Warner Home Video presents
Boys Town / Men of Boys Town (1938 and 1941)
"Now look, Whitey, in a pinch I can be tougher than you are, and I guess maybe this is the pinch. You're comin' with me to Boys Town because that's the way your brother wants it. And that's the way I want it."- Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy)
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney
Other Stars: Henry Hull, Leslie Fenton, Gene Reynolds, Bobs Watson, Larry Nunn, Darryl Hickman, Henry O'Neill, Mary Nash, Lee J. Cobb
Director: Norman Taurog
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:18m:44s
Release Date: 2005-11-08
DVD ReviewSome classics age well, others don't, and unfortunately Boys Town falls in the second category. I'm fully aware I risk the wrath of God for shunning this warm-hearted tale of an unselfish priest who dedicates his life to nurturing troubled, orphaned, and recalcitrant boys, but the film's trite message ("There's no such thing as a bad boy") and preachy tone—not to mention Mickey Rooney's outrageously hammy performance—don't play well today. The basic themes of Boys Town remain timeless and stirring, but their hackneyed treatment by director Norman Taurog and screenwriters John Meehan and Dore Schary dulls their impact.
As the opening credits roll, Edward Ward's score at once sets the inspirational tone, and Spencer Tracy sustains it as Father Edward Flanagan, a dedicated man of the cloth who's so moved by a convict's death row confession that he strives to construct a safe haven for vulnerable boys in danger of veering off the straight and narrow. A pawnbroker friend (Henry Hull) reluctantly loans him the funds to get his dream off the ground, and within no time Flanagan's altruism yields a flood of donations, enabling him to build a compound capable of housing hundreds. With his firm yet gentle demeanor, compassion, and boundless faith, Flanagan reaches every boy with whom he comes in contact. Only Whitey Marsh (Rooney), a pugnacious hooligan who wants no part of Boys Town or its morally superior founder, puts his spotless record at risk. Whitey fights Flanagan and his classmates tooth and nail, yet somehow earns the idolatry of little Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), who doggedly tags along after him like a devoted puppy. When tragedy strikes, Whitey begins his transformation, and ultimately proves Flanagan's mantra.
Although the movie benefits from extensive location shooting at the actual Boys Town in Nebraska, it can't shake its low-budget look. Rarely has a Class A production from MGM looked so shabby, but it's obvious Taurog is more concerned with hammering home myriad messages of hope and determination than slathering on the Metro gloss. He succeeds far too well; by the film's finale, it seems everyone is wearing a halo and bathed in heavenly light, making it almost impossible to quell the impulse to run out and give your best buddy, son, or father a big bear hug the moment "The End" flashes on the screen. For the male gender, Boys Town is the antiquated equivalent of Field of Dreams, and—guess what?—I don't care much for that maudlin movie either.
Boys Town earned Tracy his second consecutive Best Actor Oscar (a feat equaled only by Tom Hanks, of all people), and though his performance brims with sincerity and quiet conviction, it lacks the variety that makes his work in the previous year's Captains Courageous so enthralling. Tracy's low-key, natural style allows him to disappear inside Father Flanagan, but after a while, the character's saintly patience and limitless sympathy wear thin, and make one wonder whether the motion picture academy was indirectly honoring Flanagan himself (and his estimable work) with the Oscar, instead of Tracy's portrayal.
Rooney, in one of his first major roles, is flat-out annoying as the Peck's Bad Boy who comes to Boys Town with a monstrous chip on his shoulder, and winds up a blubbering, wildly repentant convert. The pint-sized actor shamelessly mugs and swaggers throughout the film's first half in an embarrassing amalgamation of James Cagney, Leo Gorcey, and a third-class vaudevillian, then turns on the waterworks for the finale, trying to one-up Jackie Cooper in The Champ, yet looking more like Frank Morgan's sentimental palace guard in The Wizard of Oz. The torrent of tears surely worked in 1938, garnering Rooney a special juvenile Oscar and premier box office status, but today, his stylized hysterics trivialize the very real emotions battered and neglected boys strive so hard to express.
Men of Boys Town, released three years later and reuniting many from the original cast (including Tracy and Rooney), is a typically formulaic sequel chock full of platitudes and sentimentality. This time out, Father Flanagan endeavors to crack a crippled boy's bitter façade, while Whitey stubbornly tries to straighten out a cocky young hoodlum much like himself, and ends up joining him in a reform school so brutal, it makes the Georgia prison in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang look like a country club. A 30-year-old Lee J. Cobb replaces Henry Hull as Father Flanagan's buddy-cum-financial advisor who struggles to keep Boys Town's ever expanding campus free from debt, and Henry O'Neill and Mary Nash portray wealthy benefactors who adopt the now angelic Whitey, and introduce him to a life of privilege.
Now a much bigger star, Rooney grabs the lion's share of screen time, but can't shake the earnestness and Benzedrine-induced enthusiasm his tenure as Andy Hardy and Judy Garland's let's-put-on-a-show bosom pal has etched on his persona during the intervening years. As a result, only glimmers of the old Whitey can be glimpsed in the sequel, and his blind worship of Father Flanagan lends cultish overtones to the Boys Town environment.
Tracy, however, rises above the muck and files another fine performance. Few actors could bear the burden of impersonating such an inspirational icon, but Tracy does Father Flanagan proud on two separate occasions, and his excellent work ensures the Boys Town films will endure in spite of themselves.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: It's obvious Warner has lavished more attention on the better known—and just plain better—Boys Town than its run-of-the-mill sequel, but both films enjoy a smooth transition to DVD. The former movie boasts a relatively clean, crisp image, with decent black levels, fine contrast, and a varied gray scale. A healthy amount of grain preserves the film-like feel, although some sections look more textured than others. Men of Boys Town suffers from far more surface wear, with a flurry of blotches, nicks, and scratches often overwhelming the picture for brief periods (usually around reel changes). Some image instability rocks the opening titles, and a bit of shimmering occasionally creeps in, but otherwise the print looks much the same as its predecessor.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The single-channel mono track supplies clear, well-modulated audio with a minimum of pops and crackles. Dialogue is always easily understandable—even through the overwrought tears of Rooney and company—and the majestic music score nicely fills the room.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 0 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
- Good News of 1939 radio show excerpt
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsThough well-meaning, the Boys Town films rely too heavily on trite sentiment and tired clichés to fuel their respective inspirational tales. Contemporary audiences will surely choke on the syrupy messages, but Spencer Tracy's portrayal of the remarkable Father Flanagan still goes down nice and easy. Amid the film's creaky plot and histrionic performances, Tracy is indeed Boys Town's saving grace.
David Krauss 2005-12-06