Take a Drink: whenever Father Flanagan asks a favor
Take a Drink: for pranks
Take a Drink: for sob stories
Take a Drink: whenever a kid gets in trouble
Take a Drink: for “good boy” and “bad boy”
Do a Shot: whenever Father Flanagan pulls a gangster move
Do a Shot: for the Boys Town zombie mob
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Boystown is a place where those pushed to the margins of society can make a home. A place where they can let it all hang out and be who the want to be. A place free of judgment and prejudice, where all are welcome to come and discover themselves.
I hear they have kickass parades.
Oh, wait… Boys Town. Boys Town is about all of those things, too, except the Catholic priest is the good guy. Father Flanagan is moved a death row confession to try and find a place for the directionless youth of the streets who often grow up into tomorrow’s criminals, a place where they get proper guidance and support. It’s far from an easy task, but he perseveres, and never loses his faith in humanity.
This is based on a true story, and Spencer Tracy was the first to admit upon receiving an Oscar for his role that he had nothing on the original article. The real Father Flanagan must have been a truly impressive man, then, because Tracy embodies one of the most thoroughly decent men to ever reach the screen. This role isn’t hagiography, though, but rather a well-rounded portrayal of a human being with his own doubts and worries, who nonetheless follows the demands of his convictions and Christian optimism and charity to accomplish great things. He’s also got a quick wit and a no-nonsense attitude that make him a pleasure to spend a few hours with.
Boys Town is more crowd-pleaser than biopic, though, and director Norman Taurog does a nice, Frank Capra-lite job of keeping things fun and breezy in between the dramatics. The cast of ragamuffin kids is across the board strong, although little Pee Wee (Bobs Watson, nope, that’s spelled right) is a scene (and heart) – stealer. The star of the kids, though, is Mickey Rooney,, who is both quite funny and surprisingly effective dramatically as a wanna-be tough guy teenager who might be Father Flanagan’s toughest nut to crack ever.
Littlest Caesar, if you will.
There’s also an intriguing through-line of the nature vs. nurture debate, as Father Flanagan contests the notion that there is such a thing as a “bad boy” by taking responsibility for these too young societal cast-offs and showing them what they’re capable of by letting them literally run their own “Boys Town”. Forget Utopia or Kid Nation‘s brand of manufactured “social experiment”, Father Flanagan and his boys were thoroughly owning that concept 80 years ago.
Boys Town can get more than a little ham-handed at times, from the Death Row inmate at the beginning exclaiming “If only I had a friend when I was 12!” to a third act tragic turn that seems only to exist to jerk some tears out of Mickey Rooney. That’s not the only time the film has to manufacture some stakes, either. The whole third act, “save the school” storyline is pure Hollywood. Newspapers and Women’s Leagues would (and did) love Father Flanagan, not try and shut him down on account of one bad kid.
Father Flanagan was every bit as progressive and inclusive as you’d hope, and Boys Town was a fully integrated establishment, with its football teams pulling a Remember the Titans on pretty much every lily white squad it played. Damn if the movie cares, though. There’s precisely two non-Caucasian faces on screen, and one of them is Jewish.
Boys Town is a bit dated, and a bit melodramatic, but still an enjoyable, good-hearted tale with a strong central performance from Spencer Tracy.