Cast & Crew
As Dan Farrow prepares to go to the electric chair, he indicts society for its part in his crimes. As he tells Father Edward Flanagan, "If I had only had one friend at twelve, I wouldn't be here." Dan's words haunt Flanagan and when he returns to Omaha he decides that he will open a home for boys in trouble. With a small stake from kindhearted pawnbroker Dave Morris, Flanagan starts the home but constantly must sway people who think that his philosophy "there's no such thing as a bad boy" is naive. He wins the reluctant support of newspaper publisher John Hargraves and donations start to mount. With Dave's help, he builds a city for wayward boys, called Boys Town, which operates on the honor system. One day, he is summoned to the penitentiary where he receives money from convict Joe Marsh who wants Flanagan to help his kid brother Whitey. Whitey is a cocky kid who wants no part of Boys Town. He stays, though, and runs for mayor of Boys Town, determined to win with his "don't be a sucker" campaign slogan. When the boys instead elect handicapped Tony Ponessa and reject Whitey's shoddy campaigning, Whitey decides to leave. Only little Pee Wee, the Boys Town mascot, begs him to stay. When Pee Wee is hit by a car, Whitey leaves, feeling guilty and hurt. He accidentally comes upon a bank robbery in Omaha and runs into Joe, who mistakenly shoots him in the leg. Joe takes Whitey to a church and calls Flanagan anonymously, after which Whitey is taken back to Boys Town. The sheriff comes to get Whitey, but Flanagan offers to take full responsibility for the boy. Whitey refuses to tell Flanagan about the robbery, because he has promised not to inform on Joe, but when he realizes that his silence could result in the end of Boys Town, he goes to Joe's hideout. Joe, realizing with Whitey that Boys Town is more important than themselves, releases his brother from his promise. His cohorts want to kill Whitey, but Joe protects him until Flanagan and the boys arrive at their hideout. The criminals are recaptured and Boys Town's reward is a flood of donations. A now committed Whitey is elected the new mayor of Boys Town by acclamation and Dave resigns himself to go into more debt as Flanagan tells him of his new ideas for expanding the facility.
Robert Emmett Keane
Boys Town A Capella Choir
A. W. Sweatt
Sonny Boy Williams
James G. Blaine
St. Luke's Choristers
John W. Considine Jr.
O. O. Dull
Father Edward J. Flanagan
Edwin B. Willis
Best Original Story
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 Ward Cast: 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
Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney star in Boys Town on DVD
Seen today, this MGM picture seems to encapsulate everything wrong about the way Hollywood looked at reality and social problems. Writer Dore Schary would later become associated with socially conscious filmmaking as the instigator behind liberal-oriented pictures like Crossfire. Boys Town now seems painfully dated, wrong-headed and, worst of all, smugly insincere.
Synopsis: Omaha priest Father Edward J. Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) resists a parish of his own, preferring to find ways to shelter stray boys that get into trouble on the streets. Through the charity of merchant Dave Morris (Henry Hull) he first buys a small house and then swings a huge deal to set up an autonomous little community called Boys Town, to become home to 500 orphans and would-be delinquents. As he's getting started, small-time hood (but good Catholic) Joe Marsh (Edward Norris) charges Flanagan with the responsibility for his wayward younger brother, a punk named Whitey (Mickey Rooney); Whitey sneers at his new surroundings but slowly becomes attached to Boys Town and its sense of family. But Whitey's lack of self-control brings on pressure from local scoffers to have Boys Town shut down for good!
In general terms, Warner Bros. was the home of socially conscious films during the years of the Depression. Warners pictures were often set in lower-class situations of near-poverty and frequently addressed issues of injustice and political extremism, in fare like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Black Legion. Boys Town was made at MGM, the glamour mill that specialized in dramas and light comedies divorced from a social context, set among the wealthy or a fantasy middle-class world of economic stability and positive family values. When Louis B. Mayer made a film with a social agenda, more often than not it was an extremist criticism of Roosevelt's New Deal (Gabriel over the White House) or vaguely opposed to labor unions (Riffraff, Mannequin).
Boys Town twists Father Flanagan's initially modest and sensible boy's community into a grotesque dramatic tear-jerker with little or no relation to reality. Whereas the real Flanagan clearly built a solid foundation of sponsors and donors for his experiment, Spencer Tracy is pictured as a dreamer who can't be bothered with details and continually cons retailer Dave Morris (who does not appear to be a man of great means) into bankrolling his inspirations. When a banker has the nerve to say he doesn't subscribe to Flanagan's theory that "There is no such thing as a bad boy," the priest accuses him of the crime of obstructing an unquestionably correct vision. Boys Town seems to be founded and nurtured through spiritual extortion - whatever Father Flanagan prays for, nobody better stand in his way. His preferred method of building a needed cafeteria is to just start construction, run up a pile of unpaid bills, and then demand that others step up to the plate and bail him out.
