Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Boys Town was big news in 1938, an Oscar-winning emotional favorite that did excellent business. It's an energetic film that served as a useful rallying point to raise interest in organized charities. No doubt the picture's popularization of Father Flanagan's Omaha home for boys helped inspire many another community to improve their outmoded orphanage institutions.
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.
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 in fare like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Black Legion addressed issues of injustice and political extremism. Boys Town was made across town 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 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, playing his standard look-at-me show-biz dynamo, 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 that were 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 over 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 himself 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 writer 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 The 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 shiny 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 eventually became. A radio show excerpt has Louis B. Mayer making a pompous speech before introducing Tracy and Rooney at the microphone. One has to imagine some amused folk in the Warner Bros. DVD department, as the box-top illustration includes the original tagline, "The Life Story of a Boy Who Was Born to be Hung."
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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Boys Town rates:
Movie: Good with strong reservations
Supplements: Featurette The City of Little Men, radio excerpt Good News of 1939, promo Girls and Boys Town, Bonus added feature Men of Boys Town 1939, 106 minutes, Trailers for both features.
Packaging: Flipper disc in Keep case
Reviewed: January 4, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson