Two of MGM’s biggest names, Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, star in this film about a socially conscious priest (Tracy) who creates a refuge for troubled and homeless boys. The film, based on a true story, examines the efforts of one Father Flanagan, founder of the Boys Town community that is still around today.
As Boys Town grows in size and reputation, a convicted criminal asks that his delinquent kid brother (Rooney) be taken to Boys Town in the hopes of reforming him. Tracy hunts the kid down and finds him in the middle of a poker game. The players stand when Tracy enters the room, and politely address him as “Father”. Rooney, on the other hand, puts his feet on the table and blows cigarette smoke at the priest.
Here is the start of an on-screen power struggle between these two MGM giants, and we can hardly wait for the big showdown: The calm, determined Tracy vs. the feisty, determined Rooney.
But director Taurog, the sneak, has other plans.
In the middle of all this, we are introduced to an adorable little boy named Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), a short, roundish kid with an infectious smile. He is one of the few children at Boys Town who actually like Rooney; for some reason, he sees something noble in him. That’s the kind of kid Pee Wee is.
So. While we’re distracted by the Tracy-Rooney rumble, the cutest kid in the film gets hit by a car.
It happens after Rooney’s character decides to run away from Boys Town. Pee Wee sees Rooney, suitcase in hand, and chases after him. The child catches up with him and pulls on his sleeve, pleading, “We’re going to be pals, ain’t we?” Rooney, nearly in tears, pushes the child to the ground and tells him to go back. He then storms across the highway, and Pee Wee, caught in the tail wind, is too upset about his hero to think about oncoming traffic.
In an instant, two of MGM’s über celebrities are virtually reduced to supporting players in one of the most shocking scenes in the film.
The accident scene is, frankly, a sucker punch, but it doesn’t feel contrived because Taurog lets the story of Boys Town unfold organically. He doesn’t tell us what the characters are like, he shows us what the characters are like. In doing so, he quietly pulls us into their world.
He’s sly when pricking our conscience about street kids. For example, in the opening scene, a prisoner on death row delivers a lengthy but riveting monologue about his desperate childhood. In another scene, a distraught child accuses Tracy, “I thought you said if we were good, everyone would want to help us.”
Whoa. This stuff ain’t sugar coated.
The director also plays with the different personalities in Boys Town, and we start to feel like we personally know these kids. Taurog isn’t turning the movie into a vehicle for Tracy or Rooney. He’s presenting a community, much like Boys Town itself.
Taurog, nominated for best director, did not win the Academy Award that year; he lost to Frank Capra for You Can’t Take it With You. However, Boys Town did win two Oscars (Best Actor and Best Original Story). It’s a movie we hope you’ll add to your Must-Watch List.
Boys Town: starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull. Directed by Norman Taurog. Written by John Meehan and Dore Schary. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1938, B&W, 93 mins.