The movie posits a truly bizarre conception of what children are and how they behave. Flanagan starts like Old Mother Hubbard with a pack of unruly and unsupervised rug rats. Their first miserable Christmas is about to become a lesson in values, when jolly old Dave Morris shows up with a pile of perfectly-wrapped gifts to insure that Flanagan's every move will be a success. At the new Boys Town the little brats have suddenly transformed into miniature men, wearing neat clothes and neckties and acting like happy cogs in a new Utopia. A Slavko Vorkapich montage of the construction of an impressive brick administration building implies that it was built by the little kids themselves. It's obvious that hundreds of thousands of dollars are going into the model Boy's community, but all we see is Flanagan sitting back while Dave Morris volunteers to plan, administer and supervise construction for the whole shebang - apparently all out of the goodness of his heart. Did he suddenly move from a dry goods store to being a millionaire philanthropist?
By the time Mickey Rooney’s Whitey Marsh shows up, doing his standard look-at-me show-biz dynamo character, Boys Town is a going concern. A lunchroom scene establishes town policy as Catholic, but with a pan-denominational cross section of boys. Mo Kahn (Sidney Miller) says his mealtime prayer in Hebrew...quietly. Another kid stares silently during the saying of grace, but we aren't told if he's an agnostic, a Buddhist or just preoccupied. Mirroring grown-up society, the kids are regimented along pre-ordained lines. Mo Kahn is a barber while other more WASPish young men take up the reins of leadership. There are no African-American boys in sight and Whitey becomes the butt of a joke when Kahn covers his face in bootblack, an innocent gag that now serves mainly to point up racist ideas as commonplace in 1938.
As always, Flanagan is able to stand back and allow his inspirational leadership to guide the hands of others. He spends his time doling out preferential candy goodies to the insufferably cute Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), an arrangement that unfortunately conjures associations unflattering to the good memory of Father Flanagan. The rebellious Whitey Marsh is first put off by the community's rigid little system, but is brought to heel by a combination of challenges and a couple of completely false and insulting plot turns. An innocent difference of opinion is solved in a boxing match supervised by Flanagan. A big deal is made of town elections, yet Flanagan allows them to be subverted by popular appeal when everyone spontaneously decides that a handicapped fellow deserves to be Mayor. He told Father Flanagan that he really wanted the office, you see; in Boys Town that is the same as having an "in" with Santa Claus, or God.
When it comes time for the Whitey Marsh character to undergo an instantaneous conversion, Boys Town pulls its lowest punch by contriving to have Pee Wee run down on the highway. Little Bobs Watson has already done his specialty 'fountain of tears' blubbering act (he's a real gusher as 'Pud' in the 1939 tear-jerker On Borrowed Time), and to upstage him Mickey Rooney has to contort his face into a mask of agonizing misery. Whitey goes A.W.O.L. and by sheer coincidence is immediately shot as a bystander in his own brother's bank robbery. Flanagan's noble boys form up to rescue him in what looks uncomfortably like a vigilante mob. Father Flanagan joins them to right wrongs in a two-fisted finale.
Boys Town is an acceptable fantasy only if one turns a blind eye to all of these manipulative shenanigans. Mayer clearly decided that condescending sentimentality was the key to reaching the heart of America. He kept it up for another decade before losing the leadership of MGM to an executive who championed socially-conscious issue films and tough films noir: Boys Town's Dore Schary.
Spencer Tracy earned his Oscar® by sleepwalking through his role and posing to pray in reverent silhouettes; chronic over-actor Henry Hull is uncharacteristically subdued, perhaps influenced by Tracy's example. Mickey Rooney's undeniable talents are too big for the movie. His juvenile punk is half silly schtick and half silent-movie hysteria, but as always, he's fun to watch. Leslie Fenton, a notable James Cagney victim in Public Enemy, kicks off the movie as a convicted killer on the way to the gas chamber who lectures some newsmen about his miserable upbringing, thus stoking Father Flanagan's conviction to help young street kids. Typical for the film's notion of churchly virtue, Fenton is about to take a last swig of liquor when deterred by a quick "Uh-uh" from Flanagan. The script puts a bright halo on the Flanagan character, but doesn't do him justice.
Warners' DVD of <Boys Town is a perfect transfer of a film shot with standard MGM high-gloss production values; even the dirt on the faces of Flanagan's moppets looks clean. The sound is also clear and deceptively well mixed, something for which classic MGM pictures rarely get credit.
Included as extras are a welcome short subject about the real Boys Town, followed by a new promo for the modern day "Girls and Boys Town" that Flanagan's original work became. A radio show excerpt has Louis B. Mayer making a pompous speech before introducing Tracy and Rooney at the microphone.
