Boys Town (MGM 1938 with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney)

USA / MGM / 93 minutes / 1938 filmed in black and white

Writers: John Meehan, Dore Schary (based on an original story by Eleanore Griffin and Dore Schary) / Cinematography: Sidney Wagner / Music: Edward Ward / Producer: John Considine Jr / Director: Norman Taurog

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull, Leslie Fenton, Gene Reynolds, Edward Norris, Addison Richards, Minor Watson

“This picture is dedicated to Father Edward Flanagan and his splendid work for homeless, abandoned boys, regardless of race, creed or colour.” So reads the inscription at the start of Boys Town, an inspirational drama that deservedly won two Oscars – one for Best Original Story, the other for SPENCER TRACY (his second in two years. following 1937’s Captains Courageous). Tracy reportedly gave his Oscar to the real-life Edward Flanagan, with an engraving dedicating his performance to the founder of the real-life boys’ home in Nebraska. The Oscar now rests in the home’s museum.

The film begins with a man on Death Row telling priest Father Edward Flanagan (Tracy) that his life would have been different if he’d had a friend when he was 12. The words haunt the priest and when he returns home to Omaha, Nebraska, he determines to start a home for boys in trouble. Boys Town opens – thanks to the financial aid of generous pawnbroker Dave Morris (HENRY HULL) – with Father Flanagan finding few people willing to subscribe to his idea that “there’s no such thing as a bad boy”. Someone testing that creed is Whitey Marsh (MICKEY ROONEY), the younger brother of convict Joe Marsh (EDWARD NORRIS). Father Flanagan takes Whitey in, even though the youngster is ambivalent about staying.

The priest persuades Whitey to run for mayor of Boys Town, against a handicapped boy, Tony Ponessa (GENE REYNOLDS). When the boys reject his campaign in favour of Tony’s, Whitey decides to leave Boys Town and chance his arm in the outside world. When he gets caught up in a bank robbery co-ordinated by his brother, however, he finds himself needing Father Flanagan’s assistance to extricate him from the mess.