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Men of Boys Town

Men of Boys Town(1941)

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teaser Men of Boys Town (1941)

Along with its slate of "more stars than there are in heaven," MGM maintained one of the best juvenile rosters in Hollywood. A logical outgrowth of studio head Louis B. Mayer's reverence for the American family, the junior league stable allowed the studio to produce a series of films -- including the Hardy Family pictures and the "barnyard musicals," starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland -- capitalizing on the public's taste for cuddly youngsters. Naturally, when the studio scored a hit with Boys Town, the story of Father Flanagan's real-life campaign to help troubled youth, they decided to revisit the story with a sequel, Men of Boys Town (1941), reuniting the film's Oscar®-winning star, Spencer Tracy, with Mickey Rooney, Bobs Watson, Sidney Miller and other younger actors who had appeared in the original.

Originally, Tracy had balked at playing the famous priest, partly because of his own guilt over not going into the priesthood as his parents had wished. When he met Flanagan, however, and learned that he was the priest's only choice to play him, he realized that he could capture the man's innate goodness with a pared down, simple performance that perfectly fit his own natural acting style. The film was such a hit, it actually led to a decline in donations for the real Boys Town. Tracy had to go on the radio to issue a personal appeal for donations just to keep the facility running..

A similar funding crisis provided the starting point for the sequel, with Tracy once again enlisting local businessmen like pawnbroker Lee J. Cobb to raise money at a time when Americans were feeling the financial crunch from the war in Europe. As if that weren't enough trouble for him, he also has to deal with corruption at a nearby reformatory, the arrest of protg Whitey (Rooney) and an embittered boy crippled by a beating at the crooked reform school. Throw in a devoted dog and an aging couple in search of a child, and you have the perfect tearjerker.

Although Tracy knew the script for Men of Boys Town wasn't as good as the original, he could console himself with a lucrative new MGM contract. He had finally convinced the studio to limit him to two films per year -- like fellow stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Norma Shearer -- and guarantee him top billing in all of his pictures. Although that would spell the end of such profitable team-ups as his films with Gable and Joan Crawford, studio management now felt that his name alone was enough to draw in audiences. To start his new contract, they returned him to the role of Father Flanagan for Men of Boys Town. Location shooting at the real Boys Town in Nebraska gave him an added bonus, the chance to renew his connection with Flanagan.

Even with a lesser script, Tracy's integrity as an actor was impressive. When director Norman Taurog, who had helmed the original film, asked him to take his focus off co-star Sidney Miller's eyes to make a close-up easier, Tracy refused. Taurog would have to move the camera so the actor could continue playing the scene the only way he knew how -- by instinct.

For the younger actors in the film, working with Tracy was like getting paid to attend acting school. Rooney, of course, was already one of the studio's top box-office attractions and would continue in that position until after World War II. Miller would go on to become Donald O'Connor's dancing partner when the star moved into nightclub work. After years of acting at MGM and on television, where he was eventually eclipsed by younger brother Dwayne, Darryl Hickman would become a respected acting coach. Bobs Watson, who turned down an MGM contract in search of a normal childhood, followed a different career path, becoming a Methodist minister in the '60s. A friend took him to visit Tracy on the set of the star's last film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). The two shared a warm reunion, during which Watson told his former co-star that his decision to enter the ministry had been inspired by Tracy's performance as Father Flanagan.

Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: James Kevin McGuinness
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Harry McAfee
Score: Herbert StothartCast: Spencer Tracy (Father Flanagan), Mickey Rooney (Whitey Marsh), Bobs Watson (Pee Wee), Darryl Hickman (Flip), Henry O'Neill (Mr. Maitland), Mary Nash (Mrs. Maitland), Lee J. Cobb (Dave Morris), Anne Revere (Mrs. Fenely).BW-106m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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