THE LIFE STORY OF A BOY WHO WAS “BORN TO BE HUNG”!
When Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for the second year in a row (after Captains Courageous (1937)), he was very grateful toward the man who inspired his character in Boys Town, the real-life Father Flanagan. As the story goes, an MGM publicity person announced that the star would donate his Oscar to Flanagan, which was never Tracy’s intention. “I earned the damn thing. I want it”, was his reply. However, it’s hard to take back words and Flanagan’s operation ended up getting an Oscar – although not Tracy’s.
The story begins with a man about to be executed in prison. Father Flanagan (Tracy) is there to give him a few last words of solace. After listening to a sad story of how his career of crime started already when he was a child because of a lack of parents and any kind of support from society, Flanagan can’t stop thinking about how the man’s soul could have been saved at an early age. His first idea is to buy a house that would function as a sanctuary for young boys who are at risk of resorting to crime as a path to survival. Coming up with the funds for the house becomes a challenge and Flanagan is initially battled by a local Omaha newspaper whose owner doesn’t believe in turning the other cheek to juvenile delinquents.
Increasingly more in debt, Flanagan then comes up with his craziest idea yet – building a “Boys Town”, a community of houses where hundreds of boys are offered a fresh chance in life.
Tracy carries the movie a long way
The actual Boys Town was built in 1921 and still serves as a center in Nebraska for troubled youths; earlier this year, a canonization process was also started for Father Flanagan. Norman Taurog’s film version of his story is a classic, but one that modern audiences are likely to find a little too sugary. In Tracy’s portrayal, Flanagan is more or less already a saint who cares about nothing else than finding a good home for each and everyone of “his” boys. The fact that he’s irresponsible regarding everything that concerns money complicates his character a little bit, but not much. Tracy’s enthusiasm and warmth makes even that trait look charming, especially in his amusing scenes with a local store manager (Henry Hull) who reluctantly helps Flanagan get started with his project.
Tracy carries the movie a long way, but gets excellent support from Mickey Rooney in one of his most memorable roles as Whitey Marsh, one of the toughest nuts to crack at Boys Town. The 18-year-old actor lends his character a generous amount of humor and feeling; we may never believe that he’s as bad as he’s trying to convince his peers of, but his journey to maturity becomes entertaining and dramatic, especially in the second half when he gets involved with his no-good older brother.
There’s a huge amount of goodwill surrounding not only this old-fashioned movie, but also the Boys Town that inspired it. The sentimentality would have crushed the story had it landed in lesser hands than these filmmakers, but they pull off the task of making us care what happens to Flanagan and his protégés.
Boys Town 1938-U.S. 96 min. B/W. Produced by John W. Considine, Jr. Directed by Norman Taurog. Screenplay: John Meehan, Dore Schary. Story: Eleanore Griffin, Dore Schary. Cast: Spencer Tracy (Father Flanagan), Mickey Rooney (Whitey Marsh), Henry Hull (Dave Morris), Gene Reynolds, Leslie Fenton, Addison Richards.
Trivia: Freddie Bartholomew was allegedly considered for a role. Followed by Men of Boys Town (1941); Rooney played Flanagan in the TV movie Brother’s Destiny (1995).
Oscars: Best Actor (Tracy), Original Story.
Quote: “Eternity begins in forty-five minutes, Dan.” (Tracy to a man on death row)
Last word: “When I was assigned to write the script of ‘Boys Town’, I felt that what I had heard of Father Edward J. Flanagan and his famous Home for boys must be too good to be true.” (Meehan, BoysTownMovie.org)