So far I’ve covered how Robin Hood was influential on my nascent socio-political conscious, while both Beauty & the Beast and Dangerous Beauty acted as key influences on my relationship with feminism and religion. Next we’ll look at the influence of Newsies and Swing Kids on my attitudes toward authority figures, workers rights, and social welfare programs.
So, both Newsies and Swing Kids are Christian Bale vehicles. Oddly enough, this is a total coincidence. I actually thought Bale had a super funny (like funny ha-ha) looking face when I was a teenager.
Newsies is about labor rights, freedom of the press, and worker activism. There are also themes of elitism, class stratifications, social mythologies, bribery and corruption, and the harm unregulated social institutions (like the Refuge) can cause. And it’s all told through Christian Bale and the medium of song and dance, so it’s a double win!
There’s this one part in Newsies where Davey (David Moscow) is explaining why his dad is unemployed to Cowboy (Bale). Davey and his little brother took the job selling newspapers in part to support his family now that his father has been fired. Davey’s sister and mom are also both working; the entire family is clearly working hard to support themselves, and the loss of their primary income is a significant blow to their financial well-being.He tells Cowboy that his dad was injured on the job while working at the factory, and that, “He’s got no union to protect him,” so they fired him.
In the context of the film, this line is delivered after the Newsies spend a day trying to sell papers covering a local labor strike, and after Cowboy and Davey personally witness a riot with the labor strikers. So it’s not like the line comes out of nowhere–it’s totally in context. It was only years later that I realized how pro-union a line like that actually is.
So, Newsies is another film inspired by a true story: The Newsie Strike of 1899. Now, the way selling newspapers worked back then is that the newsies would buy the papers in bulk, then go out on the streets and hawk them to passerby. If they did well, they would cover the cost of the papers and make a little extra. If they didn’t do well, they had a stack of useless papers and were out the cost of them. And mind you, most of the newsies were, as described in the opening narration, “poor orphans and runaways.” Newsies were often homeless children being exploited for their labor.
The story really takes off when the newspaper magnates of the day, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, decided to charge the newsies more for their papers. There’s no real reason for it, except that pennies add up and newsies are exploitable. Pulitzer and Hearst, like the other wealthy tycoons of the era (and like many of the modern 1%) were perfectly willing to increase their already substantial wealth by putting the screws to the rank and file … in this case, homeless children living in poverty.
The newsies react with outrage, and led by the character of Cowboy (who’s based off the real-life leader of the newsie strike, Kid Blink), they decide to form a newsie union and go on strike, which they end up winning. There’s obviously more to the story than that, with the usual ups and down of plot, but that’s the essence of the film.
Newsies clearly illustrated the old maxim that power corrupts. They depicted wealthy employers as more interested in consolidating their wealth then in protecting the welfare of their employees, and it was a truth I began to notice reflected in the world around me.
A year after Newsies came out, my dad’s employer downsized and pushed all the non-contracted employees into early retirement. My dad went into private practice, but it wasn’t as financially reliable as his previous gig. When I acquired my first job at the age of 16, I further internalized how little power or influence workers actually have.
Maybe if I hadn’t watched Newsies a dozen times a week since it came out four years earlier, I would have just accepted the employer-employee relationship as a necessary power dynamic. But Newsies had taught me that even the lowliest of employees still has value. My belief that all workers should receive a living wage, health benefits, and unemployment protections were originally inspired by this film.
Swing Kids is about how adult-trusted and propagated institutions of authority can indoctrinate kids into evil. In the film, Christian Bale plays a 1930s German youth who, with his friends, goes to underground swing dancing clubs in the city. Hitler has spoken out against swing clubs, and they are being subjected to raids. In one of these raids, Bale’s character is picked up by the HJ (Hitler jugen, or Hitler Youth), and begins to attend their meetings.
As a teenager watching this, I was discomfited by the superficial similarities between the HJ and the BSA, which my brothers were both in. I knew the BSA only as a force for good at that time in my life, but I couldn’t escape the reality that both the BSA and the HJ were adult-approved mainstream programs aimed at keeping kids “out of trouble.”
Viewed from a modern lens, the eventual choice of Bales’ character to eschew dance clubs and side with the HJ is a clear fall from grace. He has failed to uphold his moral code, he has “chosen” to become a Nazi. Sure, he did so with the explicit encouragement and approval of the adults around him, but we all know it was the wrong choice. We have the benefit of hindsight. With the context of history, it has become apparent to us that the HJ was way more trouble than swing dancing clubs.
In the context of the era the film takes place, though, there’s a disturbing parallel story. This story is the story of a bad boy gone good — this is the story of a kid who keeps getting in trouble, but manages to cut out the bad influences and get his life in order.
If the same movie was made today, but with kids lying to their parents and sneaking out to smoke weed instead of dance swing clubs and the BSA instead of the HJ, it would be a story of redemption and growth; an inspirational story about a guy who overcame temptation and the bad influence of peers in order to become an upstanding pillar in the community. That’s pretty disturbing, and that parallel message taught teenage me an important lesson about blind trust in authority.