The opposite side of this flipper disc contains a complete extra feature, the lamentable sequel Men of Boys Town. It's a highly forgettable reunion of Tracy and Rooney, with a young Lee. J. Cobb picking up the Dave Morris character where Henry Hull left off - still having apoplexy over Father Flanagan's fiscal irresponsibility. Following a less-compelling script by James Kevin McGuinness, Whitey gets involved with a handicapped kid and his adopted dog, is unjustly sent to reform school and tangles with serious criminals before the righteous hand of Boys Town intercedes to set things straight. It's tough sledding all the way, even though Mickey Rooney gives himself a major acting workout to hold the tale together. All in all, the Boys Town films are better fit for a sociology class than as modern day family entertainment.
For more information about Boys Town, visit Warner Video. To order Boys Town, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney star in Boys Town on DVD
The day after Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this film, an MGM publicist released a statement--without consulting Tracy first--that the actor would donate his Oscar to the real Boys Town in Nebraska. Tracy agreed to make the donation if the Academy would send him a replacement Oscar. When the replacement arrived, the engraving on the award read: "Best Actor - Dick Tracy."
The film opens with the following inscription: "This picture is dedicated to him [Father Edward Flanagan] and his splendid work for homeless, abandoned boys, regardless of race, creed or color." Portions of the film were shot at the site of the real Boys Town near Omaha, Nebraska. According to a pre-production news item in July 1937, William Rankin was one of the screenwriters who went to Omaha to scout locations for the film. Rankin's name was not listed in any other source, and it is not known whether he actually contributed to the screenplay. At the time of the scouting trip, M-G-M child stars Jackie Cooper and Freddie Bartholomew were being considered for roles in the film, in addition to Mickey Rooney. Other news items noted the J. Walter Ruben was initially set to direct the picture and John Miljan was being tested for a role. A news item in Hollywood Reporter noted that actor Edward Norris replaced Donald Barry in the role of Joe Marsh several weeks after filming began. M-G-M's NBC radio program "Good News" began its 1939 season on September 1, 1938 with a brief preview of the film featuring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney and the real Father Flanagan. M-G-M also made a fifteen minute promotional program for the film which was broadcast over local Los Angeles radio station KFI on September 12, 1938. Boys Town was one of the top money-making pictures of the year, won two Academy Awards, one for Tracy as Best Actor (his second in two years following 1937's Captains Courageous) and one for Eleanore Griffin and Dore Schary for Original Story. Additionally, the film was nominated for Best Picture and Norman Taurog was nominated for Best Direction. Rooney received a special Academy Award in 1938 for his unique contributions to the screen as a juvenile player. Boys Town finished fourth in the Film Daily poll of critics and was on a number of "ten best" lists. Tracy was given a citation for his acting by the National Board of Review. After the success of this film, Tracy and Rooney became the fourth and fifth top box office stars of the year, according to a Motion Picture Herald poll of exhibitors. A news item in Hollywood Reporter noted that Rooney shot Boys Town and Love Finds Andy Hardy simultaneously for about ten days.
A sequel to Boys Town, called Men of Boys Town, was directed by Taurog for M-G-M in 1941 and also starred Tracy, Rooney and others from the original cast. According to news items in Motion Picture Daily, M-G-M started discussing the sequel shortly after the release of Boys Town because the $5,000 paid to the institution for the rights to the Boys Town story was almost all used by the home to cover costs incurred during the film's production. Modern sources note that donations to Boys Town decreased after the release of the 1938 picture, ostensibly because the ending gave the impression that its financial standing was stronger than it actually was. According to a news item in the film's press pack, actor Leslie Fenton, who was a friend of Taurog's and about to embark on his own directing career, agreed to act in the film only after Taurog convinced him that he was the only person right for the part. Boys Town was the last film in which Fenton acted. According to modern sources, after Tracy won the Oscar for this film, he gave it to Father Flanagan with an inscription dedicating his performance to the founder of Boys Town. The statue was put on display in a museum in Boys Town, where it has remained since that time. Some modern sources say that the statue was originally incorrectly inscribed with the name "Dick Tracy" instead of Spencer Tracy; however, no contemporary information has been located to corroborate this. In July 1988 Boys Town hosted a fiftieth anniversary celebration for the film. Mickey Rooney, Bobs Watson and Sid Miller attended the celebration. Modern sources note that the film cost $800,000 to produce. The 1958 M-G-M release Girl Town, directed by Charles Haas and starring Mamie Van Doran and Maggie Hayes, was very loosely based on Boys Town.
Released in United States 1938
Broadcast over TNT (colorized version) June 19, 1989.
Released in United States 1938