This article is part of the Reel Infatuations blogathon: https://silverscreenings.org/2017/06/20/reel-infatuation-blogathon-starts-friday/
1938 was a big year for Lew Ayres. His third film that year was Holiday at Columbia, which also featured Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and was directed by George Cukor. It brought him to MGM’s attention, and they signed him to a contract. This began the pinnacle of his career; from 1938 to 1942, he made eighteen pictures for MGM. Although All Quiet on the Western Front brought him great fame, he was tops during his brief MGM years. King of the Newsboys from Republic Pictures is the last film Lew Ayres made before Holiday. I consider it to be the end of the middle section of his early career.
King of the Newsboys is one of those rare Code films that feels like a pre-Code film. I’ve discovered this phenomenon with many films made by minor companies like Republic Pictures and Grand National. Like many pre-Code films, they made short, low-budget pictures without a lot of special effects and glitter, since they couldn’t afford anything else. This created a very realistic, spontaneous, and 30ish feeling. I really enjoy many of these films, since they have that exciting pre-Code feeling without the dirt of the actual pre-Code years.
The movie begins with Nora Flynn and her neighbor discussing her foster son, Jerry, who has the very important job of guiding a train through the street on a horse. It is a very singular thing to see a train going down 11th Avenue in New York City in the 1930s. Jerry is soon seen on his horse. Nora calls down to him, “Come straight home tonight. Don’t be stopping around the pool room.” He says he can’t hear her, so the neighbors join in the chant. Soon, everyone in the building is yelling in unison, “Don’t be stopping around the pool room. Come straight home tonight.” The two train operators even make it into a song. This is a charming moment that is decidedly from the 1930s. As soon as Jerry sees his sweetheart, Mary, hanging up clothes on a nearby balcony, he rides away from his post, leaving the train hopelessly trapped in the middle of the street. He sits on his horse and asks Mary if they are going to have their usual date that night. Mary discontentedly agrees. It is obvious from the beginning that she is unhappy with life on 11th Avenue. I can’t blame her entirely, since she has a very difficult life; she has to help her mother take care of her numerous younger siblings and also earn enough money to support the family, since her father is a drunk. The conductor of the train soon drags Jerry back to his position, since he has created a huge traffic jam. Once he has left, Mary is addressed by a wealthy man with a foreign accent. When he acts important, she says, “Oh, Mr. Big, huh?” He proudly responds, “Mr. Very Big.” He is Wire Arno, the head of the racing syndicate, and he is interested in pretty young Mary Stephens. At first she is unfriendly and feisty, but she soon looks a little tempted when he offers to show her “how the other half lives.”
That night, Mary is in the Club Rio, a very expensive night club, with Wire Arno. It is not long before she infers that Wire is making her a dishonorable proposition. He denies it, saying, “I had no intention of offering you anything – but a job.” “A job?” she responds. He nods and says, “Disappointed?” Before the conversation can go any further, Jerry’s fist slams onto the table. He is furious that Mary stood him up, and he drags her out of the club, completely unashamed of the fact that he is making a perfect scene. Later that evening, they are sitting by the dock at 11th Avenue. Jerry says that seeing his childhood friend in a place like the Club Rio made him think differently about her. He bashfully confesses his feelings then bombastically asks her to marry him. She acts as though she will marry him, and they begin discussing their plans for the future. He says he will get a good job and save his money so that someday they can live in a penthouse and go to Europe. He says, “Oh, darlin’, if you’d only marry me, I could do anything. The sky’s the limit!” That is Jerry’s motto. He says it several times throughout the film. Just then, a trash barge floats by and brings Mary back to reality. She says that they’ll never achieve all those things; they’ll always live on 11th Avenue. When Jerry tries to comfort her, a policeman comes by and tells them to stop hugging on private property. Mary is crying and says she is going home. When Jerry tries to detain her, she says, “Do you think a cop like that would stick his snoot in Wire Arno’s face?” and runs away. This makes Jerry so angry that he punches the policeman.
Jerry is tried, and the judge tells him that he could be sentenced to three years in prison. Nora comes forward and tells the judge how the priest brought Jerry to her when he was just a baby and how he is all she has in the world. She also says that the young people in New York have no place to do their kissing when they’re in love. Her tender words soften the judge’s heart. He decides to give Jerry another chance. He tells him to start selling newspapers, since that is a tough, legitimate job. The judge was very wise to pardon him; if he had sent him to prison, he would have become a criminal. Jerry works hard to sell newspapers; soon, he enlists the aid of his thuggish friends to help him expand his business. When he has earned a few dollars, he makes a down payment on a very expensive wrist watch which Mary admired. When he goes to Mary’s apartment to give it to her, she tells him that she is leaving her family and him. He realizes that she is going to go with Wire Arno. He is heart-broken, but he realizes that she is serious. When he bitterly says, “Do you want me to carry your bag?” she takes off his watch and throws it onto the table, shattering the face. Jerry soon builds his newspaper racquet into a huge industry which makes him a fortune. Can all his wealth take the place of the girl he loves?
For once, I am not going to retell the whole story. Instead, I will discuss Jerry Flynn’s character. He is not as polite and well-mannered as Michael Rand, but he is a good young man on the inside. At the beginning of the film, his love for Mary is very honest and sincere. Whereas Mary is greatly aware of their poverty and inferior place in society, Jerry is quite content with his life. He is full of confidence in his own abilities. Like many Irishman, he has a very hot temper. This is the sort of role which James Cagney played a lot, but Lew Ayres plays it just as well in a different way. His brawling has lost him many jobs, but he is not just a hoodlum; he probably is like that because he never had a father. You see, he was a foundling, and his foster mother was a widow when she adopted him.
