Boys Town (1938)

“There is no bad boy.”

An idealistic but fiscally irresponsible priest (Spencer Tracy) opens a home for delinquent boys named Boys Town, but meets his match when an unruly youngster (Mickey Rooney) refuses to fall in line with the community’s principles.


Spencer Tracy won his second Best Actor award in a row for his portrayal as the real-life Father Flanagan, a saintly and sympathetic father figure renowned for his pioneering efforts in providing a meaningful, respectful alternative to reform school. Unfortunately, MGM’s fictional accounting of Flanagan’s work comes across as hopelessly simplistic and unrealistic. DVD Savant, not a fan of this film, writes thatBoys Town now seems painfully dated, wrong-headed and, worst of all, smugly insincere”. While I don’t agree it’s wrong-headed, it’s certainly whitewashed beyond belief — starting from the near total lack of diversity despite the proclamation that all races and creeds are welcome. The plot twists are all cliched heart-wrenchers, and the final narrative turn — with Rooney running into his criminal brother (Edward Norris) at just the wrong moment — beggars belief. With that said, Tracy does turn in a respectable and respectful performance; one can see why he and the film were popular with audiences of the day. Meanwhile, Rooney is full of energy and can’t be faulted for his efforts, either.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for Tracy’s Oscar-winning performance and for its erstwhile popularity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.


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