Frank Borzage's 1932 motion picture Young America is an interesting take on the street urchin drama, casting the rebellious delinquent as a misunderstood do-gooder with an overly strident moral relativism.
Tommy Conlon (DeMille's Sign of the Cross) stars as Art, a boy with the reputation of being the "worst kid in town." (I'm not sure if we ever learn what town, but it appears they only have one police officer, so you can see how a tag like that might stick.) When we meet Art, he is being called before a judge in juvenile court because he stole a car. He claims the alleged joy ride was really to save the owner getting a ticket for having parked by a fire hydrant. The judge (His Girl Friday's Ralph Bellamy, giving a fine performance) doesn't entirely buy the story, but thinking reform school would do the boy more harm than good, he lets Art off with a warning.
Art's trial date is also the day a concerned local citizen, Edith (Doris Kenyon), is shadowing the judge so she can report on juvenile justice to her women's club. She takes a liking to Art, thanks in part to later good deeds, and when the boy gets in trouble again--this time for stealing medicine for his best friend's grandmother (Beryl Mercer)--Edith offers to become Art's guardian. The judge agrees, much to the consternation of Edith's husband (Spencer Tracy), who also happens to be the owner of the pharmacy that Art and his buddy (played by the director's son Raymond) broke into. If the boy can stay on the straight and narrow, and reject old acquaintances, he won't locked up; one screw-up, however, and it's off to juvie.
Young America was based on a stage play by John Frederick Ballard, and it offers a slight but otherwise charming story. The narrative is a quiet appeal to lend an ear to the nation's youth, many of whom (it suggests) just lacked guidance and a good home. Borzage (A Farewell to Arms) avoids any direct moralizing, however, letting the near-cartoonish divide between Edith and her gruff husband serve as the Young America's opposing viewpoints. Tracy had already perfected his grouch-with-a-heart-of-gold routine, so if there was anyone who could have sold a good turnaround here, it would've been him. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the movie's final act relies on an implausible turn of plot to make the old coot see the light.
Despite its occasional mawkish indulgences, however, Young America is an entertaining little movie. It offers a quaint view of American small towns, and likely served as a template for many family movies to follow.