Friday, March 2, 2012

"Boys Town" with Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney and Henry Hull (1938)

Spencer Tracy became the first actor to win 2 consecutive Academy Awards for Best Actor when he mouthed the line, "There is no bad boy", in this moving, and somewhat rose colored account of the founding of Boys Town, just outside of Omaha, Nebraska.

When Father Flanagan, played by Tracy, visits a death row inmate he is told that if the man had only been befriended as a child, mentored in some way, his life would have turned out differently. His only concern now is for his kid brother, "Whitey" Marsh, played by Mickey Rooney. He wants Father Flanagan to go and see him, to take him under his wing and save him from a life of crime. This is a burden which he readily accepts.

Father Flanagan also has his hands full in his local Parish, where the children are largely neglected and left to their own devices. Most are poor, working class kids with severe family problems at home. Some are abused, some merely neglected. He has a dream to someday build a home for these boys, removing them from the temptations of the street, and a life of crime.

Beginning with a rundown rented house, the Father manages to obtain much of what he needs from the local town store manager, Dave Morris, played by Henry Hull. Although it is not specifically mentioned, Mr. Morris seems to be Jewish. How Father Flanagan gets him to become involved in the eventual financing of Boy's Town makes the story that much better. Though skeptical at the beginning, Mr. Morris backs Father Flanagan all the way, eventually securing 3 mortgages for the construction of the actual Boy's Town, on 200 acres of land, just outside of Omaha. The boys actually help to build the school and dormitories, each one learning a trade as the construction progresses.

When "Whitey" Marsh arrives at Boy's Town, he has nothing on his mind except escape. But with no prison walls, or fences, to keep him in, he is confused. He begins to come around to a new way of thinking. But, after bonding with the school's mascot, a little boy named Pee Wee, played by Bobs Watson, he runs away. When he becomes involved with his older brother, and a foiled bank robbery, his actions place Boy's Town in jeopardy. Through the guidance of Father Flanagan, Whitey is able to see reason and returns to Boy's Town, where he is elected Mayor by the other boys and becomes a mentor to little Pee Wee.

So many of these older films espouse a message of tolerance and religious diversity which is lacking today; even while portraying the Jewish pawnbroker, Henry Hull does so in a way that lends dignity to his faith. And as Father Flanagan, Spencer Tracy is the penultimate Priest, the one who understands that our differences unite, rather than divide us as individuals. The mess hall scene, in which all the boys of different faiths say grace in their own way, is, for me, one of the highlights of the film. Based loosely on the actual story of Boys Town, this is a real "feel good" movie for these troubled times.

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