Jerry has horrible grammar and a common way of speaking. Lew Ayres did not have a New York accent, but he changes his accent by speaking through gritted teeth. He used a similar effect in The Doorway to Hell from 1930, in which he played a Chicagoan. He speaks to Mary with a lot of sincerity and tenderness, yet he is so different from Michael Rand. He looks at his hands and always fusses with things. Constantly moving his hands is a mannerism Lew Ayres created for this character.
Mary is not very nice to Jerry, particularly in the beginning of the film. The worst moment is when she throws his $50 watch on the table. He gave her little provocation for such behavior. As he holds the broken watch in his hand, it reflects his broken heart. She is furious with him, but he has done nothing against her. The main problem with their relationship is this: Mary blames Jerry for all the things her father has done to her mother and her. When she looks at him, she sees her father. She says that her father only gave her mother “a house full of kids and a dump like this to bring ’em up in.” She says, “I know what you’re going to say. We’re different. We’re in love. But so were they. Don’t you see? So were they!” She wants to marry Jerry, but there is more between them and the altar than his frequent loss of employment. When she thinks of their future life, she pictures them in twenty years looking just like her parents. She thinks she will be worn and tired with ten children; she will look like an old woman yet still have a baby in her arms. Jerry will be a drunken bum, expecting his children to support him and keep his bottle full. She would rather be a gangster’s moll than the wife of a brawling drunkard. Jerry struggles to forget Mary’s cruel treatment of him.
I like Jerry because he is confident and courageous yet sweet and tender. Like Louie Ricarno from The Doorway to Hell, he is the sort of fellow who goes straight to the top of his racquet. When he barges into the office of the New York Gazette’s editor, he is so tough that no one could deny him anything. He is not afraid to go right to the head of a business, uninvited, and tell him what is wrong with it. In the process, they both make a fortune. In the one drunk scene in the film, he is very belligerent, outspoken, and mumbling. One of the things I admire about the way Lew Ayres performs drunk scenes is that I have never seen two which he plays the same way. The intoxicated Jerry Flynn couldn’t be more different from the inebriated Michael Rand.
Jerry Flynn wears several interesting costumes. In the first scene, he is riding a horse; as in Remember? from 1939, he rides the horse with great naturalness and ease. He looks very charming in the little hat he is wearing with his work outfit. That night, he is wearing a checkered suit with a vest. For being so poor, his clothes certainly look good. The pattern is not the most flattering I have seen him wear, but the suit fits him well. His hat is not very good, since it is soft and floppy; it is rather smashed because he frequently tucks it under his arm. When he is a newsboy, he wears a similar work outfit to the one he wears in the first scene; it makes him look very young. Once he is wealthy, he wears a very nice double-breasted suit, which always looks grand on him. At a dinner party in his apartment, he wears a double-breasted tuxedo; you don’t see those much after the 1930s, but they looked excellent on younger men. In the scene at the race track, he wears a suit with a double-breasted vest. I don’t know if that is the correct term for that article, but I’m sure you know what I mean. He wears a very similar suit in the shakedown scene in The Doorway to Hell. It looks good on him, but it seems a little out of place in this film to me. In the 1920s and early 30s, lighter vests like those were worn with dark suits. By 1938, they were usually only worn with cutaways. Maybe this movie is supposed to be set a little earlier than 1938. There is also a rather humorous scene in which he disguises himself as Colonel Hathaway of Churchill Downs so that he can watch the morning workouts at the race track. His disguise includes a beard, sideburns, and a Southern accent.
I appreciate the Codish delicacy about Mary’s relationship with Wire Arno. She probably is really and truly his moll, but there is little evidence to confirm that. That impression is mainly derived from what she and other characters say about her. King of the Newsboys demonstrates one of the greatest things the Code offers viewers: the right to believe what you want. Whereas pre-Code and post-Code films frequently dash your faith in humankind by bashing you over the head with the unpleasant and unsavory details about characters, Code films allow you to believe what you want. If you choose to take the less wholesome, more probable explanation of things, you certainly may. However, if you choose to believe the wholesome, more pleasant solution, you are able to. This was the great secret of the Code’s power. By using this technique, deep and mature subjects were presented to the whole family. If younger, more naive viewers did not understand certain elements of the plot, they would automatically take the wholesome option. Worldlier viewers could have the worldly alternative at the same time.
My favorite scene is the last one, since Jerry is charming, tender, and penitent for his mistakes. I won’t tell you exactly what happens, since I want you to see for yourself. If you want to watch this movie, you can see it here at YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AATsnsI33_Y&t=693s. This film, which is just over an hour, uses the whirlwind techniques of the pre-Code years to save time and fill the brief length with action. Like Night World, this movie seems much longer than it is. I hope you will watch this film soon and meet another grand character played by Lew Ayres. Maybe this will just be the start of your journey into his filmography. Who knows where this may lead? “The sky’s the limit!”
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Jerry Flynn: A hot-tempered youth from the poor side of New York who fights his way to the top of the newspaper distribution racquet; played by Lew Ayres.
Mary Stephens: Jerry’s faithless childhood sweetheart who leaves him for Wire Arno; played by Helen Mack.
Wire Arno: The wealthy head of the racing racquet who wants no competition from Jerry when it comes to his syndicate and his girl, Mary; played by Victor Varconi.
Nora Flynn: Jerry’s loving foster mother, who raised him since he was a baby; played by Alison Skipworth.
The Judge: The wise, kind-hearted judge who decides to give Jerry another chance to become a respectable citizen; played by Howard C. Hickman.