In 1917, Father Edward Flanagan founded and built Boys Town, a nonprofit orphanage for boys between 10 and 16, just outside of Omaha Nebraska. The orphanage led a new wave of youth care methods by emphasizing the importance of social preparation and letting the boys run the facility’s day-to-day operations. Today, Boys Town still runs, not only as an orphanage but as a center for troubled youth.
In the film, the idea of a center to help orphaned boys comes to Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) after he visits a man on death row. With eternity only forty-five minutes away, he tells Flanagan that he was a homeless boy who had to learn to be tough to survive and the habits have stuck, now he has to be put down to pay his debt to the state. But where was the state back when he was a boy with no home, purpose or direction? With the man’s words still haunting him, Flanagan sees a group of boys fighting in the streets over some bread and break a window. Rather than let the boys be sent to reform school, he asks for custody of them, planting the seeds of Boys Town with just five boys in a rented house.
We’re shown the humble beginnings and good fortune of Boys Town. On the center’s first Christmas, Flanagan can only afford to bring the boys corn mush on their Christmas dinner. Just as the boys’ faces are drooping, their friend Mr. Morris (Henry Hull) arrives with turkey and gifts for the boys. It seems the community supports Flanagan when he needs it most.
As Boys Town expands to two hundred acres outside Omaha, the facility becomes increasingly more important to the boys, but also more financially insecure. Flanagan tries not to let such details interfere with the boys’ lives. One of my favorite scenes is when the Town’s youngest member, PeeWee (Bobs Watson) comes into Flanagan’s office during an important financial meeting. Flanagan has told PeeWee that every day he’s a good boy he can have a piece of candy so he puts the meeting on hold to play the Hot-and-Cold game with PeeWee and encourage his good behavior. Flanagan has his priorities in perfect order.
The real conflict of the story comes in when jailed gangster, Joe Marsh (Edward Norris), asks Father Flanagan to take his little brother, Whitey (Mickey Rooney), to Boys Town. Joe wants Whitey to go straight and not turn out like he already has. But Whitey doesn’t go willingly and already has a tough-guy gangster mentality. He makes Flanagan question his “there’s no such thing as a bad boy” motto and it will take the whole community to turn Whitey around.
Spencer Tracy won his second consecutive Oscar for Best Actor in his role as Father Flanagan. The way he works with children is wonderfully sweet, especially in scenes with little PeeWee. The way he runs Boys Town, Flanagan has to be more than a priest. Not only does he runs the place and take charge of the struggling finances, but we see him as an advisor, father figure, teacher and a referee. One of my favorite moments was in his initial scene with Rooney. Whitey tries to run away from Flanagan, but almost surprisingly, Flanagan trips him and says “Why don’t you stop acting like a kid?” It’s wonderful to see a character who is so caring but isn’t afraid to show that he won’t be taking any bull.
I absolutely loved this film. Tracy is always a joy to watch and here he is especially wonderful. I would suggest Boys Town as a family film, there might be a few tears around the middle, but nothing to really console your kids over. Everyone should know the story of Boys Town and the gracious Father Flanagan.
“I know that a mother can take a whip to the toughest boy in the world, and he forgets it because he knows that she loves him.”