Everyone knows (and is probably sick of) the way sequels, prequels, and remakes are such a big part of Hollywood’s output nowadays. We’ve been down Reboot Road plenty of times just on this blog. Classic Hollywood was no different than today in terms of capitalizing on older properties, although the new-to-retread ratio was obviously different. One example of studio-era sequels is the 1941 film, Men of Boys Town. The film is gloomier than its forerunner, but allows audiences another visit with most of the original 1938 cast, as well as a call to action for a nation on the cusp of entering the Second World War. It also netted $100,000 for Boys Town, which must have been much appreciated.
Since the close of the last film, Whitey Marsh has thrived at Boys Town. He’s not only still mayor, but he’s a pillar of the community. However, all is not rosy. To paraphrase “Sixteen Tons,” Boys Town is another three years older and deeper in debt. It’s also trying to accommodate the dozens of boys who come around looking to stay.
Father Flanagan hasn’t slowed down, either. He’s been called to a distant city called Marysport, where a boy named Ted (Larry Nunn) is standing trial for second-degree murder. Far from being a cold-blooded killer, Ted is a deeply unhappy boy who was sent to Marysport’s reform school, where a guard beat him so badly that he couldn’t walk. Father Flanagan suggests he see a doctor, and Ted refuses with obvious fear in his voice. Father Flanagan, perceiving this as a cry for help, takes the boy back to Boys Town with him.
Father Flanagan charges Whitey and the other boys with getting Ted to smile, and they try everything, but nothing works–even a fake radio broadcast that makes everyone else smile and laugh gets no response. Whitey gives up, until one day a couple from Marysport come to visit, and their dog jumps out of the car. The pup runs up to Whitey and some of the boys, and he’s so friendly, Whitey lets him loose in the infirmary. And…success. The dog jumps up on Ted’s bed, and the two of them are instant friends.
Only problem is, Whitey didn’t find out where the dog came from first, and when he learns he belongs to the couple, he offers to pay for him, even though the dog is pedigreed. The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Maitland (Henry O’Neill and Mary Nash) have a better idea: they want to adopt Whitey and take him back to Marysport. Whitey reluctantly agrees, but everyone is sad to see him go, especially Pee Wee.
Whitey gamely tries to fit in at his new home, but the whole thing seems pretty foreign to him. He has his own car, a butler, a special room over the garage, and a ham radio, where he and Pee Wee keep in regular contact. The Maitlands are also country club regulars, so Whitey has to go to dances with them and play golf with his adoptive father. Before he left Boys Town, though, Whitey promised Ted he would look up a friend of his, Miles Findley, at the Marysport Reform School.
Whitey doesn’t get very far–among other things, the guard at the reform school is a hateful cuss of a guy. One time, though, as Whitey is driving away, he finds a kid named Flip (Darryl Hickman) who’s hitched a ride on the running board. Flip has escaped from the reform school and is as pugnacious as they come, but he’s also in big trouble–he pulls up his shirt and shows Whitey the whip marks on his back. Whitey was all set to take Flip back, but seeing Flip’s wounds changes his mind, and he takes the boy back to his room over the garage.
Meanwhile, back at Boys Town, Father Flanagan convinces Ted to see a friend of his, Tripp Fellows, a former football player turned doctor. Fellows says if Ted has an operation, he can walk again, but his recovery will be long and painful. Ted’s scared, of course, but he agrees to the surgery and makes Father Flanagan promise to be there.
Unfortunately, however, Father has to rush out to Marysport. Whitey has landed himself in the reformatory, along with Flip, because Flip stole some money from a gas station and then tried to steal from a store downtown. Whitey attempted to cover for Flip and was brought in himself. Even worse, Mr. Maitland washes his hands of him after one of the officers refers to Boys Town as a reform school, which Whitey is hugely offended at.
Once in the reformatory, Whitey discovers a cruel world that has more in common with a prison camp than reform. The boys are treated very harshly, and those in charge evade detection and cover their tracks. Whitey does finally see Miles after he and Flip are put in solitary–they catch sight of him just in time to watch Miles keel over and die from being beaten repeatedly. Whitey himself is beaten as well, although we don’t see it. When Father Flanagan comes to get him, Whitey acts like a scared animal.
Men of Boys Town gets darker before it gets lighter, and it’s not as strong a movie as Boys Town. In fact, its story arc is pretty uneven. However, it ends on a timely note, with a stirring graduation speech from Father Flanagan: “The coddled, the weak, and the doubting will fall…the tasks of youth today are tasks for giants. But the time that awaits you is the time when giants will walk again in the land. Be staunch. Keep the faith. And you will walk among the giants.”
As the film was released in May of 1941, this would have been a sobering moment for audiences. Even though America hadn’t entered the war yet, many people knew it was just a matter of time, and more than a few had an inkling of what was ahead of them.
While Spencer Tracy didn’t care for Men of Boys Town, his performance in it is outstanding. It’s refreshing when clergy are portrayed as tough men with integrity–we don’t often see it in today’s entertainment, if ever. Not that it can’t happen again, but Hollywood’s current actors would be hard-put to keep up with someone like Spencer Tracy.
Thus concludes Day Two of The Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon. Another post is on the way, and until then, Crystal has lots more for you at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for reading, and hasta mañana!