A few days ago I reviewed "Angels With Dirty Faces," which was notable for one standout performance by James Cagney. He was nominated for the Oscar that year, but lost to Spencer Tracy for playing Father Flanagan in "Boys Town." Now Cagney's performance is held up as one of the defining roles of his career, while Tracy's seems to be fondly regarded mostly out of nostalgia. So I watched both films, and it's pretty clear why Tracy got the Oscar. "Boys Town," despite its reputation for being sentimental and maudlin, is a much better movie than "Angels With Dirty Faces."
We first meet Father Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest, running a refuge for the homeless, but his efforts don't seem to make much of a difference. After visiting a condemned man who had a terrible childhood, Flanagan decides to change tactics and open a home for orphan boys, believing there's "no such thing as a bad boy." After persuading a local shopkeeper, Dave (Henry Hull), to finance the venture, Flanagan creates a home for boys that eventually expands to a whole little community called Boys Town, with its own schools and training facilities. The boys elect their own leaders and enforce their own laws and justice under the guidance of Father Flanagan. Though the place is always in debt, Flanagan's methods, aimed a preparing the boys for good futures, prove sound. However, Boys Town is tested by the arrival of Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), the brother of a convict, Joe (Edward Norris). Whitey is well on his way down the wrong path in life, and it may be too late for him to change his ways.
The boys of "Boys Town" are fully realized characters, unlike the passel of interchangeable young toughs in "Angels With Dirty Faces," and that makes all the difference. Tracy may have won the Oscar, but I think the performance that really makes the movie work is Mickey Rooney's. Whitey Marsh is the kind of young gangster wannabe who is always trying to act big, who has a smart-aleck reply to everything, and thinks he's a lot smarter and rougher than he actually is. He struts around and postures and mouths off. And he's so much fun to watch, getting his ego deflated at every turn. Then come the dramatic parts, and Rooney nails those too. Sure, there's some cutesy business, especially with a little seven year-old named Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), but the kids in the picture are rock solid. I think you could have cut Father Flanagan out of the plot entirely and still had a perfectly watchable film with Rooney as the lead.
Maybe it would have also been a more interesting one, as the story of Father Flanagan is awfully conventional. "Boys Town" is almost certainly a very whitewashed portrayal of reality. Whitey is presented as a terribly problematic case for Flanagan, but he turns out to be quite responsive to a little peer pressure and tough love. None of the boys have any truly serious mental or behavioral problems. The plot is frankly a little ridiculous, involving a bank robbery, a standoff with the crooks responsible, and a couple of really blatant, manipulative twists in the last act. Also, the timeline jumps ahead frequently. One minute Flanagan and his first group of boys are suffering a miserable Christmas at the first orphanage, and the next Flanagan has somehow managed to pay off all his debts and is looking to expand. Then there's the fact that Flanagan seems to be running Boys Town by himself, with a nun in the infirmary as the only other nominal adult presence. And the film certainly has its own agenda. Flanagan's persistent money troubles seem like thinly veiled solicitation for donations, and the jabs at a local newspaper publisher seem to be alluding to some offscreen incident we don't know about.
And yet the movie still works. After nearly seventy-five years, it's still moving and inspiring and the corny ideals behind it still have potency. The sentiment and optimism are there, but don't grate as badly as you might suspect. Though the particulars of the story are too good to be true, there's still a ring of truth to it. Father Flanagan is idealized, true, but in Spencer Tracy's capable hands he also comes off as very human, and we can believe that perhaps there was once such a man who cared and loved enough to create a place like Boys Town. And even if he didn't save someone like Whitey Marsh in such dramatic fashion, he probably did change many lives for the better through the reforms he pioneered.
"Boys Town" is also something of a cautionary lesson for me. I think I've been relying too much on certain critics' lists to choose movies to watch lately, and entirely overlooked a film that was a major cultural touchstone of its era, and made a real impact. I don't think "Boys Town" is particularly notable from a purely artistic standpoint, but it's not hard to see why it's so fondly remembered. It's not a great film, but it stands as a wonderful example of old-fashioned studio style filmmaking, acting, and writing. And it's still awfully entertaining too.