Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 1938. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Original Story by Dore Schary, Eleanore Griffin, Screenplay by John Meehan, Dore Schary. Cinematography by Sidney Wagner. Produced by John W. Considine Jr.. Music by Edward Ward. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Eugene Joseff. Film Editing by Elmo Veron. Academy Awards 1938.
Biopic inspired by the real work of Father Flanagan, who responded to the crimes being committed by kids on the streets of Omaha by opening a centre for homeless and abused boys. Spencer Tracy brings a calm grace to the role of Flanagan, who is moved when a man he is counseling on death row tells him that he might not have ended up a murderer if he had had parents who cared about him. The Boys Town program is a success despite having its own fair share of problems, including the constant need to raise funds for all the things Flanagan wants to offer the kids, but most threatening to its success is the disruptive appearance of Mickey Rooney as a young man who believes he has no need of charity or education. It’s also what threatens the calm intelligence of this movie, as Rooney was always performing on a vaudeville stage no matter what kind of movie he was appearing in and topples the experience over with his tough-guy mugging in the first half and his weepy regrets in the second. The plot itself mostly wallows in gooey melodrama, topped off with unabashed FDR-New-Deal-era political sloganeering, then kicks up something of a plot in the last third when Rooney’s affiliation with his criminal brother puts his own feelings for the group home to the test. Tracy’s gravitas and genuinely convincing goodness is the best aspect of what is some of the most shameless manipulation you’ve ever seen, but don’t be surprised if you also thoroughly enjoy it.