August 24, 2016
In this depiction of America at 1939, the streets of Omaha, Nebraska are a mess. Kids fight, stones break windows, civilians walk scared. There is one guy hoping to make this place a better one: Spencer Tracy plays the beloved Father Flanagan, a priest who, after visiting a convict in jail who is about to get hanged (he blames not having parents and living a childhood full of horrors the reason why he did everything he did), devotes himself to start aiding helpless orphans in the streets and starts running a place where helpless boys can get an education for free. It starts as a small place, a little house with just a sign of old wood depression-era style that says in handmade letters: “Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys.” He later shortens the name to just “Boys Town.”
Flanagan is no pedophile. Nor has he intentions of profiting with this place. He is solely devoted to help poor boys that need a hand to start out in this world. Since this is no business at all, the priest needs a budget. This is the 30s, everyone still thought the world was a good place! Dave Morris, played by Henry Hull, a local businessman who never denies him a penny, supports him and in exchange the priest offers him a little toy and a cheap pocket watch. Dave accepts only the toy. We later see the father and Dave go for a drive in the country where Father Flanagan pitches him his new project: Buy a ranch and fill it with 500 hopeless boys. Dave thinks he is crazy but the project actually starts to develop in a montage of kids working together to build the place.
We see a year pass and Boys Town is now an ambitiously successful place. It is set in a ranch with hundreds of kids (sort of) alienated from the evil streets of the world in their own democracy. But this is no The Wire’s Hamsterdam, this kids actually work hard and seem to be educated by Flanagan who now is easy to consider the best mentor in the country. The kids are free to leave the place whenever they please. Enter Whitey Marsh: the new kid, played by Mickey Rooney, whose unmoored upbringing turn him into complete mess, one of those who says to his mentors at 80 miles per hour: “If you think you’ll make a plow jockey out of me, you got another thing coming!” His brother, a rueful incarcerated criminal, asks Father Flanagan to take care of him before he becomes another grunt in the family.
The movie then develops as a coming of age story. Whitey struggles to get sympathy from these kids who never give him a refreshing pause due to his shenanigans. Father Flanagan also struggles to gouge him from the dark place he’s in. Whitey makes some friends and enemies and we get introduced to some interesting characters like the ever-innocent candy-addicted Pee Wee, Tony, a one legged shy kid who dreams with being the next Boys Town president, and Freddie, a leader figure who is the current president of the place. The film has its political side. The place works as a democracy, kids choose their governors and the candidates promote themselves with campaigns. Religion-wise, the rules are anyone can practice his own beliefs. Could this place work in real life? It did. A real Boys Town inspired the movie although the story is fictional.
Whitey gets in depression when Pee Wee gets in a shocking accident because of him. He leaves the place. As he wanders downcast in the streets, with a pure feeling of guiltiness, he catches his now-escaped-from-jail brother in action, robbing a place, naturally. He talks to him and accidentally gets shot in the leg in the process. The last part of the film is Whitey trying to play his last card in order to make something good for the boys in his community. After a Hollywood gangster type scene and plenty of kids rebelling, Whitey demonstrates he means good and even ends up being the president of Boys Town.
The movie landed Spencer Tracy an academy award. It also gave Mickey Rooney one of the many starts in his career. The story is simple and adequate for its time. While it is true that an exact remake of the movie wouldn’t work today, it is presumptuous to state that there aren’t people as good as father Flanagan anymore today. The true message of this film is how everyone is capable of doing well with a little guidance. The problem: for most adults there’s no such thing as nonprofit, and that gets Boys Town in trouble of being bankrupt several times in the film. The characters are funny and Spencer Tracy as well as Mickey Rooney are at their best. Hell knows if this place kept instructing boys for a long time, but like father Flanagan says in the film: “It’s worth a try, isn’t it?” And this movie succeeds as well as father Flanagan’s project.