Warner Bros. // 1938 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jonathan Weiss (Retired) // January 10th, 2006
There is no such thing as a bad boy.
There were as many crappy movies released in 1938 as there are today, and yet sometimes it feels that as long as a movie was shot in black and white and filmed before 1960, it is instantly deemed a classic. The criterion for what is designated a classic needs to be stricter than that. After all, acting styles have changed, special effects have been completely revolutionized, and most important of all, relationships between men and women, as well as between races and religions, have all gone through radical shifts in how we as a society treat each other. Which to my mind means that "being old" should be the last item considered.
So then what should constitute a true classic? Perhaps it should be a movie that still resonates with us today; whether that means it can still touch a true and honest place in our hearts or whether the subject matter and message continues to be relevant even with the passage of so much time.
After visiting with a death row convict whom he knew when, and listening to an impassioned speech on what life could have been like if he had only had a friend when he was twelve years old, Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) realizes that the only way to actually make a difference in the lives of those he wishes to help is to get them when they're young.
Boys Town soon becomes a reality. Though a success with the young men who find their way there, it is still looked upon with suspicion and mistrust from a society that believes the only way to deal with juvenile delinquents is through reform schools which are typically light on schooling and reform but very heavy on punishment.
Father Flanagan's dream is further complicated when he promises to take in Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), the younger brother of another convicted felon, whom he also knew when. Whitey doesn't fit in (and doesn't want to fit in). After the last of many instances in which he distances himself emotionally from Boys Town, Whitey finds himself wandering aimlessly through the city streets.
While catching his breath in front of a bank, shots ring out. Whitey panics and runs into the alley where he finds out that the felon robbing the bank is in fact his brother, escaped from prison. Before you know it, Whitey is the chief suspect in the crime that includes the murder of a bank clerk. The community, just waiting for an excuse, threatens to close Boys Town.
Does Whitey rat out his brother? Does Boys Town close? Was Father Flanagan wrong and maybe some boys are just naturally born bad?
Aw golly gee willikers, mister, what the hey do you think?
Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for his performance in Boys Town. He played Father Flanagan as a caring, stoic and strong man with a firm belief in the goodness of both boys and men. Mr. Tracy's natural style of acting is in high contrast to Mickey Rooney's in your face mugging as Whitey Marsh, the young ne'er-do-well that Father Flanagan promises to take into his care. Needless to say, Mr. Rooney did not win the Academy Award that year.
But the real star of Boys Town is the script -- which did win the Best Original Story Oscar. What is more impressive, however, is that the message that adults need to be responsible for their children, to raise them with love and respect, and to give them the time and attention they deserve rings as true today as it did back then. Maybe even more so.
Take this passage for example, something which Spencer Tracy says in the film and that Father Flanagan said in real life: "When parents fail to do their job, when they allow their children to run the streets and keep bad company, when they fail to provide them with good examples in the home, then the parents and not the children are delinquent." This sentiment could easily be a lead article in any newspaper in any city in North America.
Sure, certain parts of Boys Town come off a little stiff and dated, especially some of the dialogue. But if you changed all the "golly shucks" lingo to "what's up yo," removed all the woolen plus-four pants and replaced them with nylon track suits, and substituted the ever trusty pocket watch for solid gold bling, and you'll find that the core of the movie is as current as it ever was. And to me, that's what makes Boys Town a timeless classic.
If you like extras, Boys Town has a whopper. On top of a vintage featurette ("The City of Little Men," documenting the real Boys Town), and an excerpt of the Boys Town 1939 radio broadcast, you'll find an entire second movie! You can flip over the DVD, sit back, and enjoy Men of Boys Town, the 1941 sequel. Both Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney reprise their respective roles. Although it wasn't an award winner like its predecessor, it is still an enjoyable film that reinforces Father Flanagan's ideal that there is no such thing as a bad boy.
Father Flanagan was a real man and in 1916 opened Father Flanagan's Boys' Home in Omaha, Nebraska, with 5 boys whom the court assigned to him for safekeeping. In 1921, he bought and renovated Overbrook Farm, 10 miles West of Omaha, and began Boys Town. In 1938, the movie Boys Town was released to the public, opening their eyes and hearts to his cause -- thereby helping stabilizing Boys Town's troubled financial situation for good.
Boys Town is released under the watchful eye of Father Flannigan. Furthermore, Boys Town should be made mandatory viewing for anyone interested in or working within the children's aid system.
Review content copyright © 2006 Jonathan Weiss; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Men of Boys Town (1941 Sequel)
* Vintage Featurette: "The City of Little Men"
* Good News of 1939 Radio Broadcast
* Girls and Boys Town promotional featurette
* Theatrical trailers
* Girls and Boys Town