Before he donned the Batsuit and became every fanboy's ultimate man crush, Christian Bale was ours. That boyish charm, that rascally grin glimmering with the slightest hint of mischief -- they belonged to the legions of female fans who idol-worshipped the Welsh actor over a decade before the global success of Batman Begins turned him into a household name. For us, it was all about Bale as the handsome and charismatic Jack, a youngster with big dreams who urges his fellow newspaper boys to "open the gates and seize the day," bringing big business tyrants to their knees with the sheer force of song and dance. You thought defeating the Joker was tough? Try bringing William Randolph Hearst down to 50 cents on a bundle of newspapers! Herewith, I offer you the crush that dominated my teen years: Christian Bale in Newsies.
My Movie Crush: Jack "Cowboy" Kelly in Newsies (1992)
Played by: Christian Bale
The year is 1899. Rival newspaper tycoons Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) and William Randolph Hearst have upped the price of newspapers charged to the legions of paperboys, or "newsies," who in turn sell sheets to the public for "a penny a pape'." The thousands of young and hungry newsboys who already struggle to make ends meet have only one hero to turn to: Jack "Cowboy" Kelly, the tough, street-wise, and terribly dreamy teenage leader of the Manhattan newsies. Jack is bold, brave, and a verifiable hottie who's in with local songbird Medda Larkson (Ann-Margret) and on the outs with the evil juvenile hall warden (Kevin Tighe), and secretly dreams of saving enough money to run away to Sante Fe to reunite with his family. It's that dream that leaves Jack conflicted and leads him to turn scab against his friends, but the lapse is only fleeting; he drops the tantalizing life of working for The Man the instant his friends need him, becoming the golden hero we always knew he could be.
In 1992, the 18-year-old Christian Bale was a strapping sight to behold, even with a cowboy hat and a kerchief slung around his neck like a little boy playing cowboys and Indians. And even with an old-timey accent that rivaled Bugsy Malone. Yes, even whilst hopscotching and hotfooting it around the Universal Studios back lot. Despite that cute little hint of a lisp, Bale's Jack was more than just a paperboy; he was practically a paperman, macho enough to stand up to the newspapers' stooges yet not above helping an adorable young rookie and his bookish older brother learn the ropes. Jack Kelly was the most confident newsie in New York City, and in return for his leadership he had the loyal support of a city full of scrappy street urchins AND the heaving hearts of the girls watching at home.
Because of Christian Bale, I spent the better part of the '90s daydreaming about singing paperboys. (Though I eventually got over it, I also hated Robert Duvall for being so mean to the hundreds of turn-of-the-century street urchins just trying to get by on a dime a day by dancing out their wildest hopes, dreams, and frustrations in the streets of New York City.) While Bale's Jack dominated the world of Newsies, the entire cast was filled with cute, damaged boys in need (including David Moscow, Marty Belafsky, Luke "The Wizard" Edwards, Aaron Lohr AKA Dean Portman from D2: The Mighty Ducks, and my number two crush, Gabriel Damon), making Newsies a feast for the eyes of any young teenage girl. And boy were those musical numbers catchy!
What made Bale and his multitude of cute co-stars even more appealing was the fact that their boys' club of trash-talking, girl-chasing, horny ragamuffins constantly displayed their emotions - along with their fancy footwork - every time a musical number began. Teenage male angst became instantly translated into song and dance, conveying in the span of a few minutes how adolescent boys felt about disenfranchisement ("The World Will Know," "Seize the Day"), being orphaned and poor ("Carrying the Banner"), being respected for the first time ("King of New York"), and holding onto the American Dream ("Santa Fe"). As the emotional linchpin of the film, Bale held it all together, especially in quiet moments like this, his solo "Santa Fe" number that transpires after the orphaned Jack spends an evening with his new friend David's (David Moscow) happily functional nuclear family.
If you were ever a fan of seeing cute boys band together for powerful, history-making dance numbers, Newsies was like crack. Even supporting player Bill Pullman, the de facto grown-up in the cast of mostly teen boys, got into the spirit (see him razzle dazzle with his young co-stars in the rousing "King of New York" number). And woe to any girl who dared to get cast as a romantic interest; much like how I despised Emily in 3 Ninjas for years in my youth, I always resented the fact that Jack got stuck romancing David's boring sister Sarah (Ele Keats), who I swore practically begged to get caught in an alley by the local toughs just so Jack could hear her scream from across town and arrive in time to save her busty, helpless ass. (She also got a kiss at the end, that lucky bitch.)
Perhaps because of my Newsies blinders, it took me a while to learn that the film was somehow ridiculously underrated by the rest of the world. (It won a Razzie for the song "High Times, Hard Times," Ann-Margret's admittedly underwhelming number, and earned four additional Golden Raspberry nominations.) But was Newsies really so bad?
By the time the teenage Christian Bale landed the lead in Newsies, he had enjoyed a successful run as a child actor in venerated films like Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (which nabbed Bale the first-ever National Board of Review award for Outstanding Juvenile Performance) and Kenneth Branagh's Oscar-winning Henry V. But as Bale prepared to graduate to more mature roles, he was seemingly on the lookout for a project that would help him segue into leading man territory. He found the perfect role in Newsies, which was also the directorial debut of High School Musical director Kenny Ortega. Little did Bale know, as he told me a few years ago with the good-natured remembrance that many years' distance and subsequent success allowed him, that the period tale fictionalizing the Newsboys Strike of 1899 would not be, as he had expected, a straight period drama but a full-out musical. That combination of sobering child-labor history and Broadway-styled dance moves, I suppose, may have made it too anachronistic for many critics, and as a result Newsies bombed upon its release in the spring of 1992.
Through the magic of VHS, however, many of us cultivated our love for Newsies – it was the love that dared not speak its name, at least among most "normal" folks. But in private, and with our Newsies-loving friends, we obsessed over every detail, knew every song by heart and every supporting newsie by name. The hardcore fans even whispered about a super-secret behind-the-scenes short film directed by co-star Michael Goorjian called Blood Drips Heavily on Newsies Square, in which actor Don Knotts (played by Newsies actor Mark David, also known as "Specs") went on a murder spree on the set of Newsies. You always knew someone who knew someone who had a copy, so great was the Blood Drips legend. (This website sells copies on DVD.)
If any of you out there are Newsies devotees who loved Christian Bale way before your boyfriends did, I urge you to stand with me and proclaim your Newsies love, loud and proud! Let's take him back for ourselves, my fellow Baleheads, and reclaim him for the fan girl race! Because, boys, we saw him first.