...and I stick my shest, and I'm off to the races again!

So, Ms Trish recently posted something about 'Newsies!', kind 'cause I told her she should. So, I kinda feel bad now, beause, kinda I told her I was posting something about it. I've had these funny thoughts rolling around in my head around it for a few weeks. If you don't like musicals, or long drawn out overthought analyses of what amounts to a silly cabaret number, you may want to skip this post.

Because I not only will talk about Newsies, I will be talking about what is possibly the most underloved part of the film: the song 'High Times, Hard Times'.

For those of you who may be in the dark, Newsies was a movie-musical made back in the 90's, telling (loosely, mind you) the story of the Newsboys Strike in New York City around the turn of the century, when the newsboys of New York stood up  to a pay cut from the likes of Pulitzer and Hearst. If you've never seen it, go now. Educate yourself. You can even watch the whole thing for free, on Youtube: starts here.

I LOVED this musical. It's corny, yes, it's unrealistic, the New York and the inhabitants of it look kind of like the idea you'd get of people-a-long-time-ago from reading Oliver Twist mixed with O Henry stories. They are the sort of adorable, good-hearted gamins that only exist in novels - and they dance, excellently, which just adds to the sense of realism, of course. But it's also wonderful, and full of songs that are great to sing along with, slightly unbelievable New York accents included (I am too timid to try the dancing, admittedly). And, what's more... alright, now here's where you'll chuckle and turn away from me... whether it's on purpose or not, it's also a wonderfully meaningful movie.

Possibly, as I said, the most reviled part of the movie by it's critics is the cabaret number. The Newsies decide to have a rally to build up support and excitement, and of course the lead character happens to be friends with a burlesque lady. And she's played by Ann  Margaret. Yes, that Ann Margaret, the one in all the old Elvis movies (and in my wife's personal favorite, 'The Villain'). So, they do some untrained speechifying, and then, as the cops slip in to bust up the rally, the 'Swedish Songbird' performs a little musical number, entitled 'High Times, Hard Times.'  So, here you go, the scene in question:


Mostly just the first 2-3 minutes. And since I know you'll want to sing ALONG, here's the singalong version:


So, now.

Now you're REALLY thinking I'm crazy, right?

But wait a minute. There's two sides of why I like this song (well, three, the third being that it's really fun to sing at the top of your lungs). On one side, look at Ann Margaret herself. Ann Margaret... ok, I'm just going to assume she's not reading my blog. She's kind of scary. No, I mean it. Ann Margaret - particularly in the garish stage makeup she wears in the scene - looks kind of phantasmagoric, kind of livid and desperate. Look how thrilled she is at the end of the song, and reflect, she performing for a bunch of teenage or younger kids, for free. In a movie where EVERYONE is spry and choreographed, Medda moves around the stage with an aching, tottering sort of leftover grace. She really FEELS like a cabaret girl spinning out the ends of a career beyond the realm of believability. Think, for a moment, most low class women in New York wouldn't even LIVE as long Ann Margaret, back then. She sings this terrifically banal little ditty, with it's implied dirty jokes, and forced rhymes, in this awful imitation of a Swedish accent.

But you know what, I think it's SUPPOSED to feel awful. Watch her as she's dragged off stage by the police, crying out to them to stop, that they're only children, and you see a real person, and you realize, the woman who they are wolf-whistling is less like a stripper and more like a mother for them (the chemistry is priceless earlier in the film with her, as well, and I recommend watching the whole thing). So, there comes the question - why put this scene in? Why take this nice 'hooker with a heart of gold' character and make her sing a cabaret piece? Roger Ebert, for his part, thinks it was just an excuse to stick an Ann Margaret number in the middle of the film. I don't.

