Spencer Tracy won his second and final Best Actor Oscar for “Boys Town” (1938), a heart-warming tale based on the experiences of the real founder of Boys Town, Father Edward J. Flanagan, who established the first version of the home in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1917. When the movie first appeared, Father Flanagan himself was alive and well, and the success of the picture brought international recognition to Boys Town, which still serves children and families across the country today. Directed by Norman Taurog and co-starring Henry Hull and Mickey Rooney, the movie story of “Boys Town” is sweetly sentimental and well-acted, although Tracy himself would have more interesting and complicated roles later in his career.
Tracy stars as Father Flanagan, a Catholic priest who decides to start a refuge for homeless boys after his efforts to help adult men seem to come too late in their lives to create real change. Although he meets with opposition at every step, Father Flanagan perseveres with the help of his friend, Dave Morris (Henry Hull), and his own unwavering faith in his work. Boys Town becomes a haven for hundreds of children, but a troubled new resident (Mickey Rooney) threatens to destroy the home when he becomes entangled in a violent bank robbery.
As a film, “Boys Town” is good but not great; its appeal stems mainly from the energetic charisma of Tracy and Rooney. As an extended publicity campaign for the real Boys Town, however, the picture is brilliant. The stakes of the home’s success are made clear with the opening scene, in which Father Flanagan realizes that early intervention could literally mean the difference between life and death for the poor, homeless boys who grow up to be the next generation of Death Row inmates. An assorted group of boys demonstrates the breadth of the home’s mission; they come from every background imaginable but all support Father Flanagan’s mantra that there are “no bad boys.”
Tracy is clearly the star here; he embodies all the sincerity and warmth of the paternal priest with great conviction, although it’s something of a one-note performance because Father Flanagan is just so idealistic. Hollywood has long nurtured a strong affection for inspirational Catholic priests, and Tracy’s Father Flanagan belongs very much to their ranks, along with Pat O’Brien in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) and Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” (1944). Rooney is the lynchpin character, whose success or failure at Boys Town will determine the fate of the whole effort. Puffed up with tough-guy bravado that conceals a soft center, Whitey is a very “Mickey Rooney” kind of character, and the young actor plays well with the other boys in the supporting cast, especially with Bobs Watson, who plays the aggressively cute Pee Wee.
“Boys Town” earned five Oscar nominations in all and won two, including Tracy’s award and the prize for Best Original Story. It inspired a 1941 sequel, “Men of Boys Town,” which reunited Tracy, Rooney, and director Taurog for a second chapter. See “Captains Courageous” (1937) for Tracy’s other Oscar-winning role; you can watch some of his other most memorable performances in “Father of the Bride” (1950), “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). Mickey Rooney also stars in the popular Andy Hardy films, starting with “A Family Affair” (1937), but you can find him in “National Velvet” (1944), “The Black Stallion” (1979), and “Night at the Museum” (2006), as well.
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