and Kid Blink.  Morris was said to have helped begin the strike and lead the rally at Irving Hall.  Kid Blink is probably the most famous of all the newsboys from the strike.  Kid Blink was named after a legendary man named Blink who had one eye.  Kid Blink also supposedly having one eye was known for sporting an eye-patch (though he possibly wore it for sympathy).  Kid Blink, like Jack Kelly encouraged other newsies to join the cause through rallies.  At one such meeting he was awarded for having the best speech and was quoted in the New York Times article “Newsboys Act and Talk:  Fight and Champion Their Cause in Mass Meeting.”  Similar to the scene where Jack agrees to work for Pulitzer because of threats towards the other newsies Kid Blink along with his pal Dave Simmons ended up turning on the newsies. 


            Racetrack was another character based off of a real newsie.  This time the boy was his namesake.  Racetrack Higgins is alike his namesake in many ways.  He was a gambler and spent most of his time at the tracks.  The real Racetrack however did not live at a boarding house with the other newsies like was portrayed in the movie.  Higgins lived with his grandparents and was forced to go to school.  He would usually skip class to sell the morning edition or go to the track.  The movie did a good job of showing how the price jump affected Racetrack.  It was said to have bothered Higgins the most causing him to gather the newsies and propose the strike.  Kid Blink took the reins from there, or in the movie, Jack Kelly. 


            Spot Conlon was also quite accurately portrayed.  He was in fact the infamous leader of the Brooklyn newsies who were known to be the toughest group of newsies around.  He was known by the pink suspenders he always wore, which Disney made sure to include, though in the movie they’re red.  Unlike the movie, Spot was actually quite excited to help with the strike and encouraged other newsies to join.
The character of Mush was based off of Mush Meyers, a trouble maker often found defacing other people’s property.  He was known to be very romantic with the ladies but obnoxious towards everyone else.  Boots was based off of Boots McLennan who started out as a shoe shiner and started selling papers to make more money.  Another character was based off of Kid Blink along with Jack Kelly though this time they let him keep the moniker.  Kid Blink in the movie wears an eye patch and is one of the crew that surrounds Jack and Davey in most of the scenes. 


