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In his final hour, a man about to go to the electric chair rails against the system that never protected him as a boy on the streets. In attendance when the man delivers his dying lament, Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) is inflamed by the convict's words and decides to do something drastic.
Boys' Town (1938) is the story of the real life crusading Catholic priest Father Flanagan, who embarks on a scheme to rescue abandoned, abused and hopeless boys from the streets and keep them from sinking into a life of crime like that condemned prisoner. With the help of the cranky but secretly sympathetic pawn shop owner Dave Morris (Henry Hull), who contributes needed funds to Flanagan's cause, the priest buys a parcel of land outside his Omaha, Nebraska parish to begin his life's work.
Flanagan opens a community, a "City of Little Men," where 500 boys live in a microcosm of American democracy, voting for their own mayor and policing themselves with regular confessions to Father Flanagan. Living by the creed "there's no such thing as a bad boy" Flanagan has that faith tested when a fast-talking prisoner persuades Flanagan to take in his juvenile delinquent kid brother Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) a defiant, slick hipster on his way to a life of crime and the Big House.
Whitey immediately clashes with the smoothly run community and when his actions lead to the near-death of one of its members and then a charge of murder and robbery, the entire future of Boys Town is jeopardized.
At the time of the film's production, Father Flanagan's Boys Town was responsible for rehabilitating some 5,000 troubled boys. Flanagan's model community was visited by MGM writer Dore Schary, who was inspired by that visit to develop his story into a film. He was so moved by the boys there, whose basketball team won game after game in tattered uniforms, that he even convinced MGM to supply new uniforms for the players.
Spencer Tracy was at first uninterested in playing the role of Flanagan and one reason might have been a fear of typecasting. He had previously won a Best Actor nomination for playing another priest in San Francisco (1936). Another more likely reason was his alcoholism which MGM publicists kept under wraps. Just prior to filming Boys' Town, Tracy was said to be in the midst of a drinking binge and was unfit for work until he "dried out." At any rate, Tracy's initial hesitation to play a priest proved ironic, since he eventually won a Best Actor Academy Award© for his role, one which proved a sterling example of his naturalistic acting style.
Tracy was also one of the few actors to ever win an Oscar in the same category for consecutive years (Tracy had won the year before for Captains Courageous, 1937). Tracy donated his Oscar to Father Flanagan with the inscription "To Father Edward J. Flanagan, whose great human qualities, kindly simplicity and inspiring courage were strong enough to shine through my humble efforts." Earlier, when MGM had asked Flanagan who he would most want to play him he had said Spencer Tracy, "without any question."
Co-star Henry Hull recalled working with Tracy on the film in the biography, Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol (E.P. Dutton) by Bill Davidson: "We had a technical adviser on the set, a young Catholic priest, name of Father John O'Donnell, and Spence spent a lot of time with him talking about a lot of church stuff...I remember one argument they had about who was who at the Last Supper, and Spence was using baseball lingo to describe the Apostles - like "Andrew was a singles hitter but Pete was a guy who could play clean-up and knock the ball out of the park." I don't remember Spence getting particularly close to any of the boys, including [Mickey] Rooney, but he put on the boxing gloves with the bigger kids one day, just fooling around, and one kid jabbed Spence's head off, and Spence got mad. Rooney was a lot like Spence. He kept to himself and they didn't have much truck with each other off-camera."
Despite Tracy's often gruff behavior, many of the child actors on the set recalled the actor's kindness. Bobs Watson, who played Pee Wee, the Boys Town mascot in the film, was as enamored with Tracy off-camera as he was on. He remembered, "often, after a scene, he'd reach over and hug me and take me on his lap. I felt like a little puppy. I would follow along and stand close, hoping he'd call me over, and often he would. He'd say, 'How're you doing?' and put his arm around me."
Watson later became a minister and attributed that decision in part to Tracy's inspirational performance, and his kind treatment of the boys on the set of Boys' Town. "I've heard that Tracy drank a lot, that he was a loner. I understand that he could be quite nasty, quite belligerent, but from my perspective, he was always a very kind man."
Next to Tracy, director Norman Taurog reaped a great deal of the acclaim for Boys' Town. He had made a name for himself directing child actors like Jackie Cooper (Taurog's nephew by marriage) and Deanna Durbin in films such as Skippy (1931), Sooky (1931), Mad About Music (1938) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938).
Boys' Town was an unqualified hit for MGM, with audiences flocking to this hopeful tale. The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director and won an Oscar© not only for Tracy, but one for Eleanore Griffin and Dore Schary for Best Original Story.Mickey Rooney also won a special award at that year's Academy Awards©, along with another child actor Deanna Durbin, a five inch high Oscar© for "significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth."
MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer called the film his favorite in the vast MGM library. Rooney boasted in Life that "it grossed $4,133,000. And now, in videocassette, it will keep on generating profits forever (for Ted Turner, who bought the MGM film library in 1986)." The film was especially popular with young audiences and even changed the modification of a Canadian law which prohibited the admittance of children under sixteen to movie theaters.
Tracy's reputation was also greatly enhanced by the film, and in polls of the time he was listed next to Clark Gable as America's favorite actor. Tracy is noble and saintly in his kindness to these lost boys, though Rooney gives fire and spunk to all the atmosphere of do-gooding piety. His hep cat lingo and often hilariously jaded view of the goody-goody Boys Home (before his quite moving turnaround) unquestionably helps move the story forward. The film also inspired a sequel, Men of Boys' Town (1941), though it was only moderately successful compared to the original.
Director: Norman Taurog
Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Screenplay: John Meehan, Dore Schary (based on a story by Schary and Eleanore Griffin)
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward WardCast: Spencer Tracy (Father Edward Flanagan), Mickey Rooney (Whitey Marsh), Henry Hull (Dave Morris), Leslie Fenton (Dan Farrow), Addison Richards (The Judge), Edward Norris (Joe Marsh), Gene Reynolds (Tony Ponessa), Minor Watson (The Bishop), Jonathan Hale (John Hargraves), Bobs Watson (Pee Wee).
BW-93m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Felicia Feaster
Boys Town (1938)
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