Time to talk about Spence and Kate!
December of this year will be the one-hundredth anniversary of Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, better known as Boys Town. Father Edward J. Flanagan, an Irish priest working in Omaha, Nebraska borrowed $90 and sought to provide a home for homeless, neglected, or delinquent boys, where they could receive love, care, education, and training for life. His idea was revolutionary, as kids who came from rough circumstances in that time were either sent to orphanages, reformatories, or had to fend for themselves on the street. There were so many boys who found their way to Father Flanagan’s home that a farm ten miles outside Omaha was purchased, where a full-fledged village was born, and the site is still in use today. Twenty-one years after its founding, M-G-M made a feature film chronicling this remarkable work, simply titled Boys Town. While its narrative is fictional, the setting is real.
Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) goes to death row to meet with Dan, an inmate who is about to go to the electric chair for murder. The warden and a journalist tag along just in case something interesting happens, and it does, just not what they’re expecting. The warden makes the mistake of telling Dan that he has to pay his debt to the state, to which Dan pours out a story of how he was treated as a cast-off by the state, which put him in a reformatory when he had no family left to take him in. Dan blames the reformatory for teaching him how to be a criminal. “If I’d had one friend,” says Dan, “maybe I wouldn’t be standing like this today.”
Dan’s words echo in Father Flanagan’s thoughts, and as he walks down the street to the mission he runs for wayward men, he comes on about a dozen boys brawling in front of it. Father tries to break it up, but in the melée, one of the boys throws a rock and breaks a store window. The store happens to be owned by Dave Morris (Henry Hull), who is a friend of Father Flanagan’s (and the only one in the film who calls him “Eddie,” by the way), but back to him later.
Father Flanagan goes into his mission to find the men he’s tried to help sitting around lazily drinking coffee, and tells them that he’s leaving because he feels it’s too late for men who don’t care to make changes in their lives. While he’s still talking to them, a boy rushes in and asks Father to come help, because the police have his brother. When Father finds out the boy has no family, that’s all he needs to know. The two of them hurry down to the courthouse and have a talk with the judge, who agrees to have the four boys who were caught released into Father Flanagan’s custody.
Father Flanagan leaves the five boys with Dave and goes to see his bishop, who is reluctant to sanction Father’s new idea, because the diocese has no provision for helping take wayward boys off the street. He does, however, give his permission, and Father Flanagan sets about securing a house for himself and the boys. He also ropes Dave into helping him by borrowing $100 (!), as well as getting some furniture from Dave’s store on credit. Dave reluctantly agrees, mostly because Father Flanagan is so charmingly persistent. “Dave,” Father tells him, “tonight, just before you go to sleep, you’re going to like yourself. A lot.”
After a rocky start, including having to get the local media to quit condemning him prematurely, Father Flanagan’s home is beginning to thrive, and he soon has to purchase a farm because the current facility is busting at the seams. Dave reluctantly agrees to help again, even though he thinks Eddie’s biting off more than he can chew.
That may well have been so, but it doesn’t stop Father Flanagan. The farm is not only purchased, but a school is built, as well as dormitories, a mess hall, a baseball field, and a theater, among other amenities. There are boys swarming everywhere, and they run the place, but not in a bad way. With Father Flanagan supervising, the boys elect a mayor, who acts as magistrate, and the boys work on the honor system.
With bigger facilities come bigger mortgages, of which Boys Town has three. Such mundane details can wait, however, because Father Flanagan needs to catch a train to Lincoln. A mob leader, Joe Marsh (Edward Norris), who is incarcerated there, wants Father Flanagan to take his kid brother, Whitey, to Boys Town. He says Whitey acts tough and thinks he’ll be big-time someday, when he’s actually got the makings of a cheap criminal. Joe wants to spare him a life of crime and jail, so he gives Father $280 and tells him where Whitey is.
Father Flanagan finds Whitey (Mickey Rooney) in an apartment playing poker with a bunch of guys, and Whitey greets him with a casual “Hiya, Doc.” Father Flanagan asks the group, “Which one of you is Whitey Marsh?” When no one says anything, Father adds, “I’ve got a message for Whitey. I’d like to deliver it to him alone,” which sends everyone else but Whitey bolting for the door. Like the two-bit thug he is, Whitey cocks his hat, puffs his cigarette, and props his feet on the table.
Father Flanagan, however, doesn’t bat an eye. He pushes Whitey’s feet to the floor, yanks the cigarette out of his mouth, and unseats him, all in about ten seconds. Not surprisingly, Whitey doesn’t take to the idea of going to Boys Town. “Look, Whitey,” Father finally says. “In a pinch, I can be tougher than you are, and I guess maybe this is the pinch. You’re coming with me to Boys Town because that’s the way your brother wants it. And that’s the way I want it.”
Whitey goes to Boys Town, but he also goes out of his way to be an arrogant little twerp. His Lordship has more than met his match in the other boys, though. Freddie (Frankie Thomas), the mayor, takes Whitey out in a boxing match. Mo (Sidney Miller) blacks Whitey’s face with shoe polish when the latter demands a massage at Mo’s barber shop. Tony (Gene Reynolds) matter-of-factly throws Whitey for a loop when he doesn’t get offended over Whitey not saying grace at lunch. Then there’s adorable little Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), who just kills ‘im with kindness. Meanwhile, the other boys make it clear to Whitey that he’s not the big shot he thinks he is, which is a big pill for Whitey to swallow.
There are a lot of tears in this movie. I don’t know what it was with studio-era Hollywood that they loved having people cry on camera, especially kids, but that’s what they did. Sometimes the tears were gratuitous, but in the case of Boys Town it furthered the characters. For Whitey, it’s a matter of breaking through the layers of his prickly outer shell to uncover the man he could be. As anyone who has changed or witnessed someone changing for the better can attest to, the last layer always hurts the most because it’s often the most vulnerable. Whitey has a lot of layers, and his transformation–or lack of–coincides with a make-or-break problem for Boys Town. He’s apparently so hard to reach that Father Flanagan has to admit defeat…or does he?
For his role in Boys Town, Spencer Tracy won a Best Actor Oscar. In fact, he was the first actor to win two consecutive Oscars, and the second Hollywood player to do so, the first being Louise Rainer. The film grossed two million dollars, making it one of the most successful films of 1938. The one downside to all of this was that the public thought Boys Town was now flush with money because of the movie’s success, so contributions slowed to a trickle. Spencer Tracy had to personally request that the public continue to donate money to the home, and M-G-M filled in the gaps by contributing a new dormitory worth $250,000.
Today, Boys Town is co-ed, with campuses all across the United States. Their mission has expanded into not only working with children who are in need, but they also have a hotline and research projects of various kinds. Several months ago, CBS Sunday Morning aired an excellent piece on the current state of Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home:
Though it’s not really mentioned here, Boys Town is very proud of their history and the film that drew attention to Father Flanagan’s calling to minister to boys. While the film was fictionalized, it is a wonderful tribute to the work begun in 1917. Boys Town also spawned a sequel, but more on that tomorrow.
That’ll do it for Day One, and as always, Crystal has more Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Hope you enjoyed reading, and see you next time for Day Two!