Disney does like to add characters into stories that aren’t really supposed to be there though.  Davey Jacobs, Jack Kelly’s right hand man in the movie, his little brother Les Jacobs and sister, Sarah, did not actually exist.  It is possible that Davey was based off of Dave Simmons, the other newsie that turned on the strike with Kid Blink.  The lack of accuracy with the names of newsies is understandable though since many of them were orphans and didn’t live by their given names, instead going by names like Barney Peanuts, Crazy Arborn, or Crutch Morris. 
In the film the newsies came up against many hardships during the strike that reflect the hardships the actual newsboys went through.  Rumors amassed that threats and bribes came by the boys in an attempt to get them to turn on the strike.  The boys that worked for Mr. Pulitzer would threaten the newsies and Pulitzer himself threatened and bribed Jack Kelly to work for him and stop striking.  Rumors also started that Hearst and Pulitzer hired large men to bully the small children into submitting.  This was showcased in the movie when the newsies trashed the newspaper wagon and had to come up against the ‘cryps’ that were sent out with clubs and bats to scare them off and beat them up.  Luckily in the movie the Brooklyn newsies showed up to help out.  “Spot Conlon: Never fear, Brooklyn is here.”
The movie displayed the hardships that the actual newsies had to go through.  In actuality the boys often had a hard time selling papers on days when the headlines were bad.  Sometimes they would fake sicknesses or disabilities to coerce people to purchase a ‘pape’.  They would embellish the headlines sometimes to the point of the extreme and they would also act younger in order to garner more sympathy.  The movie demonstrated this with Crutchy, a newsie with a limp, who asks Jack is people think he is faking his disability.  Jack asks him why he would think Crutchy was faking it.  Crutchy responds with “I don't know... It's just there's so many fake crips on the streets today, a real crip ain't got a chance. I gotta find me a new sellin' spot where they ain't used to seein' me!”   In one of the many songs in the movie the newsies sing about the many hardships that kids in their time had to go through to make some money to live off of. ” This is for kids shinin' shoes in the streets with no shoes on their feet every day.  This is for guys sweatin' blood in the shop while the bosses and cops look away.  This is to even the score.  This ain't just Newsies no more.  This ain't just kids with some pies in the sky, this is do it or die, this is WAR!  Once and for all, we'll be there to defend one another.  Once and for all, every kid is a friend, every friend a brother.  Five thousand fists in the sky, five thousands reasons to try. We're going over the wall.  Better to die than to crawl.  Either we stand or we fall, for once, once and for all!” 
While the price change in reality was due to the war and it was Pulitzer and Hearst’s refusal to lower it that sparked the strike, Newsies portrays a darker story.  In the movie Pulitzer makes the decision to ‘up the price’ for the newsies just so that he can make more money than Hearst and maintain power.  Pulitzer, who in real life’s paper was known for sticking up for the underdog, was portrayed as a power-hungry tyrant that refused to accept that the newsies were suffering and had a right to be heard.  “Joseph Pulitzer: ‘Anyone who doesn't act in their own self-interest is a fool.’  David Jacobs: ‘Then what does that make you?’  Joseph Pulitzer: ‘What?’  Jack Kelly: ‘Oh, this is my pal, Davey. The Walkin' Mouth.’  David Jacobs: ‘You talk about self-interest, but since the strike, your circulation's been down 70%. Every day you're losing thousands of dollars just to beat us out of one lousy tenth of a cent. Why?’  Jack Kelly: ‘You see, it ain't about the money, Dave. If Joe gives in to nobodies like us, it means we got the power. And he can't do that, no matter what it costs.’”  Jack and Pulitzer have an all-out power struggle at the end of the movie until finally, by opening the windows in his office so he can hear the thousands of strikers yelling to be heard in the streets below, he convinces Pulitzer to give in. 
The movie may be factually flawed in some ways, (the reason for the price change, character names, or even missing the march onto Brooklyn Bridge) but the story of strength in the face of hardship still remains.  Sometimes when we look at historical content in entertainment we focus too strongly on the individual details.  We strain so strongly to see the individual details that we miss the big picture of the overall message.  In my opinion, Newsies is about as close to accurate as a Disney musical can get without losing its entertainment factor.  And that’s not because of the color of Spot Conlon’s suspenders or because there really was a newsie named Kid Blink, though the accuracy in those details adds richness to the movie.  It’s because it is able to capture the spirit of the newsboys and their journey. 


Whether it is Jack Kelly or Kid Blink, these boys stood up for what they knew was right and were able to make a difference in not only their community, but in an entire city.  Now with the movie being sold around the world, the story can inspire many others to do the same and to take a stand.  In the song Once And For All the newsies sing of their actions making a change “See old man Pulitzer snug in his bed, he don't care if we're dead or alive.  Three satin pillows are under his head, while we're beggin' for bread to survive.  Joe, if you're still countin' sheep, wake up and read 'em and weep.  You got your thugs with their sticks and their slugs, yeah, but we got a promise to keep.  Once and for all something tells me the tide'll be turnin'.  Once and for all there's a fire inside me that won't stop burnin'.  Now that the choices are clear, now that tomorrow is here, watch how the mighty will fall, for once and for all.” 
The real newsies often shared encouraging speeches as well, though probably not in the form of song and dance.  They held rallies and large meeting to gain attention and to convince other newsies to join the cause.  Kid Blink spoke at many of these meetings as the leader of the cause.  At one such meeting The New York Tribune featured him saying, “Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we'se got to stick together like glue.... We know wot we wants and we'll git it even if we is blind.” 
“Sometimes all it takes is a voice, one voice that becomes a hundred, then a thousand, unless it's silenced.”  The reporter character shared this wisdom with the boys, encouraging them to raise their voices and demand that they be heard.  While minor details may have been misrepresented Newsies captured the heart of the newsboys of New York and the power of their story.  It only takes a spark to start a blazing fire.  So, was the movie Newsies historically accurate?  In one word: Yes.

 -XO Juls


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