By virtue of the performances alone, Boys Town earns a Wowza! rating. The film won Spencer Tracy a Best Actor Oscar and set Mickey Rooney on a path that for many years involved only primary roles and Grade-A pictures. It is based on a true story (and also won Best Original Screenplay) that conveys one of the most heart-warming tales I’ve ever heard.
Tracy as Father Flanagan commences the film by rescuing five homeless boys from jail after they vandalize, steal and cause general disruption in Omaha. He rents a home and sets it up as a shelter for them based on the notion that if boys are given a proper upbringing and the right people to turn to when in need, they will not grow up to be hoodlums. Flanagan’s tenant list grows to 50 before he sets his sights higher and opts to build a “town” on a 200-acre parcel of land. Financially, he makes all this happen on donations and the good graces of a shopkeeper willing to loan him funding.
Boys Town with its gymnasium, post office, dormitory, sports fields and own bus into town becomes a wild success, and the facility designed to serve 500 boys is beyond capacity. The boys literally run their own town, in a way. They elect a mayor every six months and select commissioners. The fence-less facility requires the kids to act on the honor system and tattle on themselves if they have misbehaved.
Enter: Rooney as Whitey Marsh. His older brother asks Flanagan to visit him in jail where he requests Whitey be taken to Boys Town so he can cease aspiring to follow in his gangster brother’s footsteps. Flanagan finds Whitey in the midst of a poker game, smoking and being otherwise disrespectful. The Father essentially manhandles the boy into coming to Boys Town where the rough boy decides to stay once the lunch bell rings. Whitey persists in making trouble, getting into fights and generally earning the ire of the mayor and most other boys. He does, however, have the affection of Pee Wee (Bobs Watson) who is “sort of the mascot” of the town and generally adorable. Whitey aspires to be mayor only once he learns that high officials have access to a billiards room and other perks. A kerfuffle during the election sends Whitey packing in anger but a near-tragedy brings him back.
Tracy is quite impressive as Father Flanagan with his hint of an Irish brogue hanging under his words and his overwhelmingly calm and confident demeanor with all that goes on. What most caught be off guard, however, was Rooney. Within 30 seconds of him on screen, I was blown away by this boy who was nothing like the Rooney I had seen in half a dozen other flicks. The 18-year-old affects the most nasty facial expressions and smoker’s voice one can imagine. His attitude and the way he throws his head –and other people– around conveys through body language alone the “trouble” this boy faces if he is not straightened out. I have never considered myself much of a Rooney fan, but this certainly changes my stance.
Boys Town was directed by Norman Taurog, who was known for his talent directing kids and was responsible for other Rooney works, such as Young Tom Edison. Both Tracy and Rooney, who were generally considered difficult to work with, were on best behavior for this filming because they believed in the story. When Rooney, however, argued over an emotional scene with Watson (the climactic one to which I alluded), Taurog told Rooney he could do the scene as he wanted but that Watson was generally stealing the show (which is almost true). From then on the teenager did not question a bit of direction.
The movie spawned a sequel, which I also have recorded, so it will likely pop up on here shortly, but I am not sure how it can top Boys Town. Any story about kindness to the homeless always chokes me up a bit, but this movie is overflowing with the goodness of mankind. Seemingly Father Flanagan is right in that no boy is bad if he is given a chance. Even the original five chaps in trouble with the law at the film’s start were on their best behavior as soon as Flanagan had them in custody. Apparently, all children just long to be looked after and cared for. The Boys Town organization persists today and has grown to occupy 13 areas nationwide with its headquarters remaining in Boys Town, Nebraska.
Source: Robert Osborne