Things got derailed around here, and I forgot to do a review of the movie we watched for our Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party a few weeks ago: The 1938 film Boys Town, the fictionalized account of Fr. Edward Flanagan’s founding of the community for orphaned boys on a bad path.
Here’s the trailer, which includes a lot of the melodrama but doesn’t really convey the charm of the movie:
Spencer Tracy is a very appealing, down-to-earth Fr. Flanagan who genuinely believes there is no such thing as a bad boy. In the opening scene, he ministers to a man on death row, who shouts in anguish that if he had had one friend when he was a boy, he wouldn’t have ended up where he is today. This gives Fr. Flanagan the inspiration to scrounge together money to rent a home in Omaha for a small group of wild street boys so they can turn their lives around.
He gets most of his initial funding from a friend and businessman (and this part is accurate, based on Henry Monsky, who donated $90). The friend is clearly Jewish, but he’s played with some nuance, not a lot of head-clasping and oy-oy-oys, which I appreciated. I can’t remember a lot of explicitly Catholic references in the movie, other than that Fr. Flanagan is a priest and has to get the bishop’s permission to continue the project. In the movie and in real life, they eventually buy land and build an elaborate nondenominational community where hundreds of boys of various faiths can worship (or not worship) as they please.
I very much liked Fr. Flanagan’s insistence, stated and unstated, that the boys should be treated as children (and not as criminal adults), but also as real people. This is accurate: He was horrified at the juvenile justice system of the time, and thought that boys should not only be cared for, but given a chance to learn how to govern themselves. Boys Town of today offers a much more complex range of services, but the original idea was to make a small community run and and governed largely by the boys themselves.
The movie is somewhat patchy, sometimes hitting a sort of naturalistic stride and just showing how a kind, strong, singleminded man kept on doggedly fighting to make a good thing happen, and sometimes (for most of the second half, really) heading into an amped-up melodrama, especially in the scenes with the seventeen-year-old Mickey Rooney. Rooney plays Whitey, a hard-boiled teen who doesn’t want to be at Boys Town and becomes Fr. Flanagan’s greatest challenge. The scenes where his heart is gradually softened and he transforms from are hammy and histrionic, but also fascinating, because Rooney is so good at this kind of acting.
It’s got lots of drama and also plenty of humor. Some of it is dated slapstick, but some of it was genuinely funny. Everybody loved the scene where Pee Wee, who is something of a community pet, struggles manfully with his conscience and finally returns the piece of candy he earned through deceit regarding a lost toothbrush. It was sweet and funny and well acted. Lots of good child actors in this movie.
So, this is not a profound movie, but it’s engaging and moves right along, and stands on its own as a solidly entertaining story. A perfectly good introduction to Fr. Flanagan, whose cause for sainthood is underway. Fr. Flanagan reportedly liked being portrayed by Spencer Tracy, and why not? There’s also a rumor that the studio erroneously said Tracy would be donating his Oscar to Boy’s Town, to which Tracy responded, “I earned the [bleep] thing; I want it.” (And why not?) So the Academy had a second statuette made up and sent to Boys Town.
Suitable for all ages, depending on the particular sensitivities of the audience. A man is condemned to death; someone gets shot; a child is hit by a car; lots of people scream and sob while delivering speeches.
It does include a bit where a boy pranks Whitey by secretly putting him in blackface, much to Whitey’s horror and humiliation; so we had a little talk about what that was about and why it’s not cool. I don’t recall any other racial problems in the movie. There are a mix of black and white boys in the community, and they are portrayed as equals, although all the characters with lines are white.
I was halfway afraid there was going to be some kind of dated scene between Fr. Flanagan and a young boy that would come across as squicky to today’s more vigilant audience, but there wasn’t anything like that. He’s just a strong father figure who likes and understands boys. (Since I mentioned it, there was an incident of sexual assault in the real Boys Town in 2015. The perpetrator was a female supervisor.)
Image is screenshot from trailer, above.
I award Boys Town one and a half ash crosses, because I enjoyed it and the kids barely complained about it being black and white. Half a cross is the soundtrack, which was a mishmash of hymns and “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” for some reason.