When I was growing up in Texas, "Boys Town" was another term for a city block, usually south of the border, inhabited solely by prostitutes. The kind of place a dad would take his awkward son to learn the ways of love... not that I know from experience, of course. But everyone had a story about Boys Town, about some distant relative having the time of his life and/or getting mugged there. If not that, then everyone had a joke about it.
So you can imagine that during my formative years, my understanding of what the 1938 film Boys Town was about was pretty far from the mark.
Boys Town is the true-ish story of a real man, Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), a penniless Catholic priest who -- through an incredibly shrewd combination of bargaining and guilt-tripping -- scrounges money, furniture, food, and just about everything else in order to start a progressive orphanage called Boys Town, prompted from a death row inmate's final words about his youth.
It's a far cry from the grim institutions of the day. Boys Town is built on the idea that young people are people first, and they just need a little guidance and help. Everyone is free to leave whenever they want. They even elect a mayor from their midst, and they have a working penal system, too. Into this mix comes Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), a gangster wannabe who throws the biggest wrench into Boys Town yet. Flanagan has a difficult time reaching Whitey, but eventually he'll come around... or will he?
Boys Town is a very warm movie full of emotion and -- plain and simple -- good advice for anyone dealing with a problem child. Tracy is the father figure -- and the father -- that everyone will wish they'd had. He's also just a great actor who turns in a perfect performance here; in fact, he won the Oscar for the role, his second (and final) win, despite a career that would span another 30 years.
Rooney is less impressive. He's frankly a nuisance, and though the character calls for some of that, Rooney hadn't matured enough as an actor to handle this tricky role. In fact, he's the worst of the dozens of kids who have speaking parts in the film, all overacting and emoting that's straight outta summer stock.
Still, Boys Town is a watershed film that discusses an important societal development. The DVD includes the 1941 sequel, Men of Boys Town, as well as a promo about the real Boys Town -- now called, of course, Girls and Boys Town.