Pros: endearing characters and story; Tracy; Rooney; shot all in Nebraska circa 1938
Cons: somewhat cheesy ending; Tommy Noonan's role is uncredited!
Perhaps you've heard that rather famous quote before and thought it probably came from some black man in the 60s or 70s. Right? I did, too, and now I know it came from Mickey Rooney's character, 'bad boy' Whitey Marsh, in this often witty, inspirational drama, Boys Town. It's the true story of Father Edward J. Flanagan, brought to us by Spencer Tracy in his second Oscar-winning performance, who in 1917 perceives the failure of reform schools and the dire need to build a free home for homeless, abandoned boys of any race, creed or color outside of Omaha, Nebraska. He does not believe there is a bad boy, but only unfortunate victims of circumstances.
He first convinces a judge to relinquish some troubled boys into his custody, then he persuades his Bishop to allow him to minister to the boys in a home he will create for them. The newspaper follows the story, taking a picture of Father and the five boys, but the public isn't very enthusiastic or supportive. Luckily Father's best friend, Dave, a Jewish pawnbroker, amusingly caught by Henry Hull (Werewolf of London), loves him too much to refuse loaning him more and more money. He even plays like a Santa for the little monsters who will probably just grow up to break bigger windows! But when the home becomes overcrowded with thankful, happy boys and Father wants to buy two hundred acres of farmland to build on, Dave stipulates that the most powerful editor of the midwest must agree to back him, too.
Father's sincerity and unselfishness win over the editor, crafted well by Jonathan Hale, and the project begins with the fifty boys themselves building the three-story brick building, barn (for animals) and work shed (for carpentry, mechanics). Their own post office came later. All Dave can do is worry about where the money will come from to pay three mortgages. All Father worries about is meeting a convict asking for him in Lincoln (where I live) at the penitentury. The convict asks Father to pick up his kid brother, Whitey, to go back with him and stay straight, which the black-dressed priest does with a determined glint in his eye.
Will Father have to resort to turning away the otherwise homeless boys so that boys with paying parents may move in instead? Will Whitey stick around the unfenced home, get rid of his superior attitude, milk some cows and break down crying that he wants to save Boys Town? Well...his brother escapes while being transferred, involves him by accident in a bank robbery and messes with his mind. What's Whitey to do?
You'll want to rent this to discover if he really is a good boy. I'm sure of it!
Directed by the superb Norman Taurog, known for Elvis classics like Blue Hawaii and G.I. Blues as well as thirty-eight others including The Caddy, he was nominated for an Oscar here, as was John Meehan and Dore Schary for the screenplay and the movie for Best Picture. Eleanore Griffin picked up an Oscar for Best Original Story and Mickey Rooney one for Special Achievements.
I was quickly swept up into the black and white story. Not only because I'm a Nebraskan and it was fascinating to see how Omaha and Lincoln looked in 1938 (I wonder if today's Girls and Boys Town is still on Birchwood Avenue?), but the story moved along very well with a pile of engaging men and boy characters, a quiet nun the exception, and great moments of humor as well as tear-jerking drama. The littlest boy, Pee Wee (Bobs Watson) had no curls, but he could've been Shirley Temple's twin. What a cutie. I'm disgusted that I can't discover what role Tommy Noonan (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, A Star Is Born) played. Gene Reynolds limps along as a cripple to later become famous for directing and producing M.A.S.H. movies.
Mickey Rooney was hilarious mostly, strutting around in his tweed suit like something's up his butt. His challenging role with the major shift in his attitude was made possible by the ever-lovable Pee Wee who never gave up on him, pranks pulled on him and a sound boxing. He was already a huge movie star from being Andy Hardy and working with Elizabeth Taylor, for example. He's still making movies, too, like Pete's Dragon.
Spencer Tracy (Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?) has again proven why he's a multiple Oscar winner with his seemingly natural ability to become his characters. At an hour and thirty-three minutes, this unrated film is undoubtedly religious from the poignant beginning to the cheesy ending, but still inclusive of all faiths and even no faith as in Whitey's case. When the boys at mealtime all start saying grace privately in their own words (or in silence), Whitey comments that they can't learn a prayer, to which the crippled boy says something like they all believe in something and it makes them who they are. Whitey says he believes in nothing and the boy curtly replies that he is nothing.
Wonderful message, if you ask me. Boys Town, a refreshingly hopeful movie, will defy you to not want to help the abandoned, love-needy boys and cheer them and Father Flanagan on in their struggle to believe-and prove to society-that all boys are good if given a fighting chance.