Boys Town (1938)

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.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Do-Gooders
  • Juvenile Delinquents
  • Mickey Rooney Films
  • Orphans
  • Priests and Ministers
  • Spencer Tracy Films

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.


One thought on “Boys Town (1938)

  1. Not must-see, for reasons given. And it’s a bit of a head-shaker that Tracy won an Oscar for this performance – it’s not as though it’s dynamite acting on his part, or that the role even requires that.

    The film does contain a lot of schmaltz – at times, it’s shameless.

    Wikipedia tells us that the film is “largely fictional” but it gives no examples of how. However, the (separate Wikipedia) link provided above gives proper information about the priest, info that would seem to make for a more-compelling film.

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