Look now for a minute at the boys. Like I said, they crowd around the stage, wolf-whistling and cat calling, and shouting out that they're in love. The kids, here, already know how you are to behave, here - and it's easier to read this as a simple 'gosh, men were kind of trashy back then'. And there is that, too - if you want to see the genesis of a culture where women were objects, and men could do whatever they wanted with them, here it is, children being taught that this slowly dissolving woman is a piece of meat to be thrown on the skillet and eaten up.

But, there is more than that. These kids are miserable, poor little castoffs, the refuse of a city where most of the citizens were considered expendable anyway. And aside from the young hormones, there's somethign else to - a moment of communion and joy. And that's the real pain of this scene, to me. Nobody in this scene wants to be a monster, they all want to just be human, to have real relationships and joy, just simple joy. And this is the only place in their life that, for a moment, they're allowed to let their guards down, just a bit, and be, in a weird sort of way, actually children again. Taken to the cabaret, they are allowed to play. And, then, again, this is such a painful moment, this forced, cancerous sort of exuberance, both because you can see it training them to STOP being humans, to be animals, servants of the moment, instead of masters of their destinies (and to do this to others). Both sides of the exchange are broken, deeply broken. This mother gathers up the lost children of the city, only instead of a hen gathering her chicks beneath her wings, it's a 'floozy' gathering her children up in the folds of her poorly-cut dress. This is all they have, and even it is just a tool of a culture that wants to grind them into trained animals, and even this, is taken away.

And then, at the SAME time, as they're busted up, you see the mother, for a moment, shorn off from the ugliness of it all, by the very ugliness she's being attacked with, and for a moment, she's simply a woman who wants, so terribly much, to be kind, to take care of these children, there's simple human kindness, unmixed with any society's structures.

That's the mixture of things there, for me, and there's no pretty solution, just what happens at the end - a bunch of kids, still half-blinded by the very giants they're trying to overthrow, pushing back against the bulwarks of a society that wants them to learn to be dogs instead of men. And you turn the film off, and it's kind of pitiful, you realize, it isn't really like that, as Jack puts it at one point, they really were 'beat when they was born.' None of these kids are really any better off for all the courage, they're earning an extra halfpenny per paper, and on the road to being the dogs that the world is still teaching them to be. Jsut dogs with one fun little story to tell their puppies. That's it, nothing more.

And yet, 100 years later, the world, truly, has changed. And that's the juxtaposition that's so exciting, and confusing, and terrifying, and beautiful. Somehow, failure after failure after failure, in the end, the world changes


Trisha said...

I feel like giving you a standing ovation just for recognizing the awesomeness of Newsies let alone your intelligent comments on it!

Jason Gignac said...

*blushes* I am flattered. I LOVE Newsies - I put it on in the background at work while I code sometimes. I feel like it makes my code punchier... ;). See, Ms Trish has done it now, and me, you're next! You need to put up a Newsies post! We can have an impromptu tour!

Trisha said...

I am actually going to go to Netflix right now and see if I can watch it instantly. :)

Jason Gignac said...


Trapunto said...

What a satisfying analysis.

I liked that movie. How time does pass. Christian Bale was such a scary little actor-baby. He seemed slightly supernatural.

And, wow, Anne Anne Margaret. I hate that color of pink, and I still think the costume is awesome. It's the circus-girl boots.

Jason Gignac said...

Three cheers for circus girl boots! Poor Amanda I know has trouble with Mr. Bale ever since he was in American Psycho. Do you think of this as analysis? I might have even used that word, but I don't think of it that way. Analysis implies precision and caution in my mind. I'm too clumsy to analyze... :D

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be offline... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please answer to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at mooredatsea.blogspot.com could post it.


Jeanne said...

I watched Newsies recently, mostly because "I'm the King of New York" was my son's favorite song when he was about four and we wanted to show him what it was from. And yeah, it was more than I expected. I cannot resist those Bale-full eyes, either!

Jason Gignac said...

MS Jeanne - "Nobbin' with all the muckety-mucks, I'm blowin' my dough and goin' deluxe!"