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  • Boys Town
    • Boys Town
    • Runtime:96 min
    • Release Date:2017-01-22 23:22:50
    • Director: Norman Taurog
    • Genres: Drama
    • Studio:


BOYS TOWN (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938), directed by Norman Taurog, is
not so much a story about a group of boys in their own little town but
one about a priest's dedication to his work and cause in building a
place for homeless and troubled youths, as summed up with these opening
words: "This is the story of Father Flanagan and the city for boys that
he built in Nebraska. There is such a place as Boys Town. There is such
a man as Father Flanagan. This picture is dedicated to him and his
splendid work for homeless, abandoned boys, regardless of race, creed
or color." Starring Spencer Tracy in a role most associated with him,
his Father Flanagan was perfectly suited for his talents, enough to
earn him his second consecutive Academy Award as Best Actor, winning
over strong contender as James Cagney for his powerful performance for

This fact-based story opens with Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy)
visiting the imprisoned Dan Farrow (Leslie Fenton). Before being headed
down to death row for murder, his bitter story of his unhappy childhood
and a cry for help from at least one friend when he was 12 soon prompts
the young priest into giving up his refuge shelter for forgotten men to
form a place for homeless and unwanted boys. With the help of his
friend, Dave Morris (Henry Hull), the neighborhood pawnbroker, Flanagan
takes in several boys from the courtroom awaiting trial and assumes
responsibility for them. Within a year, the home prospers from five to
more than 500 boys, leading Flanagan to risk further debts by acquiring
more land and buildings to form what's to become known as Boys Town.
Bearing with a philosophy that "There's no such thing as a bad boy,"
Father Flanagan is put to the test when he, as a favor to Joe Marsh
(Edward Norris), gangster on his way to prison, to take in his kid
brother, "Whitey" (Mickey Rooney), who not only looks up to Joe, but
intends on following his brother's wayward path in crime. With "Whitey"
proving difficult amongst the other boys, Father Flanagan has problems
of his own keeping himself out of debt as well as retaining the good
reputation of Boys Town after detectives link Whitey to a recent bank
robbery and murder in town.

Taken from an original story by Dore Schary and Eleanor Griffin, BOYS
TOWN starts off in biographical structure of Father Flanagan. After the
presence of Mickey Rooney, the plot shifts into a new direction from
tribute to a fictional account on the taming of a "bad boy" whose
association with the others is far from favorable. The rising
popularity of teen-aged Mickey Rooney seems natural for the role of
Whitey Marsh. Quite good though not entirely convincing with his
introduction scene as the tough thug living in a walk up flat,
cigarette smoking and holding a gambling card game with other toughs on
the kitchen table. His attempts trying to get his own way and living
according to his own rules instead of Father Flanagan's is typical plot
interest and character study. Aside from sentimentality and crime drama
later thrown in, there's some doses of intentional humor, the latter
being Rooney's specialty, but bogs down at times with Rooney's
overacting during the film's more crucial moments. Tracy on the other
hand plays it natural. Regardless of being a kind-hearted priest who
can "talk the devil into going to church," he demonstrates how tough he
can be "in a pinch," along with his know-how method of getting those to
help him financially, namely Dave Morris.

With basically an all-male cast (excluding brief bit of an actress
playing a nun), fine support consists of Bobs Watson as Pee-Wee, a
crying specialist, and one of the younger members who pleasures in
trying to find hidden candy in Father Flanagan's office; Gene Reynolds
in a sensitive portrait as a lame wanting to become mayor of Boys'
Town; Frankie Thomas as Freddie Fuller, a popular Mayor of Boys Town
who's takes on "Whitey" in the boxing ring; Sidney Miller as Mo Kahn, a
Jewish member of the community who runs a barber shop; among others.
Henry Hull adds to one of his fine many character portraits as Father
Flanagan's closest friend and supporter; Leslie Fenton, near the end of
his acting career before turning director, in a small but powerful
performance of a convicted killer; and Jonathan Hale as John Hargraves,
editor of the Omaha Daily Dispatch, who believes Flanagan's methods to
be "sentimental hogwash."

Worthy screen entertainment with a moral message carried throughout the
story of bringing the good out of the bad and everything impossible is
possible comes off as fine feel-good viewing regardless of race, color
and creed, especially during the Christmas season.

Presented to home video in the 1980s either in original black and white
or colorized format, and presented occasionally on Turner Classic
Movies cable channel, BOYS TOWN can be found on DVD either as a solo
package or together with its sequel, MEN OF BOYS TOWN (1941), on the
flip side. (***)


SPENCER TRACY underplays the role of Father Flanagan who was the man
behind the creation of BOYS TOWN and yet Hollywood thought his
performance deserved an Oscar in 1938. The film looks very dated now
and the sentiment is laid on a bit thick. The delinquent boys seem more
like stereotyped cardboard characters dreamed up by the scriptwriter
with only occasional glimmers of truth in the acting.

Best among the supporting cast are GENE REYNOLDS (always a fine child
actor who later turned his talents to directing) and little BOBS
WATSON, who does a remarkably convincing job of playing the little boy
who worships "Whitey," played by MICKEY ROONEY. Rooney's performance is
a bit too blustery but there are moments when his acting nails the

Still, it's hard to know how much "truth" there is in the story told
here, since so much of the script seems to depend on contrivances that
make one suspect it's a purely fictionalized account of the actual
story behind the development of Flanagan's Boys Town. Anyone with a
fondness for Tracy and Rooney will find it easy enough to sit through,
but I don't think it's the finest work of either star.


"Boys Town" is pure formula by today's standards but is still
entertaining to watch. The movie's weakness is that it portrays just
about everyone as a bit too saintly, even the criminals in the story.
Mickey Rooney's acting is almost continually over the top and is in
jarring contrast to the other boys. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy's
portrayal of Father Flanagan is that he's a man seemingly without flaw.
You like Flanagan but it's sometimes hard to identify with a man who
seems to be impossibly saintly. Still, Flanagan in this movie just
doesn't talk the talk, he walks the walk. There are virtually no movies
today about Christians living out their values and changing the world
around them.

A side note about Tracy's Oscar for this movie. After he won it, a
flack for the Academy announced that Tracy was donating it to Boys
Town. Except no one had asked Tracy if he was doing so. Tracy would've
looked terrible for refusing to do so after it had been announced so a
compromise was struck—Boys Town got the Oscar to display and Tracy
was given a duplicate for his mantle. Some other actors have donated
their Oscars—Shelly Winters gave her Oscar for "The Diary of Anne
Frank" to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Bing Crosby donated his
Oscar to his alma mater, Gonzaga University.


Boys Town (1938)

*** (out of 4)

Spencer Tracy won his second of back to back Oscar for his performance
here as Father Flanagan, a man who's dream is to create a home for
abused and troubled boys. This film here seems to take a beating due to
its over sentimental aspects but I don't see anything wrong with it.
Yes, the sentimental aspects are a little over the top at times but
this is still a pretty powerful film and Tracy is brilliant in his
role. The scene with Pee Wee and Mickey Rooney is perfectly done and
quite touching and the film's heart is in the right place. Henry Hull

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