Movies Pay Tribute to Americana Two Entertainment Films and One Documentary Explore the Nation's Legends and History

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 1992 | Go to article overview

Movies Pay Tribute to Americana Two Entertainment Films and One Documentary Explore the Nation's Legends and History


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AMERICANA has been a staple of American movies from the beginning and remains so today.

A comedy-drama called "The Babe," a musical called "Newsies," and a documentary called "American Dream" all deal with issues of United States life and history; two of them - "Newsies" and "American Dream" - tackle the highly charged subject of labor-union strikes.

Despite superficial similarities, however, the three new pictures are very different and accomplish their goals with widely varying success.

The Babe is named after its hero, Babe Ruth, probably the most famous of all American baseball players.

If you've seen newsreel shots of his batting and base-running, you know he wasn't the most graceful of athletes. And he was known to have plenty of strike-outs when he wasn't busy setting a home-run record that stood for decades - and still endures, if statistics are adjusted for modern playing schedules.

However uneven his career might have been, Ruth uniquely combined the scruffy charm of professional sports with the anything-goes energy of the Roaring '20s. It isn't surprising that his legend still interests Hollywood.

It is surprising that Universal's picture about him is such a fourth-rate piece of moviemaking.

It begins with Ruth as a child, being thrown into a nasty-looking orphanage by his uncaring father. The action is so trite and cartoonish that you think matters have to improve when our hero grows up, if only because the talented John Goodman is advertised in the title role.

As expected, Mr. Goodman is just fine when he eventually arrives. But the movie around him sheds little illumination on Ruth, and even less on the time in which he lived. Goodman was born to play this role, but John Fusco was not born to write this screenplay, and Arthur Hiller was not born to direct this movie.

Sad to say, "The Babe" is a bomb.

Newsies, the latest arrival from Walt Disney Pictures, is a live-action musical. This makes it a rarity in today's Hollywood, which has practically given up on the all-singing, all-dancing genre that once enjoyed huge popularity with audiences everywhere.

To match its historical format, "Newsies" has a historical subject: a street-corner strike against journalistic tycoon Joseph Pulitzer, mounted by New York City newspaper hawkers just before the turn of the century.

IT'S a true story and a lively one, full of feisty kids convinced that their righteous cause can prevail against any amount of money, power, and prestige. Here as in "The Babe," however, the filmmakers revel in cliches instead of seeking fresh approaches. How many adorable urchins, rabble-rousing speeches, and "dese-dem-and-dose" accents can the average moviegoer swallow in one sitting? …

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